The waters of Waco unavailing

Posted: Aug 14, 2002 12:00 AM
As the presidential team meets in Waco to repristinate the face of capitalism, signs of difficulty at a cultural level are everywhere. The Wall Street Journal informs us that defense attorneys are having a difficult time finding jurors who are unaffected by the desire to damage any defendant with a corporate background. In one recent case, a poll was taken of 50 prospective jurors. They were asked to agree or not to the statement, "Corporate executives will lie to increase their profits." More than 50 percent agreed.

It is suggested that what we might call Enron Inc. has had an analogous effect on American views of business as Watergate had on views of government. That is persuasive, but it pays to remind ourselves that government infidelities have means of ablution in the political world. Whatever the demoralization brought on by Watergate, it was pretty well expunged by the resignation of President Nixon, followed by the Democratic whiplash of November l974.

Nobody can confidently say what would have happened to Bill Clinton if, a few months after pledging to the American people an untruth, he had had to run for re-election. The Clinton episode certainly told the country that the highest official in the land can continue as chief enforcer of the law even after spectacularly traducing the law. There are those who believe that inasmuch as the Clinton case was sex-oriented, coming to terms with it marked an American cultural pubescence. Everybody in sight remarked at the time that what Clinton did would not have received more than a few sticks of type if done in Europe by a chief executive.

But there is no dramatic episode of any kind that business can contrive, or engage in, which would alter the disposition of the juror to believe that corporate executives "will lie" in order to increase their profits. Moreover, the great caterwaulers will do everything they can to press their point, which is, essentially, that capitalism is inherently corrupt.

The Nation magazine hasn't been so happy about the corporate scene since the Great Depression. Back then, the editors could innocently wonder about Marxist alternatives. That doesn't so much work any more, since the Marxist model has had its own setbacks. But the library of derision is enormously enlivened, and we cannot be surprised that the typical juror, reading in that morning's paper about the latest corporate thief, holds the business culture as untrustworthy.

We have then, too, the great bards of conspiratorial evil, king of them, for a season or two, Oliver Stone. He produced a movie a few years ago in which he asked the American people to believe that the assassination of President Kennedy was done by other than Oswald acting alone, that the police in Dallas were in on the fix, as also the FBI, as also the CIA, as also the doctors at Parkland Hospital and at the White House, as also President Johnson, members of the Supreme Court, and the World Almanac. Now the news here isn't that Stone, the fabulist, created an engrossing fantasy; it is that 70 percent of the American people, after viewing it, concluded that indeed the Warren Report was wrong and corrupt.

Asked for comment on the general scene, Oliver Stone, who also directed the movie "Wall Street," gave it to us straight: "In my opinion, I think (President Bush) has been a complete disaster on every level."

There is nothing in the Waco waters that will serve as an elixir to console the public during this period of quite genuine grief over the high incidence of corporate duplicity. To attempt consolation by the formula of Winston Churchill ("Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time") doesn't give instant relief, on the order of effecting the resignation of a president.

Mr. Bush can't do more than to say that certain growths in the capitalist system have been identified, and that to the extent it is possible to minister to them by legislation, that much is being done. Beyond that, at Waco, our governors can only reiterate their professions of faith in the American system, emphasizing that our commercial life is an aspect of our commitment to freedom in our political life, indeed in life itself.

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