Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Murder, He Wrote

From the files of Prof. Michael "Sherlock" Holmes, great-great-great-grand nephew of the noted Baker Street detective by adoption on his mother's side via a lesser known cousin: 

I have gathered an auspicious lot in the manor’s living room today for my first interviews.  President Bush and members of his administration.  Noticeably absent, however, is Secretary of Treasury Henry “Hank” Paulson.  I must question him later.

My other suspects wait in sequestered rooms of the large, country manor, guarded by Chief Inspector Donnybrook’s bobbies. 

“We’re here on the most solemn of occasions,” I say starting off.  “We’re to investigate a murder.  A murder most fowl!”

A piercing female scream interrupts me but punctuates my accusation.  The banshee cry comes not from Condi Rice but from my gracious and lovely assistant, Miss Longleggs.  Talented in so many areas, Miss Longleggs also possesses a heighted flair for the dramatic.

But I continue:  “The death of the United States housing market.   The death of the American dream.  And perhaps, even the death of the U.S. financial system.”

Sitting on the edge of an ottoman with his hands confidently riding his knees, George Bush looks distracted, as if he’s waiting for permission to run to something more important. 

“Let’s get this over with.  I’ve got a war to prosecute and wrap up.”

All I can think is that somewhere there’s a baseball game that’s about to start. “Yes, Mr. President.”

I rub my forehead, remembering that Hercule Poirot always tried to care for “his little grey cells,” before solving a crime. 

“Mr. President, are you familiar with the term, ‘the buck stops here?’”

“Is that a hunting phrase?” he asks with a hint of a smile.

Geez, this is going to be a long interview.  “No.  It’s . . .”

“Come on, I know what you’re talking about. “  Mr. Bush looks a little disappointed that I didn’t get his joke.  “You’re referring to the faceplate Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office.”

“Yes, he meant that all responsibility ends in your office.  There’s no one else to pass the buck up to.”

“So what you’re saying is that because these mortgage difficulties occurred under my watch, that I am somehow responsible for this mess.”

“You catch on fast.”

“Let me let you in on what seems to be a secret to most people.  I’m smarter than I look.  You don’t become President of the United States by being a dumb ass.” “Hell, I had better grades at Yale than John Kerry did.  And he got lauded as a genius, while I’m supposed to be no smarter than a box of hair.”

His soft, phlegmatic face hardens into something of gravitas.  He bears his gaze and takes an Alpha-male step towards me.  “And I’m nobody’s, nobody’s. . . What’s that term?”

He looks around the room.  “Karl, what’s that word for a thing you control by strings?  Where’s Karl Rove when you need him?”

His staff just shrugs and shakes their heads.

“We did try to subpoena him, but he wouldn’t show up,” I respond.

“Marionette! That’s the word I was looking for.  You know, stringy puppet.   I’m nobody’s stringy puppet.”

I straighten my backbone.  “Mr. Bush, this whole debacle has taken place under your administration.  Mr. Obama, who in all likelihood will win the next election, runs on a platform that has little substance other than the promise than to be different from you and your policies.”

He points his finger at me.  “Every administration only has so much attention they can devote.  It’s finite.  You can’t raise the amount of attention you give to the war on terror without lowering the amount you give to something else. After 9/11, we engaged ourselves in a full scale assault on fascist Islamism.  That was, and still is, the greatest threat to our nation. 

“So is that your alibi?” I ask incredulously.

“Yes, and it’s a damn good one.”

“Let me give you that for the moment.  What about the money supply, President Bush?  You made money so cheap that it fueled the housing bubble.”

“That was Alan Greenspan.  Go talk to him.”

“I will.  But right now, I’m talking to you.  You could have reigned in Mr. Greenspan.  You could’ve fired him if he didn’t listen to you.  But you let him practically give money away.”

“After those planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, we faced a similar economic crisis as we do today.  And we needed to go to war.  I couldn’t let the nation face a major war and a depression at the same time.  So I let Alan loosen the reigns.”

“You did more than that.  I remember in the days after the terrorist attack you encouraged people to spend.   Take a trip to Disneyland, you even said.”

“Yes, we needed consumer confidence.”

“But how does that mesh with every other time we’ve gone to war in the past.  Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt called on people to conserve, put their savings into war bonds.”

“We have a fundamentally different economy than in the 30’s.  Today, we don’t have a large manufacturing base.  It’s all about consumer spending.  I had to keep the economy going.

“Even if it came to this bubble?”

“Given what we faced, yes, I’d say.  Even if we faced this bubble bursting.”

I take out my pad with notes.  “But there have been more specific accusations against you, Mr. President.  A one-time attorney general even, claimed that you did nothing to protect the consumer who bought most of these home loans.

“He wrote in the Washington Post: ‘Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers, it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye.’

“’Let me explain: The administration accomplished this feat through an obscure federal agency called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). The OCC has been in existence since the Civil War. Its mission is to ensure the fiscal soundness of national banks. For 140 years, the OCC examined the books of national banks to make sure they were balanced, an important but uncontroversial function. But a few years ago, for the first time in its history, the OCC was used as a tool against consumers.’

“’In 2003, during the height of the predatory lending crisis, the OCC invoked a clause from the 1863 National Bank Act to issue formal opinions preempting all state predatory lending laws, thereby rendering them inoperative. The OCC also promulgated new rules that prevented states from enforcing any of their own consumer protection laws against national banks. The federal government's actions were so egregious and so unprecedented that all 50 state attorneys general, and all 50 state banking superintendents, actively fought the new rules.’

“But the unanimous opposition of the 50 states did not deter, or even slow, the Bush administration in its goal of protecting the banks.’”

“And who was this prominent writer?” The President asked wryly.

“Er, it was Elliot Spitzer.  He was a crusading attorney general who went after Wall Street. . .”

“I know who Elliot Spitzer was.  Tell me, was this written before or after he was completely discredited as Governor of New York by sleeping with hookers and illegally paying them?”

“Well, sir, before.”  Suddenly, I feel like I should’ve kept my mouth shut.

“Does anyone hold him in much regard now?”

“No, sir.  But you still don’t seem to get the point.  You were at the head of the switch when what Alan Greenspan has called the worst financial crisis in over a hundred years has occurred.  Why don’t you seem that bothered by it?:

A look of confidence overcame his visage.  “Because long ago, I stopped worrying about what people thought of me and instead did what I thought was right. I go to sleep not troubled by what my poll approval numbers are.  I rest with assurance that when history knows the full story, of what we faced, and what my administration has accomplished in the war on terror that I shall be vindicated.”

“That future judgment doesn’t help a lot of people right now.”

“Don’t let my phlegmatic exterior fool you into not thinking I don’t know that they’re not hurting people right now.   Too many people in the press and the public have mistaken what they see as calmness as aloofness.”

“And what would you call it, sir?”


“You should probably be a little less equanimous and a little more concerned about your approval ratings.  Last I read, they were at 27%.”

He seems impressed.  “That good, huh?  For a while I worried that I might actually get to some negative numbers.  How about that, Karl?  Can we go into negative numbers?  Karl!?”

For a moment, I don’t know if he’s joking.  He’s already proven to me to be brighter than I had been led to believe. 

But Condi Rice answers her boss. “Mr. President, Karl Rove isn’t here.”

I close my notebook.  I’ll get no further information from Mr. Bush.  There are other suspects to interview.

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