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Enron — In Texas We Trust?

How much did the Dallas-style Texan reputation of the Bush Administration suffer from the Enron scandal?

January 23, 2002

How much did the Dallas-style Texan reputation of the Bush Administration suffer from the Enron scandal?

Texans have a worldwide reputation as brash, cocky, highly self-assured — and somewhat sly. They can put on a good folksy show, if it helps to take care of their own. Wonder why not only Americans, but in fact the entire world, know about those Lone Star State attributes? J.R. Ewing and his “Dallas” gang, that’s why.

Admittedly George W. Bush is no J.R. played by Larry Hagman — and Laura Bush, thankfully, does not even have a whiff of Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen. And yet, Americans are about to get a sense of déjà vu. In fact, very soon they may wish that they had paid heed to those who warned against giving the reins of power to a bunch of cowboys from Texas.

Now, it was one thing for the Texas bunch in January 2001 to take Washington by storm — and manage to throw the U.S. Capital’s newly-won fiscal caution to the winds. That Texas swagger surely disoriented many members of Congress who found themselves voting for an ill-advised, unearned tax cut.

Trillions were “given back” to the people, based on a promissory note that has fast proven about as reliable as all those analyst reports hyping Enron’s stock.

Of course, President Bush can — and will — argue that he pushed his tax cut program on the basis of the best economic forecasting advice that was available to him at the time. He will even be able to say, correctly, that Fed Chairman Greenspan endorsed his concept.

And surely, Mr. Bush’s fellow citizens are a trusting bunch. They tend to believe their leaders by virtue of plain instinct. By the same token, though, the trusting instinct that is such a hallmark of Americans can reverse itself in a flash — if they feel that they have been dealt with in a less than forthright manner.

And that is the point where the confluence between the recent economic downturn and the collapse of Enron M.I.T. (that’s “Made in Texas”) is so stinging to the Texans — and potentially politically devastating as well. Mr. Bush’s political advisors can only pray that their leading man’s credibility won’t be tarnished by that of Ken Lay, Enron’s chairman.

As anybody who has ever met Mr. Lay knows, he is an affable and approachable man — not at all the standard issue corporate villain preferred by central casting. And yet, all these charming attributes are precisely what has the White House worried so much.


Given that parallel, would Americans instinctively interpret President Bush’s tax cut pitch as a signal that the overly well-to-do — that is, Enron’s top executives and taxpayers in the millionaire-plus set — are going to make out fine?

And would they also understand, intuitively, that average Americans — much like the average Enron employee and the non-millionaire taxpayer — will be taken along for a ride? For obvious reasons, such an instinctive association is near deadly for the Republican Party’s upcoming electoral prospects.

The even scarier thing about this scenario is that, due to this recession/Enron confluence, the actual words that Mr. Bush will use won’t matter much. Battle-tested in the art of being spun by politicians, Americans do remember this by now: It’s what happens after the hype, stupid!

This is why the Texas connection — rife with its rich imagery and pinpointed by the Enron bankruptcy — is so devastating for the Bush team. They realize that this guilt-by-image association may take hold on Americans’ minds, regardless of whether or not any real Texas-size improprieties have occurred — or any Lone Star-size favors have been given.

The White House communications and political team is far too smart to overlook the fact that, on some elemental level, Americans don’t need hard facts to draw such conclusions. Decades of public education through television and movies have left their mark on the American body politic.

And in Americans’ collective visual psyche, the Enron-tax cut-budget deficit case conjures up all the worst images about the recklessness and brazenness of those famous Texas cowboys.

Despite the solidarity forged in the fight against Osama bin Laden, they are bound to look into their President’s eyes with much more doubt. Wasn’t it another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, who got us deeper and deeper into the morass in Vietnam? Middle-aged and older Americans are bound to wonder.

Underneath all these political events, however, other lasting memories — all induced by the “Dallas” TV series — may also resurface. Americans remember that no matter what crisis was at hand, the Ewings always managed to take care of their own, despite all the intrigues and brouhaha.

And they kept on living in an ostentatious splendor that remains well out of the reach of most Americans.

Those same Americans also have a very clear sense that the source of all that Ewing wealth was — to put it charitably — perhaps one part legit and two parts dubious. For sure, much of it was undeserved.

True, in J.R., the clan had a vigorous chap as a leader. But Bobby, his brother, was not cut from the same cloth. Despite his many good intentions, he often came across as a bit hapless, if not contrivingly conniving.

Given all these intriguing developments, what will be key for the Democratic Party is not to be too obvious about making the Texas connection themselves. Rather, they should lean back — and let Americans’ cultural (aka TV-induced) memory do all the work for them.