Controversy has erupted over links between the administration of US President George W. Bush and bankrupt and beleaguered Enron Corp. The lusty aura of scandal is everywhere. One example among many is the television anchorwoman in Houston who asked rhetorically whether the affair might become Bush's Watergate or Whitewater.
Unless large surprises loom, the answer is no. Facts revealed so far offer no reason to suspect that Enron's collapse will prematurely end the Bush presidency, as Watergate did that of former President Richard Nixon, or dog it to the end the way Whitewater did Bill Clinton's.
It is well known that Enron contributed generously to Bush's presidential campaign and to the campaigns of other politicians from both major political parties.
It has been reported that Vice-President Dick Cheney or his aides met six times with Enron representatives during the past year, the early meetings coming as the administration was preparing its energy-policy proposal.
And the White House has confirmed reports that Enron Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ken Lay called Treasury Sec. Paul O'Neill and Commerce Sec. Donald Evans to discuss the firm's financial problems.
None of this constitutes scandal.
There has been no suggestion that Enron made illegal contributions to the Bush campaign.
There is nothing wrong with a vice-president's meeting with executives from Enron or any other company while formulating energy policy. In fact, if officials treated energy officials with less suspicion and consulted them more frequently than they traditionally do, they wouldn't err so regularly on energy.
And there's nothing sinister about Enron's alert to officials about its financial distress. It just means that Enron executives were more considerate of politicians while headed for bankruptcy than they were of investors while still running a business outsiders believed to be thriving.
The Bush administration looks guilty of nothing but association with a company that has suffered a long, swift fall-a company subject, at last count, to investigations by the Justice and Labor departments, four congressional committees, and the Securities and Exchange Commission and to a rapidly growing number of civil suits.
The association produced no special treatment for Enron.
If the administration had offered to help Enron, in fact, the political uproar would be deafening. It wouldn't matter that past administrations have helped failing companies. It wouldn't matter if the help had been altogether legal.
In politics, in an election year, aid by an administration with a background in energy to an energy company that gave it political money would be scandalous. This strained formulation explains the frenzy under way to discover who knew what and when they knew it.
But the administration's political opponents smell raw meat. They are diving after it. And they are butting their own heads.
"It is now clear the White House had knowledge that Enron was likely to collapse but did nothing to try to protect innocent employees and shareholders who ultimately lost their savings," wailed Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), in a written statement. "I am deeply troubled that the White House stood by and let this happen to thousands of families."
So an administration that will be skewered for any hint that it even considered helping Enron now receives condemnation for not helping. The base political motives behind this contradiction are clear and sickening.
The Enron fiasco demands scrutiny. Laws may have been broken. Disclosure requirements and auditing standards may be insufficient. Regulatory oversight might need fixing.
The issues are serious. Scandal-mongering can only deflect attention from them and distract an administration with more important things to worry about.