Can Bush keep a 'clean' White House?

Ethical questions dog two senior staffers; if probes continue, it could hurt president.

While voters don't always expect politicians to keep their campaign promises, it turns out that many people put a fair amount of faith in one of President Bush's: his vow to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House.

Now, six months into his administration, that pledge is the reason three bubbling miniscandals pose a potential problem. Two of these controversies involve conflict-of-interest questions about Vice President Dick Cheney and top strategist Karl Rove. Another involves a possible quid pro quo arranged by Mr. Rove with the Salvation Army.

In the annals of Washington, these scandals are minor. But observers say if a pattern develops, Mr. Bush could sustain significant political damage. Already his counsel's office is redoubling efforts to warn staffers about avoiding even the appearance of wrongdoing.

"To the extent that Bush has a mandate at all, it's to change the tone and cleanse the White House," says Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute here. People may not expect him to be a sterling orator, but, on ethics, "There's a high expectation."

Polls help illustrate the potential problem. In a Gallup survey released last week, 66 percent of respondents said Bush is "honest and trustworthy." That's higher than his overall job approval - 57 percent - and significantly above the marks respondents gave him for handling certain issues. His approval rating on the economy is 54 percent. On taxes, it's 60 percent. On energy, it's 45 percent.

Certainly Bill Clinton consistently showed that the public can disapprove of someone personally yet approve of the job they're doing, especially during golden economic times. (When he left office, his personal-approval rating was 41 percent, and his job-approval rating 65 percent, according to Gallup.)

But observers see a difference with Mr. Bush, who generally gets lower ratings for his policies. As a result, he has to rely on other things, such as integrity, to bolster his public standing.

"Among the top reasons that swing voters - suburbanites, centrists, and parents - left Bill Clinton and Al Gore to go for Bush were questions of ethics," says independent pollster John Zogby. If Bush loses his ethical luster, these key voters might not stick with him.

Of course, that's hardly the only issue the American public is watching. If Bush can't keep the economy on track, for example, he could suffer a much-greater loss of support.

'Don't have a fourth scandal'

So far, there's no evidence the miniscandals have hurt Bush, Mr. Zogby says. But they "probably come under the category of fair warning for the administration: Don't have a fourth or a fifth."

The three subjects of scrutiny are:

* Rove's meetings in March with executives of Intel, a high-tech firm he owned shares in. The White House denies any wrongdoing. And outside legal experts say Rove didn't violate conflict-of-interest laws - which prohibit taking "action," not merely having a discussion. Rove has since sold off his shares. Congressional Democrats have been critical - but aren't issuing subpoenas.

* Mr. Cheney's meetings with industry executives for his energy task force. Democrats say Cheney - who hasn't disclosed names of people or groups he met with - may have violated sunshine laws that require advisory-group meetings to be "open to the general public and on the record." At Democrats' behest, Congress's investigative arm is probing the matter.

* Rove's reported role in giving what a Salvation Army memo called a "firm commitment" to issue a regulation allowing religious charities to discriminate against gays in hiring. In return, the social-service group planned to lobby hard to pass Bush's faith-based initiative. The White House has since decided not to issue the regulation.

While denying wrongdoing by anyone on its team, the White House clearly sees the danger of a pattern developing - and of public perceptions changing.

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales says he's recently been "reminding folks" - for example, at senior-staff meetings every morning - that "anything you do here at the White House you need to be very mindful of, because appearances can cause problems." He's also considering a new round of training on avoiding conflict-of-interest controversy.

Perhaps the White House official being reminded the most is Rove. "Rove has to assume everything he does will appear on the front page" the next day, says former Clinton special counsel Lanny Davis. "If he does, things will go a lot better."

Historical costs

In the past, presidents for whom the public has high ethical expectations - but who don't deliver - have paid a political cost. Dwight Eisenhower promised that his administration would be as clean as "a hound's tooth" and avoid the petty corruption of the Truman years. Then Eisenhower's highly regarded chief of staff intervened with a government agency on behalf of an industrialist, who, it turned out, had given the chief of staff numerous gifts - including a fancy vicuna coat. The scandal, along with others, was one reason Republicans did poorly in the 1958 congressional elections.

All in all, it's part of a Washington pattern - one the Bush team must avoid if it hopes to succeed, says Mr. Wittmann. "Inevitably, someone reaches the height of power and figures something they do won't reach the light of day. This hubris is the ultimate weakness of Washington."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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