Passing the Buck

This week in Washington, the Federal Fandango is again in full swing. It looks a lot like The Hucklebuck — “Wiggle like a snake/ Wobble like a duck/ That’s the way you do it when you do The Hucklebuck.” Except the new Federal Fandango is not about huckling the buck, but passing it.

News-in-Brief: On Sunday, President Bush visited Randolph Air Force Base in Texas and, in a photo op with three generals commanding post-hurricane disaster relief, said that what is needed to fix the failed initial federal disaster response is a new law. He said Congress should think about making the Defense Department “the lead agency” in domestic natural disasters. He said that during his sixth visit to the hurricane-ravaged states since he and his administration received scathing criticism for their slow, failed initial response to Hurricane Katrina _ criticism that contributed to his record-low approval ratings in the polls.

But wait. As commander in chief, Bush had the authority under the existing National Response Plan to have dispatched military transport planes to help evacuate New Orleans citizens and troops to quell unrest. Scores of news-media personnel were able to get to the scene _ but not federal, state or local rescuers. The problem was that the president’s top federal disaster officials were political cronies who had no experience in disaster relief and, with Vice President Cheney and chief of staff Andrew Card vacationing, no one told the president how he had to take charge. And, of course, the pathetically inept Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor didn’t know how to ask.

News-in-Brief: On Monday, back in Washington, Bush visited the Energy Department and demonstrated yet another way to lead. He called upon Americans to conserve energy as a patriotic response to oil-refinery disruptions caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: “…we can all pitch in … by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they’re able to maybe not drive … on a trip that’s not essential, that would helpful. The federal government can help… We can curtail nonessential travel. If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees. …There’s ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation.”

That said, Bush climbed aboard Air Force One on Tuesday and flew to the hurricane region for a seventh round of photo-op visits. The Pentagon has estimated that it costs $6,000 an hour to fly Air Force One, a figure which includes fuel, oil, water and latrine costs. Then again, the Republican National Committee has estimated that it costs more than $35,000 an hour to fly the presidential jet; that estimate was made in 2000, when the GOP was criticizing the travel costs of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was campaigning for the Senate, according to a report in The Washington Post.

News-in-Brief: Also on Monday, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee explained to reporters why he ordered the sale this summer of his stock holdings in the HCA Inc. hospital company founded by his father and brother _ just days before the stock’s value plunged. He said he had no inside information, a matter that is now being investigated by Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission officials.

But in 2003 Frist insisted that he didn’t even know he still owned any HCA stock because millions of dollars’ worth of the stock was placed into several blind trusts when he became a senator.

“Well, I think really for our viewers it should be understood that I put this into a blind trust,” Frist explained in a 2003 television interview. “So as far as I know, I own no HCA stock … I have no control. It is illegal right now for me to know what the composition of those trusts are. So I have no idea.”

We don’t need to consult the Scriptures to discover that Frist’s insight into his trust holdings was somewhat less miraculous than that recounted in John 9:25 (“Once I was blind but now I see.”). Documents that Frist and his trustees gave Senate officials show that in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Frist’s trustees provided him with details about HCA stock in his so-called blind trusts.

The senator’s defense comes down to this: He wasn’t breaking insider-trading laws. He was just playing Blind Man’s Bluff. From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, from emergency response to ethics, Washington’s power elites are perfecting their performance art: Giving the public a song and dance.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)