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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Yes, Christmas is nigh, but I'll bet they're not exceedingly jolly at the White House.

The wholesale makeover of the returning Bush administration may find the public in its usual slumber and general torpor over governmental news, but Dubya took two big news hits over the weekend that -- as they say in the trade -- have "legs."

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These stories have the potential to continue smoldering on their own -- with repeated updates and sidebars and spinoffs -- until combustion occurs and Dubya is facing a bona fide scandal of politically damaging proportions. You think he doesn't care, now that he's re-elected?

If he's a student of presidential history, he'd better care. Richard Nixon thought Watergate was a "third-rate burglary" when it first appeared in print. Bill Clinton figured Ken Starr would never find the pizza-fetching intern's blue dress.

The first story involves -- big surprise -- Iraq.

About half the country has already faded in its initial support of Bush's unilateral invasion of that country and now adamantly opposes that war, which continues to go badly. Yes, yes -- I can hear you protesting that many of those protesting are liberal wussies. The point is, Dubya is in danger of losing a huge portion of his vaunted conservative support if this story in question turns out to be reflective of Standard Operating Procedure.

It turns out the military has been charging some injured combat soldiers travel expenses to and from hospitals and billing them for equipment that got lost in the chaos of their woundings.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

This came to light after Army Spc. Robert Loria, a 27-year-old member of the Fourth Division, was injured by a bomb last February, and ended up losing much of his left forearm.

He's from Middletown, N.Y., and went through lengthy treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Loria suffered extensive shrapnel injuries along the left side of his body, a torn tendon in one ankle, and a left thigh bone that was split right in two. Those were only the "minor" injuries. He is now an amputee, with no left hand. Loria was looking forward this month to going home for Christmas and toward being discharged early in the new year. He was also looking forward to receiving a pay check for more than $4,500. Instead, he was told by the Army he actually owed the Army money, and instead of receiving any had to cough up $1,800 or he couldn't leave his temporary duty station at Fort Hood in Texas. Wow, the Pentagon has some tough bill collectors.

Loria's wife called her husband's hometown paper, the Middletown Times-Herald Record, which ran the story. Pretty soon, New York senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, plus Hudson-area congressmen, were all over the Pentagon -- which was initially claiming that while Loria was "deployed" at Walter Reed and losing what was left of his arm, he was not entitled to a family separation allowance. This was bogus. The nation's capital is not exactly on the Hudson River, and he was effectively separated from his family.

Even after the Army relented, the brass and bean-counters claimed it was merely a bureaucratic snafu. Damnable paperwork, don't you know. It must be tough for a bureaucrat to keep track, what with almost 400 combat amputees coming home from Iraq at twice the lost-limb rate of past American wars.

A couple of factors are at work here. Those who admire Bush's invasion of Iraq generally say they do so because he's proactive in fighting terrorism, because his iron will and toughness will keep America safe, and because he is genuinely concerned with the welfare of this country's fighting men and women. I suspect Bush supporters -- and even many of his detractors on the war -- could generally give a rat's patootie about the human rights of Iraqis, or whether they get the crap beat out of them in Abu Ghraib prison, or whether the Sunnis or Shiites win the upcoming elections, or what the native body count is. Concern for the survival and safety of the American combat trooper is what you hear first and foremost in casual conversation about Iraq.

You even hear it from the pulpit: We are against this war, but let's all pray for the health and welfare of our brave young men and women over there. All kneel.

If the public gets the idea Bush's brass, who have no qualms about paying Halliburton and other no-bid providers gazillions of taxpayer dollars for apparent phantom services, are now trying to diminish the horrendous expenses of the Iraq misadventure by nickel-and-diming injured soldiers -- amputees, for pity's sake! -- over hospital travel expenses and bogus deployment costs, what support exists for the White House will blow away in the winter wind.

And it appears that's what's happening. Clinton's office is looking into at least 19 other cases in which similar payroll snafus have landed on injured combat veterans.

Another factor is Dubya's desire to promote the Bush family image of being able to boast there will be no more Vietnams.

The man who actually came up with that military promise -- and executed it smartly in 1991 -- is Colin Powell, who was then chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff. Define your military goal, Powell held, determine your offensive strategy, then crush the enemy with overwhelming force. He meant what he said, and took only 42 days to drive Saddam Hussein's vaunted troops from Kuwait and back to Baghdad. We were in and out.

Yet as Bush's secretary of state, ironically, Powell was continually bad-mouthed by the neocons in Washington as a simpering pansy who was not tough enough to administer American diplomacy in the Middle East. Basically, he was driven from office -- and every day Iraq is beginning more and more to resemble Vietnam.

Equipment is but one example. Citizens of a certain age can remember combat troops returning from Vietnam constantly grumbled -- even testified before Congress -- that their rifles, small arms and other weaponry were outdated, ill-designed and cheaply made. This time around, we have supplied the combat units with very sophisticated modern weaponry, immense fire power and innovative and advantageous fighting materiel -- but they have to scrounge through Iraqi dumps and garbage piles for metal to armor their vehicles, especially Humvees and transport trucks. Some practical grunts have even welded old refrigerator doors to their vehicles' flanks.

The Bush administration initially blamed the shortage of vehicle armor on delay in ramping up production lines back home. Not to worry, the Pentagon said, our armor manufacturers are producing more every week. Then somebody got the bright idea of asking the actual makers of the scarce armor. Not our fault, they said -- the Pentagon never ordered an increase in production, despite our sales efforts.

What is clear here is that the White House and Pentagon never anticipated the power and scope of the insurgency in Iraq, nor understood the depth of Islamic hatred for American hegemony. The Bush administration went into Iraq on a wing and a prayer -- thus ignoring another principle that Powell, ironically, successfully established for Bush the Elder: patient planning to prevent poor performance.

The second bad news surprise for the White House just before the weekend reflected another lack of diligence by the Bush administration. After Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge resigned, the White House either was lax in vetting his announced replacement, did so with a wink and a nudge, was misled by the appointee, or discovered some very disturbing personal history about the appointee but ignored it in the forlorn hope the public would not learn of it.

Former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik surprised even Dubya by abruptly withdrawing his nomination to replace Ridge in the crucial Cabinet job. Kerik at first said it was for "personal reasons" -- but his vanishing act occurred after questions bubbled up about the immigration status of a housekeeper-nanny he employed but apparently was paying without determining her illegal alien status, or making Social Security deductions. If so, that's illegal. This certainly would doom any chances of confirmation in the post, because Kerik would have been in charge of enforcing and tightening immigration laws. How could he have an illegal alien in his own home?

This curious facet of our rich culture has derailed other Cabinet nominees. Clinton lost a potential attorney general to "Nannygate" when Zoe Baird suffered the same problem. Dubya suffered the same problem during his first month in office when he saw his nomination of prominent conservative Linda Chavez for labor secretary similarly go up in smoke. She had taken in and financially helped support a native of Guatemala without proper papers -- then didn't tell Bush aides about it when nominated.

It must seem somewhat ironic to Kerik that his federal career got blown up by an undocumented babysitter-maid when he had seemingly negotiated far rockier shoals.

The current Bush administration didn't seem the least bit concerned about previous news stories that Kerik, 49, was not your average police chief. Securities and Exchange Commission records showed Kerik made $6.2 million in exercise of stock options from Taser International, the stun gun company. He had been a consultant with the big firm, and still serves on the board of directors. The Taser company has already done substantial business with the Department of Homeland Security -- which Kerik was supposed to run -- and was unabashed in saying it intended to seek even more sales to that agency, even if its own man was running it. The White House saw no conflict of interest.

What's going on here? How many millionaire police chiefs do you know? How many sit on the boards of directors of weaponry companies with which they do business? Ridge, an honest man devoid of scandal, never exhibited these problems.

The public could soon get the idea the current Bush administration may be all about national security and anti-terrorism -- but, in its waning years, more about collusion and profiteering.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 14 2004