Dispatch January 2010

Did George W. Bush Doom Mark McGwire?

Somebody blocked the baseball slugger from getting an immunity deal

Yesterday’s admission by Mark McGwire that he did, indeed, use steroids confirms what most people have suspected ever since the slugger’s evasive testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee five years ago. It settles once and for all that one of baseball’s most celebrated sluggers cheated, and so adds further clarity to what’s become known as the game’s Steroid Era. Washington’s reaction to McGwire’s admission has been overshadowed by the sports world’s frenzy over the news. But what reaction there’s been adds further intrigue to the question of what exactly happened with McGwire—and why he wound up in such a terrible position.

Let there be no doubt that baseball’s ugly steroids problem came to light as a direct result of congressional action—specifically, the actions of California congressman Henry Waxman, who, at the time of the hearing, was the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee. The fullest account of the events surrounding that hearing appears as a chapter in the book, The Waxman Report, (which I co-wrote), and covers the McGwire episode. Waxman was prompted to act by baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s blithe dismissal of the charge of widespread steroid use that appeared in Jose Canseco’s book, Juiced. As a member of the minority party (this was in 2005), Waxman didn't have the power to hold a hearing. But he prevailed upon Tom Davis, the Republican chairman, to do so, and McGwire was one of the players called to testify.

Anyone could have anticipated that the players called before Congress would be asked under oath if they had used steroids. And all of the players and their handlers spoke to congressional staff beforehand. McGwire knew what was coming, and he knew that he would perjure himself if he lied. He also could have cut a deal (as Andy Pettitte did), offering an admission in exchange for immunity or other concessions. He did not cut a deal, and he did not perjure himself—he dissembled, saying he “wasn’t here to talk about the past” and never answering the question of whether he’d used steroids—and the rest is history. By why he didn't cut a deal has always puzzled me. Waxman didn't get into it in his book. But I don't think I'm betraying any confidences when I say that I got the distinct impression that there was more to the story.

Turns out, there is. Yesterday, Washington’s Fox affiliate, WTTG, broadcast an interview with Tom Davis, who left the House in 2008. Davis said that McGwire did try to cut an immunity deal and would have told the truth—but that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez refused to sign off. This strikes me as fascinating news. Why would Gonzalez refuse? He was not, to put it charitably, known for taking principled stands. Gonzalez was a lackey and a stooge. And history’s verdict seems to be that he wasn't the guy who called the shots on anything. So who would have blocked McGwire’s deal?

Here’s an idea: There was one guy in the administration who cared passionately about baseball; who seemed to sincerely love the game and revere its greatest players; who had a righteous streak, a strong sense of personal honor, and a tendency to see everything in terms of right and wrong; and who clearly had the power to make Alberto Gonzalez jump. This person also cared enough about the problem of steroid abuse to have mentioned it—and been ridiculed as a result—just a year earlier, in his 2004 State of the Union address. I wonder if George W. Bush was the one who blocked McGwire’s immunity deal and, in doing so, consigned McGwire to the ignominy he is just now beginning to try and overcome?

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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