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The Morial Maneuver 

Whenever the government investigates a high-level politician, one has to wonder how much politics figures into the equation. But George W. Bush would have to be even dumber than his critics allege if he allows his Justice Department to go after former Mayor Marc Morial for political reasons -- especially in this election year.

Not that the GOP is incapable of making dumb moves regarding African-American voters and political figures. Recall the infamous voter purge in Louisiana during the U.S. Senate race of 1986. Thousands of black voters were stricken from the rolls. That gave a little-known congressman from Crowley named John Breaux just the traction he needed to beat Republican Congressman Henson Moore, even though Moore outspent Breaux more than two-to-one.

One must assume that even GOP strategists learn from their mistakes. What's more, going after Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League, will have repercussions far outside Louisiana.

For the record, no one has been identified as a target in the widening federal investigation of Morial's years at City Hall. At least five of Morial's closest political associates were subpoenaed months ago and ordered to turn over vast amounts of business records to a grand jury. The feds also raided the French Quarter home of his younger brother Jacques, battering down his front door on a Saturday morning and carting off boxes of computers and documents. That raid became a flashpoint among Morial backers, who accused the government of heavy-handed tactics and ascribed a racial bias to the investigation.

Now the feds are looking at Marc Morial himself. Last week, the government served his former law offices with a subpoena seeking records of all his client billings. The former mayor forged an "of counsel" relationship with the Adams and Reese law firm after leaving office. Investigators apparently want to know if attorney Morial was hired by some folks who benefited from the well-oiled patronage machine he built as mayor.

Given the former mayor's national stage, the subpoena had to be approved by Washington. That raises the question of whether politics figured into the decision and, if so, how?

Right now the last thing Bush needs is an aroused African-American electorate. Like most Republicans, Bush's support among black voters is scant. Meanwhile, Democrat John Kerry, who should be a favorite among minority voters, has not exactly caught fire as the standard-bearer of the downtrodden. On his own, Kerry is more likely to put even loyal Democrats to sleep -- and one has to assume the Bush team knows that.

So why wake them up by going after the president of the National Urban League?

There are only two possibilities: Either the GOP-controlled Justice Department is targeting Morial because he is African American and a Democrat, or the investigation is proceeding totally independent of political considerations, including the all-important element of timing.

If the Republicans are going after Morial for political reasons, they have made a huge mistake. He is popular, articulate, and has a national stage. You don't go after a guy like that lightly, especially during a presidential campaign. Unless the Bushies have a self-destructive desire to inflame voters they know they cannot convert, the wise political move would be to leave Morial alone, at least for now.

Som ith that argument is, Bush already has those voters. They're called Republicans. And arch-conservatives. Besides, whatever Bush might hope to gain in Louisiana from such a scheme, he stands to lose more nationally because of Morial's position as head of the National Urban League.

Politically, therefore, Bush has more to lose than gain by going after Morial.

Which leaves only the second possibility -- that the investigation is proceeding on its own timetable, politics notwithstanding. Ultimately, this investigation will either produce evidence of wrongdoing or it won't. That's the only yardstick that matters.

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