The phone rings in the corporate office and the CEO gets on the line. "I am calling for a reference for Mr. Thomas Carmichael," says the voice on the other end. "We were told that he was a tried and trusted employee of yours". The CEO responds: "He was certainly trusted. And he'll be tried as soon as we can get our hands on him."
It's fair to conclude, I think, that not all job situations end well. People clash and crash. One day the secretary seemed to be Miss Understanding, and the next day there was a misunderstanding. The Post Office staff seemed to be oozing good-natured humor, with everyone shooting from the hip, and then one morning a chap brought his Uzi to the office. Everyone kids at the cooler, but then cooler heads don't prevail and there are fisticuffs. Which, among other disruptive aspects, are the wrong sort of cuffs for Casual Friday.
Still, hard feelings often soften. For years you nurse the fantasy of going back to headquarters to kick the boss in the hindquarters, but eventually hindsight helps you see that he had foresight. Why, getting fired turned you into an entrepreneur, and after three bankruptcies you're onto something really big and success is so close that you can smell it. Your ship missed coming into port a few times but now it's being resent into the harbor, so why harbor resentment? And if you can't forgive, you can always forget. Out of site, out of mind. That venue wasn't up to par anyway and the boss was just a parvenu, so fuhgeddaboudit.
That works most everywhere. But not here, brother. Not in the land of the Lay. That seems beyond our ken. The man needs to be roasted and toasted. Flayed and filleted. Fried and dried. Fricasseed in the rotisserie. Basted and pasted. One death penalty is not enough. He needs to serve a thousand concurrent death sentences...uh, what's that? He's what? Dead? Why, that no-good dirty cheat went and cheated the hangman!
This has been the prevailing attitude in the aftermath of Ken Lay's death on Wednesday. The crowning ignominy, apparently, was the wanton act of dying in advance of sentencing. (Remember that old joke about the American pilot who was shot down by the Germans? He bails out but injures his leg badly in the fall, and the German doctors have to amputate. When he regains consciousness, he asks his captors if his leg can be sent back to the U.S. for burial. "You think we don't know your plan?" the Hogan's Heroes-type Commandant barks. "You're trying to escape piece by piece!")
So we have a new national pastime. Jumping up and down on his grave. Turning his name into a hissing and a byword. (Funnily enough, in Yiddish to "layken" is to deny.) Speaking ill of the dead. While this may be emotionally understandable, it does not represent our brightest moment as a people.
Kenneth Lay was not Ponzi. His company, Enron, was not founded to defraud either customers or stockholders. It was a legitimate business that he expanded into a formidable operation. He reified his dream and a lot of people made money. Every Houston Astro enthusiast was proud to attend games at the stadium that bore the company's name. Then, at some point, things started...what in the North they call going south and in the South they call going haywire.
That is the moment that men and women are sorely tested. There is no more difficult task in life -- none at all -- than having to admit, even to yourself, that what you labored long and hard to build is crumbling irreparably. The Mishna famously says, "Do not judge a man until you have arrived at the same place." It takes monumental strength of character to squelch the crafty accountant who offers a sleazy bookkeeping option to buy time. To say: "Doctoring the books will not heal the sickness."
We are right to demand that monumental strength from a man who asks us to entrust him with monumental tasks and monumental sums. Yet, if he fails the test of greatness, as Ken Lay most assuredly did, that does not entitle us to remember him as an evil man. More like a Saul who began as an exceptionally good person and slid into corrupt behaviors when things began to slip away. We should convict Lay in a court of law, as indeed we have, but it is unseemly to keep heaping scorn unto his casket.
One last question we must ask ourselves. What if he had passed the ethical test? If he had reported everything truthfully. If the warning signs went out early, and clearly. Stockholders ran, the shares collapsed, the company tanked ten times faster, and plenty of people lost money anyway. Would we have cheered him for his integrity? Would he be hailed as a great moral leader for our time? Nah. Let us always remember what the MBAs call Kramer's Law: "You can never tell which way the train went by looking at the track."
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