Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Coming Through the Dirge

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful "second line" -- symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

The finale of Bush's New Orleans speech was so transparently the work of his speechwriter. "Mournful dirge" is perhaps the most complex and hard-to-pronounce pair of words the president has uttered since he was reelected, signaling his desperation to be perceived as a sentient being capable of orginal thought and genuine emotion.

But as a former corporate speechwriter, I can't buy it. I know how the sausage is made.

For a period back in the '90s, I was on the short list of Fortune 500 CEOs needing to sound right for the occasion. For banking, insurance, power, and electronics, I was the guy. I enjoyed the execs I wrote for and respected them all. My job was to make them sound like themselves, which was generally smart, knowledgeable and reasonably opinionated — but with not enough time to make it sound really good. There were only couple who treated me like the pool boy.

And those former clients were in the news recently because their airline has declared bankruptcy.

I was originally brought in because new CEO Al Checci needed a Midwestern burnishing of his corporate raider image. He and financial genius Gary Wilson had masterminded a takeover of Northwest Airlines, along with Republican functionary and financier Fred Malek. They needed to reassure employees, suppliers and ultimately the state legislature that they were committed to people and customer service — and not to extracting cash from every corporate orifice. May I not burn in hell...

The subtext of my assignment, I was told, was that Checchi was interested in running for office in Minnesota, and his corporate PR handlers thought he needed to be able to speak something closer to Minnesota liberal than was within the grasp of the Hollywood screenwriter he had come in with. Unlike the other execs I wrote for, I never met Checchi, although I saw him jogging with his shirt off around the lake near our homes. I was fed the tidbits I needed to humanize the corporate line and keep him from sounding like an egomaniac.

Before long, it became clear there was no way he could penetrate the Minnesota DFL, and he took the money and flew to California. You can read the sycophantic profile that tells how he was moved to campaign for governor, as if he were driven by a life-changing epiphany rather than a lifelong hunger. Who can really say? He might have been a good guy. I had to be willing to believe what I was told by my clients was the truth, so I could be their effective advocate. But the profile reads uncomfortably close to what we told him would never work in Minnesota. It didn't even work in California.

Chairman Wilson was another matter. I met with him one time, in an office absolutely devoid of any signs of occupancy. He was visibly bored with the idea of having a speechwriter do anything for him. I think he looked at his cowboy boots parked on a credenza the entire time.

None of this makes me an expert on the current woes of Northwest, the stock sales by Wilson prior to the bankruptcy filing, or the many millions extracted by the MBAs.

All it's worth is this: When you hear poetry coming from the mouth of any leader, grab your wallet and hold onto it with both hands, because it means things are so bad they had to call in the hired guns.


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