Ira Chernus  


When Enron was at the top of the heap, Kenneth Lay had the key to the White House washroom. The door to the Oval Office was always open. Now it’s "Ken who?" Loyalty to your friends is no virtue in the White House. That is yet one more lesson of the Enron scandal worth pondering.

If only Humphrey Bogart were still alive. He’d be perfect for the role of George W. Bush in the film, "Enron." As the great corporation falls apart, Lay makes a final appeal to his now-former-friend, the president. That’s when Bogie, as G.W., speaks again his immortal line from Casablanca: "I stick my neck out for nobody." In the background, Eric Clapton sings, "Nobody knows you when you’re down and out."

Bush’s "Ken who?" routine surely came as no surprise to Lay. He and Bush are playing the same game in two different arenas. Lay knew the rules when he started to play. The first rule is "Look out for Number One." Let everyone else fend for themselves. It’s a dog-eat-dog world—an endless battle—and your job is to make sure that someone else is always the loser. Observing that rule scrupulously, Lay rose to the top of the heap for a while and became fabulously wealthy.

The second rule is "Never be seen with a loser." The world of the Lays and the Bushes (what a Freudian dream of double entendre) runs on investments. Investment is nothing but gambling, and no one wants to put money on a proven loser. Hanging around losers is the surest way to lose your appeal to investors. Once a winner starts to turn loser, he expects his friends to disappear fast.

Those rules apply in the political arena just as much as the corporate. It should be no surprise, then, that Bush did in the political arena just what Lay had done in the corporate realm. He took care of himself. Isn’t that what being a conservative is all about?

Bush tells us he is a "compassionate conservative." But the essence of ""compassionate conservatism" is to lend a helping hand only to those who are willing to play by the rules. The poor are expected to go to work, in the free enterprise economy, for rock bottom wages and then try to work their way up. They must enter the arena, do battle, and test their mettle against unfettered market forces. If they succeed—or even survive—they are judged worthy of the compassionate help. If they don’t make it, they have only themselves to blame.

No doubt that is what George W. would have told Ken Lay, if he had the guts to pick up the phone: "It’s a dog-eat-dog world out their. Some stay afloat, some sink. Sorry you sunk, Kenny boy. I’m still afloat."

There is nothing shameful in all this, from a conservative perspective. On the contrary, it’s the glory of our democracy. All men are created equal. The same rules apply to everyone, no matter how rich or poor. Everyone has an equal chance to succeed—and to fail. Even billionaire kings of energy futures. So goodbye Ken, we won’t see you again.

This is no plea for sympathy for Kenneth Lay; he probably got what he deserved. It is a plea to think about values at work in the corporate-and-political world. Perhaps corporate capitalists will always practice cutthroat competition and look out for Number One (though we could imagine a kind of capitalism where the rule is "Look out for everyone"). But shouldn’t the political system be there precisely to take care of the losers, the victims of capitalism?

That used to be the view of the Democratic Party, in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. They were also determined to be, and be seen with, political winners. But their policies at least noticed economic losers.

Now the difference between Republicans and Democrats is much harder to find, as the Clinton-Gore administration showed us. Gore proves the rule that nobody wants to be seen with a loser. Suppose he had been allowed to take his rightful place in the White House, though. Suppose it was not Enron but Gore’s favorite corporation, Occidental Petroleum, that had gone belly up. Do you think a President Gore would be taking calls from his old corporate friends? I doubt it. Now, sadly, the same rules apply everywhere. The rules will not change until we make them change.