ONLY THE SUPER-RICH CAN SAVE US!
The report on Corporate Welfare Kings hit the streets on the first Monday of June, literally. That day's Bugle was devoted entirely to the report, and the "Read all about it!" kids peeled off one copy after another, sometimes right in front of a Welfare King's headquarters building. The mainstream newspapers picked up on a remarkable finding: although individual companies that received government largesse might still pay net federal taxes, corporate welfare handouts as a whole cancelled out corporate tax liability as a whole and then some. In short, as a practical matter, corporate America was tax-exempt. The tabloids in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities went all the way with page-one headlines like "Business Behemoths on Welfare Escape Taxes," or "Big-Shot Welfare Kings Exposed" in huge type over unflattering blowups of scowling CEOs. One cartoon showed the corporations as pigs feeding at the public trough, with the caption "Only the little People Pay Taxes," a reference to New York real estate baroness Leona Helmsley's outburst after she was caught cheating on her taxes. Even the Style pages got into the act. One enterprising columnist, Rally Zwinn of the Washington Post, did some follow-up and found that many of the Top Hundred Welfare Kings named in the report had cancelled all their social engagements and golf outings until further notice. Quite a scoop for Rally, who'd gone a while since her last one.
More important was the follow-up commentary and the steady spread of the subject into ordinary conversation. There were also signs that academia was becoming more interested in corporate welfare research. A USA Today survey of economics majors in their junior year revealed that some 15 percent of them were planning to write their senior thesis on some aspect of corporate welfare. Clean Elections candidates held news conferences about the report and showcased local people vainly trying to get public funds for clinics or school repairs. Nothing like the crisp, vivid politics of juxtaposition to get the citizenry aroused. "That ain't right," said a cabbie to Phil Donahue about a case in which City Hall, acting on behalf of a large company, used its power of eminent domain to condemn dozens of homes and small businesses, as well as two churches, and then gave the land to the company for free. The list went on and on. Drug companies ripping patients off at the pharmacy while getting all kinds of free research and development from the government. Gambling casinos, billionaire owners of sports teams, the tobacco industry, agribusiness, banks. insurance companies, and even foreign companies, all on the dole in one clever way after another.
The Clean Elections Party had a field day connecting corporate giveaways with campaign contributions targeted to senators and representatives on the pertinent committees, or to otherwise well-positioned legislators responsive to cash register politics. Completely on the defensive, the lawmakers fell back on lame excuses about jobs and meeting the global competition -- until the CEP produced a list of European and Asian companies on the US welfare rolls. With American workers being laid off in droves from their manufacturing jobs. with household income stagnant or falling, with consumers shackled by enormous debt, with pensions being raided or drained or dumped on Uncle Sam, the usual sheen and shine of the incumbent politicians, the supreme complacency they drew from their unchallenged reign in their one-party districts or states, started to crumble.
Of all the sticky issues beginning to stick on the Capitol Dome, none was more adhesive than the "Pay the Rent!" eruption. For politicians, the TV and radio stations in their home regions were untouchable. Look at them critically or challenge them to "pay the rent" and they could turn you to stone. They were the latter-day Gorgons of congressional folklore. So when the demonstrations in the fifty largest broadcast markets went live, Congress collectively braced itself.
A full two-thirds of the stations ignored the protests. Through quick coordination with the National Association of Broadcasters, their similarly besieged trade association, they issued curt press releases that were all very similar: "Channel 3 does not consider matters relating to this station, pursued by a special interest, to be of interest to our viewing audience. It would be self-indulgent to burden viewers with internal administrative matters having nothing to do with the gathering of the day's news. Clearly, these demonstrations were orchestrated to force us into covering them, an unconscionable assault on the freedom of the press. Our station creates jobs, pays taxes, and serves our community, and no outside intimidation will ever keep us from performing our responsibilities day after day to the best of our ability."
The print media begged to differ about the stations' self-serving definition of newsworthiness. The story made the front pages all over the country, and a chorus of editorialists called for congressional action. Luckily the protests had occurred on a weekend, so the solons had time to sort out the marbles in their mouths. Come Monday morning, however, they had to respond to the newspapers in their communities. There was no way out, no way to dodge the simple question "Should the people's airwaves be rented at market rates by the broadcaster tenants who are profiting hand over fist and can't threaten to go to China? Yes or no?"
Temporizing became the order of the day. The usually languid Monday floor session was suddenly filled to the gills with legislative business requiring the lawmakers' constant attendance. "We'll get back to you," they said. Or, "We haven't seen an actual legislative proposal and cannot comment until we do." Or, "Well, it would depend on the amount of rent, wouldn't it?"
But not all 535 members wanted to duck for cover. More than fifty of them said that of course the people should get a return on their property and that the money could be used to fund better programs. Some two dozen true mossbacks were vocal in their opposition. "Hell, no! We oppose all tax increases," thundered Senator Thinkalot defiantly. Tax increases? It was a transparent semantic sleight, but the broadcasters and the Republican National Committee and the usual suspects bought into it. "No more taxes, no more taxes!" was the rant from the raucous realms. The late-night comics loved it, gleefully shredding this bad joke with satirical comparisons. Would the yahoos like to tell the private owners of buildings that house government agencies to stop charging the government rent?
Nothing worked for the congressional minions of Big Media. They didn't pass the laugh test. There were deficits to reduce. The people's commonwealth extended to public lands rich in timber and minerals, lands that should be leased or sold at market value instead of being given away free or at bargain-basement prices. The controversy began to expand to include these and other giveaway resources owned by the people but in the hands of the corporations. "Things are getting out of hand," grumbled the mossbacks. "It's just wonderful," exhaled the progressives.
It was a tribute to the skill of the "Pay the rent!" campaign, and the degree to which it scared the trousers off the broadcast moguls, that the Redirections news began to crowd out some of the sensational, violent, celebrity-and-sex- ridden material that passed for news on network and cable television. "If it bleeds, it leads" was becoming "If it seethes, it leads" in more and more newsrooms. Charges that TV was a round-the-clock wasteland of tawdry trivia and saturation advertising sent producers into overdrive generating more serious content and what they called "public service programming." Even silly, sadistic, screaming afternoon shows like Jerry Springer's began to find room to showcase heroic civic action groups in communities around the nation, going so far as to put their e-mail addresses on the screen for interested viewers.
In mid-June, Congress opened hearings on two of the Meliorists' most volcanic decoys: the bills to change the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance and replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" with "America the Beautiful."
People started lining up before 5:00 a.m. to get into the House and Senate hearing rooms. By 7:00 a.m. the lines, three deep, stretched from the doorways of the Rayburn office Building and the Hart Senate office Building far down the sidewalks outside. The people appeared to come from all walks of life and to have little in common except a fierce and determined look. Bleary-eyed reporters were already interviewing them. James Drew of the Washington Post leaned over to Rick Dawn of the Associated Press and said. "I'll bet they're the evangelicals and the old veterans, with a few Daughters of the American Revolution sprinkled in. Rick Dawn agreed, scarcely suppressing a yawn. Ten minutes later, most of the crowd began humming "America the Beautiful." What gives? Drew wondered as he took down one pro- change comment after another.
What gave was that one of Cecil Zeftel's retired staffers, Walter Waitland, had tipped Bernard off about how to stack the hearing rooms and change the whole atmosphere for the committee members as well as the press. When he was working on the Hill, he used to rail against corporate lobbyists who took up all the seats by hiring college students to stand in for them beginning at 6:00 a.m. Three hours or so later, the lobbyists would saunter in and take their places. Meanwhile, unsuspecting citizens would arrive and find themselves shut out. Waitland never forgot his outrage over committee chairs allowing the corporations to take over the seats this way, just as they had tried to do when Peter Lewis testified about the insurance industry. Now the tables were turned. The difference was that nobody here had been paid. They were all volunteers from the PCC and the CUBs and the lunchtime rallies, or simply from the ranks of the millions whose lives had been touched by one or more of the Redirections and who jumped at the chance to come.
At 9:00 a.m. Chairman Michael Meany of the House Committee on Administration brought his gavel down hard. A burly Republican from Pecos County, Texas, he couldn't have been a worse choice from the pro-change viewpoint. He was known to have a hot temper and to brook no disruption of his hearing room. The Republican leadership wanted to downplay the importance of the two bills, so they had assigned them to Meany's committee.
The chairman opened with a brief statement. "Today we convene to hear testimony on HR 215 and HR 300, relating respectively to changing the National Anthem to 'America the Beautiful' and changing the Pledge of Allegiance to read 'with liberty and justice for some.' I oppose both bills, but I will chair a fair and open hearing and will not try to keep them from being voted out of committee should my position only command a minority. I oppose HR 215 because I believe a national anthem should convey strength before spirit, which is not what 'America the Beautiful' conveys. Besides, there's nothing very beautiful about West Texas flatlands other than their people. I oppose HR 300 because a pledge of allegiance should embrace the ideal over the real. People everywhere know there is liberty and justice only for a few. They need to be inspired by the ideal -- liberty and justice for all.
"Now I call on the ranking member of the other party for an opening statement before we go to the witnesses. Representative Randy Realismo from the great state of Iowa, which has plenty of amber waves of grain."
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I favor these two bills for reasons exactly the opposite of yours. I believe America's spirit is the source of all its strength, its can-do attitude, its pioneering ways, and its military effectiveness. I favor the Pledge the Truth bill because our youngsters should not be fed illusions; they should be toughened by reality so they can seek to change it for the better. And for adults, the present ending, 'with liberty and justice for all,' amounts to knowingly mouthing a lie. Our allegiance should be based on truth, not lies."
"Thank you for matching my brevity," said the chairman. "Now we go to the first panel, composed of four witnesses supporting this legislation. You each have three minutes, and your complete statements will be placed in the printed hearing record. You may begin, Mr. Vision."
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the House Committee on Administration. My name is Vincent Vision, and I am a professor of anthropology at Indiana University. Rituals in any society are a composite of myth and motivation. The Anthem and the Pledge are no exception. They are sung and uttered millions of times daily in our land, and they leave a deep imprint. Their routine repetition plants them in the subconscious, where they are never subjected to scrutiny or criticism. They are meant to be revered to a point where they lose much of their conscious meaning. The fervor for the Pledge of Allegiance, it is commonly understood, comes mainly from the right of our political spectrum, yet the struggle for liberty and justice for all has come mainly from the left, which finds the Pledge to be an instrument of conformity and obedience to the ruling classes. And as an historic aside, may I point out that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist? The irony persists unabated. As for 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' it is much easier to control people with a sacred symbol like the flag than with a reality like the landscape of our country. An anthem replete with descriptions of America's natural splendors will encourage us to preserve those splendors. When it comes to symbol versus reality, we should take the latter every time if we are to view ourselves as thinking, inquiring people. Besides, raising children to sing about 'bombs bursting in air' cannot compare with lyrics about our country's skies and mountains and plains. Give them their childhood. They'll have time enough to worry about bombs later in life, unless peace bursts out all over. Thank you."
"And thank you, Professor. The next witness is Dr. Cynthia Chord, who has a PhD in music and sings professionally at the Toledo Opera House."
"Mr. Chairman and committee members, I would like to simply sing both 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and 'America the Beautiful,' in that order." Whereupon Dr. Chord thrilled the hearing room with her renditions and sat down to loud applause.
The gavel slammed down three times for silence. It was clear to the astonished chairman that most of the applause was for "America the Beautiful." He hastened onward. "The next witness is Frederick Ferrett, dean of the Yale Law School and a leading historian of jurisprudence. Proceed, Dean Ferret."
"Mr. Chairman and committee members, I shall restrict my oral testimony to the results of a lie detector test given to six professors from six different law schools. All of them specialize in the study of justice, its primordial relation to liberty, and the distribution of both in our country. They were asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance while wired to a lie detector. All six flunked the test. Thank you."
"Dean Ferret, do you have a more detailed treatment of these tests and their methodology in the testimony you submitted for the record?"
"Yes, I do, Mr. Chairman."
"Very well. The next witness is the aptly named Peter Poll, president of a major polling organization in St. Louis."
"Thank you, Chairman Meany and distinguished legislators. We polled a representative sample of three thousand two hundred Americans on three questions. When asked, Do you want to see the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance changed in any way? eighty percent said no, fifteen percent said yes, and the rest had no opinion. To the question, Which would you choose for our National Anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or 'America the Beautiful'? the response was about fifty-fifty. When asked, Which do you prefer at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, the present 'with liberty and justice for all: or 'with liberty and justice for some'? sixty-four percent liked 'for some,' thirty percent wanted the Pledge to remain the same, and the rest were undecided. Our analysis is that, as many previous polls have shown, the American people know that established power and wealth control the many for the benefit of the few in this country, because they feel the effects or read about the effects or see the effects every day. Therefore, we were not surprised by the large majority favoring the change in the Pledge to conform to reality. Thank you, Mr. Chairman."
Chairman Meany was looking a little red in the face. "I have no questions. Are there questions from the members of the committee?"
"Yes, I have a question for Dean Ferrett," said Congressman Pierre Prober. "Dean, were you saying that when the six professors came to the last few words of the Pledge of Allegiance, they felt they were lying?"
"Yes, Congressman, that is exactly what I was saying, and exactly what registered on the lie detector."
"My question is directed to Professor Vision," said Congresswoman Elaine Suspicio. "Is it not true, Professor, that national anthems under dictatorships are almost always militaristic and boast of victories and triumphs in warfare?"
"That is generally quite correct. And when democratic countries are taken over by dictators and the anthem is changed, it goes the route you have described, yes."
Congressman Dick Direct glowered at the panel. "My question is to any of you who choose to respond. Why in the name of all that's holy are you wasting your time and ours with this left-wing tripe? Look at the huge press turnout, the sixteen television cameras, the mass of radio microphones in front of your table. Is this what we should be concentrating on while the world is exploding with terrorists and their extremist supporters?"
"With respect, Congressman Direct," said Professor Vision, "in the past year your Administration Committee has had sessions and hearings on the following topics: use of House credit cards by members and staff; whether the House cafeteria should serve more vegetarian meals and organic food; whether the visitors' center, under construction with massive cost overruns, should be managed by a new general contractor and a new auditing firm; whether the House Barber Shop and Beauty Salon should increase its prices; and so on. All this, Congressman, while the world is exploding with violence of all kinds and imploding from neglect. The National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance are not trivial matters, and public opinion is deeply divided on the two bills before you, as this hearing will surely demonstrate."
"Amen, amen," warbled Cynthia Chord.
"I second Professor Vision," Peter Poll chimed in. "As a specialist in measuring public opinion, I have found again and again that traditions and symbols like the Pledge and the National Anthem are very important to people's sense of solidarity, their sense of collective identity, and their need to allay their anxieties by clinging to something that endures from the past into the present and sanctifies the future."
Chairman Meany was about to dismiss the panel and move on when a committee clerk scuttled across the dais and whispered in his ear, "The hearing is going out live on C-SPAN, public radio, and CNN. Thousands of e-mails and phone calls are pouring into the committee, your congressional office, and your district office in Pecos County. We haven't had time to determine whether the reaction is breaking pro or con. All we know is that the congressional switchboard is overwhelmed with callers. Obviously this is touching nerves. I thought you'd want to know." The chairman nodded thoughtfully and turned back to face the audience. "If there are no further questions, I thank the panel for coming here this morning to present their views. Now we will hear some opposing views. Mr. Ultimata, where are the other three witnesses on your panel?"
"Mr. Chairman, my three colleagues have agreed to cede their time to me. Unless you object, I am authorized to speak on their behalf, and I trust my cumulative time is now twelve minutes."
"A little unconventional, but why not? Please proceed."
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. I am Ulysses Ultimata, former CEO of Gigante Corporation, with operations in fifty-two countries. Gigante is the world's leading manufacturer of pile drivers. I represent the Coalition of True Patriots, formed recently after provocations that were orchestrated by two very rich men and have ended up as H.R. 215 and H.R. 300. The coalition is composed of nearly one hundred stalwart Americans of achievement who have in common their unalterable opposition to these two subversive bills. We agree with your opening statement, Mr. Chairman, but we wish to go beyond it. Let me be blunt. These bills are treasonous. Their intent is to destroy venerable American traditions in the name of anemic pacifism and radical egalitarianism."
Loud murmurs of disapproval rose from the audience. Ulysses Ultimata was not deterred.
"American soldiers died singing 'The Star Spangled Banner.' This Anthem is our blood, guts, and pride. Our Pledge of Allegiance has come from the mouth of every soldier, sailor, and airman who has worn the uniform of the US Armed Forces since the Spanish-American War. It is their sacred oath. Here and now we take our stand for these great traditions. We will fight in the hearing rooms, in the halls of Congress, in the town halls of America, on the village greens -- and if necessary in the streets -- to protect and defend our Anthem and our Pledge from dilution, contamination, and manipulation by the wimps who are behind all this."
Now the audience was shouting, booing, calling for rebuttal. 'We weren't wimps at Guadalcanal and Anzio," a veteran yelled. "We weren't wimps on D-Day. What did you do in the war, Ultimata?" A short olive-skinned man with a crew cut jumped up from his seat. "He called us traitors! I've worked hard for America, and I have two sons in the Marines. How dare he?"
Chairman Meany, who had been pleased by the civil tone of the hearing thus far, was banging his gavel furiously. "Sit down, sir! I will call the sergeant at arms to escort you or anyone else from this hearing room if you do not settle down. Please continue, Mr. Ultimata."
"Let me be more specific about the consequences if these bills pass into law. Our multinational companies will be the laughingstock of the world, as will our country. What nation would ever degrade itself by conceding in its Pledge of Allegiance that there is liberty and justice only for some? We call ourselves the greatest democracy on Earth every day. How could we continue to do that in our worldwide information programs? And while I concede that 'America the Beautiful' might bring in more foreign tourists to see our fields and forests, let's face it, other countries do not respect America for its beauty, for its laws, for its economy, for its freedoms. They respect us because of our military power, because we win wars as long as we can get the wimps and the bleeding hearts out of our way." Ultimata was fairly shouting now, in part for emphasis and in part to be heard over the rising crescendo of outrage from the audience.
"The poor people fight your wars, big shot!" roared a deep-throated guy in a "Union, Yes!" sweatshirt. TV cameramen were elbowing each other for the best shots -- this was going to make some juicy television. The members of the committee were clearly agitated, envisioning a maelstrom of angry messages from their constituents. Already their assistants were passing them notes saying that their office phones were ringing off the hook. The callers wanted to know where their lawmakers stood. One member got a note from his wife complaining that their home phone wouldn't let up.
'Order, order! I will not have a witness before my committee shouted down. I will clear the hearing room before it comes to that. Finish your testimony, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As I was saying, if you look weak, you're asking for trouble. Pacifists look weak, talk weak, are weak. America got to where it is by slamming its way to the West Coast and the Rio Grande, by calling out the cavalry, by rejecting gun control. If we hadn't taken charge in 1775, Bostonians would still be slurping their tea out of Chippendale cups. Our country would still be a narrow strip of land up and down the Atlantic coast. I end with a warning. Debate these bills all you want, but there are those of us who will never allow our sacred traditions to be sullied. God bless America, and cursed be the meek, because they will forfeit the Earth."
Some of the pastors in the audience found the twisted biblical reference sacrilegious and made their protest clear by silently but strenuously wagging their fingers at Ulysses Ultimata. Leaving the witness chair, he responded with a laugh and a curled lip. Boos and hisses erupted in spontaneous condemnation.
In the back of the room, Bill Gates Sr. turned to Joe Jamail and said, "If a congressional hearing is this unruly, just imagine what's going on in the rest of the country. And the focus is just where we want it to be, on the Congress. Operation Distraction just hit pay dirt, Joe."
Chairman Meany, gaveling down the uproar, adjourned the hearing until further notice and ordered the sergeant at arms to clear the room, which was presently populated by people singing "America the Beautiful" or bellowing "With liberty and justice for some!" Moderate pandemonium ensued as the crowd departed, reporters and photographers at their heels, still puzzled by the overwhelming audience support for the bills.
Predictably, the evening news was dominated by the hearings and the public reaction in Everywhere, USA. Barry even had to suspend his provocative and increasingly popular Injustice of the Day segment to make time for full coverage. The waves after waves unleashed by the Meliorists were provoking just about everyone to drop the small talk and express their opinions on the way to work, in car pools, at shopping malls, in waiting rooms, around the water cooler, you name it. More and more youngsters were getting into the act as their schools debated whether to pick up the Pledge revision. The more thoughtful teachers used the occasion to delve deeper into the arguments pro and con and learned that they could teach American history in a way that genuinely caught the attention of their overwired students.
So successful were the Pledge and the Anthem, both as decoys and in advancing the national discussion of substantive issues, that it wasn't long before Joe and Bill began planning a new drive, this time to replace the bald eagle with the white dove. Joe drafted a memo to Promotions describing the eagle as a glorified vulture, a flesh-rending predator that would even feed on carrion, its powerful beak and talons exuding violence, aggression, and imperial designs. Should this be the symbol of the United States of America, already regarded by much of the world as an imperial predator? The dove, on the other hand, was the universal symbol of peace, representing the highest aspirations of humankind. To wage peace was to renounce waging war. To wage peace was to give justice a chance to spread its wings. Some of the bird watchers probably wouldn't be too happy about the Doves, Not Vultures campaign, but it was another feint sure to send Bush Bimbaugh and company up the wall. Joe and Bill would keep it in reserve for stage two of the Agenda drive, after the August recess.
With an eye to the future need for decoys and distractions, Promotions was also working up an action plan for Yoko's idea that the quickest way to stop pollution was to pass a law requiring polluters to inject a nontoxic red dye into their emissions. Once support for the Agenda builds in Congress, it wouldn't be difficult to find sponsors to introduce the legislation with fanfare and a video simulation that would drive the polluters into a costly and time-consuming counter offensive frenzy. When the proposal was sent to the Secretariat, Barry received an uncharacteristically scathing memo from Patrick Drummond. "This is exuberance run amok, a heaven-sent instrument that the plutocrats and corporatists will use to organize the people and distract them. Nobody wants to go around with red stains on their person, their home, their car, and just about everything else. The bill will be stopped in its tracks on Capitol Hill, but meanwhile it will be seized upon to tarnish and discredit anybody and everybody associated with it. Enthusiasm untempered by common sense can lead to disaster. Recommend internal review to determine how this one got past you and how to tighten up quality control immediately. Will bill you later for saving your ass." Barry was startled by the language but had to agree with the message, though he wasn't looking forward to breaking the news to Yoko.
June was crunch month for Wal-Mart. The giant company was being squeezed from all sides. One editorial cartoonist depicted it as Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians with ropes labeled "Union." Except for the mom-and-pop fire sales, the models and tactics Sol had deployed against the first five stores and the additional two hundred were spreading spontaneously throughout the Wal-Mart world. The Wal-SWATs were working triple shifts without making a dent. The company hired four more top executives in crisis management, and it was a drop in the bucket. Ted's billionaires had turned their assignment into a hobby and were arousing institutional investors, whose calls of protest rose as their shares declined. They were demanding one-on-one meetings with officers and members of the board. They were threatening shareholder lawsuits. They were demanding a stronger say in company policies and compensation packages.
The Wal-Mart brand was turning into a popular epithet. "To Wal-Mart" meant to chisel workers or to union-bust or to freeload on the taxpayers or to squeeze people beyond endurance or to send US jobs on a fast boat to China. The company's trademark name, valued at an estimated $12 billion dollars under "good will" in its assets column, was moving into the debits column, though the accounting profession had yet to quantify the loss on the other side of the ledger. Sales were suffering. Morale was plummeting. Recruitment of young middle managers and MBAs was becoming much more difficult. The steady decline of Wal-Mart shares was most worrisome to Bentonville -- why, their stock options were in jeopardy! The board of directors felt increasingly under harassment in their own communities as they were pestered for interviews, chided, or shunned, even by some of their business peers.
Everything Wal-Mart put into play by way of improving its image and countering Sol's assault on the citadel either fizzled or backfired. Its public condemnation of the unionization drive just drew more attention to the rebels. The toughest argument to rebut was the now widely publicized treatment of Wal-Mart employees in Western Europe, where the company was legally obliged to provide benefits beyond the dreams of its US workers and to recognize real unions. There was no rebuttal, really, other than to intimate higher prices for shoppers, which only provoked critics to raise the executive pay issue again. Even the announcement that Wal-Mart was opening stores in inner-city areas didn't wash. It was interpreted as an admission of guilt or a move to exploit low-wage labor.
In mid-June, the top officers in Bentonville arranged an emergency conference call with the board of directors. All the participants were well aware of the relentless news reports and the rapidly deteriorating situation.
"Ladies and gentlemen," CEO Clott began, "at our February meeting, some of you asked for more data, and what we've painstakingly assembled since then has led us to call this emergency session of the board. We're losing ground by the day. Our adversaries are multiplying like rabbits, and carrots are of no use with this species. There is no wearing them out or wearing them down. Their frontal assault is taking up so much time in our managerial ranks, down to the Superstores, that we can't attend to our business. Decisions are being postponed. Just yesterday we lost out on purchasing the third- largest retail chain in Argentina -- as you know, this is how we establish a strong market position in other countries. One of our US competitors picked it up simply because we didn't get around to making a bid.
"The costs of maintaining our traditional business model are rising faster than the benefits. What we see on the horizon is not just more stormy weather but unintended consequences -- those who have been cowed by our supremacy are suddenly becoming emboldened. There are moves against us that even Sol Price doesn't even know about, such are the forces he has unleashed. After careful reflection, we therefore propose to act on Gerald Taft's earlier suggestion that one of us have a face-to-face meeting with him to find out more about what he wants and how much he has behind him. We believe that our fellow board member Sam Sale, a high school friend of Sol's back in New York City, is the best qualified among us for this highly sensitive and confidential task. Of course Price will have to assure us of complete secrecy, or there's no point. But if he does give his word -- and he's nothing if not a man of his word, which is why Sam Walton liked him -- is it the sense of the board that such a meeting be arranged?"
A wave of fatigued ayes floated into the CEO's office.
"Nay," replied three tight-lipped, clenched-jawed directors. "Sam may have liked Sol Price then, but now he would be calling out the Marines," one of them growled.
CEO Clott ignored the remark. "The ayes have it. Can you come down to Bentonville tomorrow for an intensive briefing, Sam?"
"I'll clear my schedule right away."
Sam Sale arrived in Bentonville at noon the next day, by limo from the airport. The retired CEO of the largest sporting goods chain in the country, he was in his eighties now, but his physical and mental fitness was remarkable. He'd been two years behind Sol in high school, but they became friends because of their ardent support of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Leighton Clott met Sam at the headquarters entrance and personally escorted him to a small secured conference room where lunch was waiting. He handed Sam a sheaf of succinct briefing papers and asked him to spend the afternoon reviewing them so that his meeting with Sol would be more likely to achieve results on the spot, without further back-and-forth.
After lunch, Sam settled in with the briefing papers and learned just about all there was to know about Sol -- his background, his health, his family, his business activities, his hobbies -- except for one missing detail. He buzzed CEO Clott. ''When is Sol most upbeat and fresh during any given week?" the Dodger fan wanted to know. Clott put him on hold and came back with the answer in a matter of minutes. The CEO wasn't kidding the board when he'd told them earlier that the company had full intelligence.
"Sol is at his most receptive in the early evening, especially on Sunday evening, when he's looking forward to his weekly brisket dinner."
"Then that's when I'll ask to meet with him, at his home, where his guard will be down and he won't be afraid of bugs. Thanks, Leighton." Sam hung up and took the elevator down to the lavish company fitness center and spa. As was his habit, he went for a swim and got a vigorous rubdown. Then he repaired to his hotel, ordered in a working dinner, and retired early to start the next day ready for a call to Sol.
Sunday afternoon found Sam Sale being chauffeured up to Sol's home in a hilly and very upscale San Diego suburb with a beautiful view of the Pacific. His driver was a recent Filipino immigrant fluent in Tagalog but very sparse in English. He'd been deliberately chosen so that he wouldn't have a clue as to whom he was taking where.
Sol greeted his old friend at the door with grace and warmth. "Sam, it's been decades! You know, I used to consider expanding my discount stores into sporting goods, but I always thought better of it because of my respect for your tenacious competitiveness."
"Needless to say, Sol, I've watched you go from success to success for years with no little envy. Oh, I've done all right for myself, but a man always tries to outrich the richest of his high school friends." Sam clapped Sol on the back with a laugh.
Sol was laughing too. He returned the clap, just a bit harder. "Well, I've never had that feeling, you know, because I've always been the richest. You're my Avis, Sam. But come in, come in. Come sit with me in my study. Can I pour you a drink?"
"Sure, I'll have a spicy tomato juice, if you've got it, no ice, lemon on the side."
"I'll stay with my dry martini," Sol said as he went to a drinks cart in the corner of the study and returned with the juice. "Here you are, Sam. Now, why did Wal-Mart send you here?"
Prepared for Sol's bluntness, Sam responded in kind. "Quite simply, to see if we could cut a deal. If we do, I know you're a man of your word. This meeting has to go no further on your side. You're your own boss. On my side, I have to report to the CEO only. We know, of course, that you want unionization. You haven't said much about what else you want, if anything, regarding other criticisms of Wal-Mart that both preceded you and were escalated by your campaign. And there are many layers involved in discussing unionization. So my question is this. What exactly are your conditions for settling this growing conflict, which entails such resources and energy on both sides?"
"Are you trying to test my stamina and my resources, Sam? If you are, you can forget about any negotiations. You must know that kind of tactic only makes me dig my heels in. We discuss the merits or nothing!"
"Fine, then let's start by asking what you mean by unionization."
"Here's what I don't mean. I don't mean unionization meat department by meat department. I don't mean unionization Superstore by Superstore or warehouse by warehouse, or only blue-collar or only white-collar. I mean company-wide unionization -- one prime labor-management contract covering wages, benefits, work rules, grievance procedures, and civil rights and liberties in the workplace, as negotiated by your workers and your management under the fair labor practice rules of the NLRB. Obviously, prior to the negotiations, management must observe strict noninterference in the freedom to organize for collective bargaining and company-wide union certification. And that means an immediate union cardcheck, to reduce the prospect of subtle interference."
"That's a pretty hard line, Sol."
"No, it's not a hard line, because Wal-Mart is a contagious disease driving down wages and benefits throughout the economy. Remember the supermarket chains in Los Angeles that broke their union contracts in anticipation of Wal-Mart's entry into that large market? What about the China price pressure on your suppliers, who also supply other retailers? Do I need to give you more examples of the vast downward sweep of your colossus?"
"All right, you've put your unionization cards on the table. What about other aspects of Wal-Mart's operations? What do you want in those areas?"
"Nothing, Sam, not a thing. But I do have one additional demand outside that box. My colleagues and I have taken a substantial stock position in Wal-Mart. We're going to make three nominations to the board of directors, and we want you to accept them, of course after the customary due diligence as to ethical probity and competence."
"I can't decide whether I'm more relieved or surprised. Three directors? And that's your only condition apart from your union stipulations?"
Sol nodded and sipped his martini.
"Well, that only leaves one question. Are your demands nonnegotiable?"
"It's the wrong question at the wrong time, Sam. Take this back to your CEO and tell him two things. One, that I'm a hard-bitten son of a bitch, and two, that I'm having the time of my life. More spicy tomato juice?"
"Well, why not? It'll give us time to remember when baseball players were baseball players, when pitchers pitched nine innings, when catchers caught doubleheaders, when they didn't come any tougher than Pistol Pete Reiser, until he cracked his unprotected skull on the center field wall."
"And made the play anyway," Sol said with a smile, rising to refresh Sam's drink.
"Those were the days, my friend. If only we could go back to the time when we were dreamers, the time when we thought we could do anything because we hadn't done anything yet. Hell, make it a double shot of Jim Beam, Sol."
Back in Bentonville on Tuesday morning, Sam went straight to Leighton Clott's office.
"Come in, Sam, sit down. I can't wait to hear what happened with that crusty old bastard."
"Believe me, they don't make them that crusty anymore," Sam said, and went on to relate his conversation with Sol in detail. "When I asked if his two demands were nonnegotiable, he told me to tell you that he's a hard-bitten son of a bitch and that he's never had more fun in his life. I have to say that his concern for Wal-Mart employees and other workers in similar situations seemed genuine. He's a man with nothing to lose, and he knows it. There you have it."
Clott stroked his chin. "Hmm. Sam, did Sol mention any timetable or deadline for recognizing the union and entering into collective bargaining?"
"He said he wanted the cardcheck immediately, which would be a massive job, though I gather he could easily hire the necessary crews. But he said nothing about how soon he expects a union-management contract. He's dealt his cards as if he could care less how we play our hand.
"So you're telling me that if we don't accept his demands, his tightening vise, his SWAT swarms, his collateral allies initiating anti-Wal-Mart moves in their own right, his stirring up the regulatory agencies and fomenting community rebellions against us" -- the CEO's voice was rising steadily -- "you're telling me that all these will continue to intensify, continue to demonstrate our defenselessness, continue to drive down our share price and our sales, continue to drive us to distraction so we can't conduct our daily business?"
"I couldn't have put it more succinctly myself," Sam said. "You must have given our tribulations much thought."
"Indeed I have, and I've come to some conclusions that I'll share with the board shortly. Sol is a shrewd man, and it's time to make some hard decisions."
"I don't envy you, Leighton. Just remember that corporations have a secret weapon. They don't lose face, because everyone expects them to behave expediently in keeping with their capitalist ideology. They don't fall on their swords out of principle."
"Sam, your wisdom is penetrating if not clairvoyant. Thank you for performing your mission so well."
When Sam had departed, CEO Clott moved to his favorite deep leather chair and resumed his chin stroking, something he always did before a major decision that only he could make because the buck stopped with him. Weighing the Sol attack variables against the Wal-Mart counterattack variables, he mulled and mulled and mulled. Every time he searched for an exit strategy, he hit a wall. Slowly he came to accept what he had to do. For him the evidence had reached a critical mass that was daily becoming more critical. But what about his board of directors, especially the hardliners and traditionalists? Would they brush off the incontrovertible trends in sales, profits, share price, regulatory activity, and so forth? Could he persuade them that this was one mother of a crisis that was not going to blow over?
Sinking deeper into his chair, he stopped stroking his chin and brought his thumbs and fingertips together into a triangle of authority, a gesture that meant he was gaining confidence in his forthcoming decision and his ability to sell it to the board. First Wal-Mart would have to take an even bigger battering, but time would take care of that. Clott buzzed his secretary and told her to postpone the next board meeting until after the Fourth of July weekend. With a weary sigh, he flicked on his plasma TV just in time to see footage of hundreds of kids at busy intersections belting out, "Extra, extra! Read all about it! Wal-Mart CEO makes more than ten grand an hour while workers make under nine bucks." Shaking his head in disgust, he flipped to a rerun of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
If June was crunch month for Wal-Mart, it was breakout month for the Clean Elections Party. The candidates had met or were about to meet the various state deadlines, and they were in high gear, capitalizing on the raised expectations of the voting public and drawing the kind of crowds that only the many grassroots and media mobilizations of the Meliorists in previous months could have stimulated, albeit indirectly. The press was more than intrigued by the head-on challenge to the forty-seven most powerful members of the House and the ten most influential senators up for reelection. Talk about a David and Goliath scenario all over the country. But this one had a single intense focus -- getting dirty money out of politics and replacing it with public money and electoral reform. The result would liberate our society, the candidates argued, and turn it toward a just pursuit of happiness. Some things in a democracy should never be for sale, and elections were among them. That really hit home with people. Not for Sale buttons started popping up everywhere. Not for Sale speeches were delivered before packed audiences. Not for Sale T-shirts, posters, puppets, and playing cards were in great demand. At every opportunity, the CEP candidates described in eloquent detail what happened to the folks back home when politicians were for sale. People began to expand on the theme. Our children are not for sale. Our environment is not for sale. Our religion is not for sale. Our schools and universities are not for sale. The discussion broadened into a systematic critique of corporate domination over a society in which everything was for sale, including our genes, our privacy, our foreign policy, our public land and airwaves.
Back in Congress, the legislators were inundated with demands that they declare themselves Not for Sale. The sheer variety and distribution of the calls for reform left their heads spinning. There were so many bandwagons that they couldn't figure out which ones to jump on. There were so many pressures coming from so many new sources that they couldn't keep track. More and more people in more and more cities were attending the lectures and lunchtime rallies and leaving with a glint in their eyes. The Congress Watchdogs were demanding accountability sessions in every state and congressional district during the August recess. The tell-all valedictories at the National Press Club were reverberating back home and turning the heat up on local companies; a speech last week involving occupational diseases among foundry workers made waves wherever there were foundries. And the counter-pressures from the big business boys were at full throttle too.
It was all too much, but it would have to be digested and made sense of, because the lawmakers knew that their positions on pending legislation would be under intense scrutiny during their upcoming campaigns. Not to mention the new bills they were expecting from the progressive hard core that had suddenly come alive. They could feel the foundations of incumbency shaking, beyond their powers of control or even discernment, given the pace of events.
Most alarming was their growing uncertainty about the objectives of the swelling stream of business lobbyists coming up to the Hill. A new breed was knocking on their doors, shorn of the customary garb of greed. They came from the ranks of the newly formed People's Chamber of Commerce, and their legislative priorities were almost invariably the opposite of what the usual K Street cohort and the trade associations urged. The lawmakers were caught in the crossfire, with campaign money and potential scandals on one side, and conscience and no campaign money on the other. Ordinarily they would have sided with the power and money without a second thought, but the PCC people got a lot of media attention and seemed to have connections with some of the upstart agitators back home.
A possibly momentous phenomenon was in the offing. The senior Bulls who controlled the committees were getting demoralized while the younger progressives were soaring in morale and purpose. One veteran senator was heard to say to another, "It's no fun anymore. I'm thinking of retiring. Why do I need these daily tornados?" What made the progressives' current agenda different from previous false starts was that they had big-time backing from an infrastructure they had never expected to materialize. They had a full-court press from the Meliorists -- at this point, as far as they knew, just a bunch of savvy billionaires each shepherding his own chunk of justice through Congress. Even so, they felt they were being drawn together for more than passing a bill here and there, as if by some unseen hand. The stirrings all around the country, together with the regular calls and visits they were receiving from prominent retired legislators and staffers -- people whose reputations preceded them -- were disciplining them to a new intensity of endeavor. Rumor had it that something big was going to break on the Fourth of July, and they wanted to be ready.
Thousands of business lobbyists and their corporate attorneys had heard the same rumors and were filled with apprehension. They couldn't keep up with what was already happening week after week, much less contemplate something larger on the horizon. In their nightmares they recalled the prophetic warnings of Brovar Dortwist, but in their waking hours they were still telling themselves that nothing had actually changed in the power game they had dominated for so long. They had only to turn to their favorite radio, TV, and newspaper commentators to hear a reassuring blast at this eccentric business rebellion against established business, the very pillar of our economic prosperity. They took refuge in inertia, a force very difficult to reverse, even in the face of the turning tides. It would take an extraordinary mind to break through it, and for all his gifts, that wasn't Brovar Dortwist. He was too right too soon.
The rumors, of course, were true. The Meliorists' preparations for the Fourth of July blastoff were proceeding apace and then some. The Mass Demonstrations project was getting parade permits for two thousand small and midsize towns whose parades had been discontinued because the towns were consolidated with larger towns or because too many residents and band members were away on vacation. Leonard's organizers tracked down the people who used to put on the parades, and they were delighted to have support in resurrecting this grand tradition. They immediately began dusting off their fifes and drums.
A chief problem concerned the vitally important graphics for the Meliorist branding. They had to encapsulate the Agenda's deep and broad reach, all its arguments and evidence, in a way that was crisp, upbeat, and indelible -- no mean feat. Yoko asked the Secretariat to reserve an entire closed-circuit briefing for her unveiling of the Meliorist insignia, which she displayed on a large posterboard propped on an easel. It was a wreath of greens, signifying springtime and rebirth, with a backdrop of yellow symbolizing the sun. In an arc over the top, in elegant lettering, was "The Golden Rule," and at the bottom, "Equal Justice Under Law." In the center was an abstract red, white, and blue image suggesting the Stars and Stripes unfurled in a bracing wind.
Paul whistled. "Wow. I love the way the design and colors tap into so many different associations and emotions. My only suggestion is that you incorporate 'The Meliorists' into the flaglike image in the center so there's no doubt about who and what is being branded."
"For purposes of comparison, can you show us some alternative designs?" Joe asked.
"No, because they were all so awful that I tossed them."
"For my money, I don't think we could ask for anything better than this one," Warren said, "but what about the Seventh- Generation Eye? It's already got high recognition. Shouldn't we capitalize on that?"
"Shall we quickly test both images in focus groups?" Yoko suggested.
Warren nodded. "I think that's the way to go. I suspect there will be groups and occasions for which one or the other image is more appropriate. Send them both over to Promotions, Yoko, but for security purposes, don't add 'The Meliorists' to the insignia yet. When we get the focus group results, we'll have the Secretariat cost out buttons, posters, banners, bumper stickers, and T-shirts in batches of five million and see how quickly they can be manufactured. I'm sure we'll need at least that many of each for the Fourth and our debut the day after."
"Which reminds me that Dick Goodwin's Paine pamphlet is finished," Bernard said. "As expected, it's a smashing weapon of mass education -- beautifully done, respectful of its readers, rooted in historical high points, and foreshadowing a purposeful and fundamental redirection of our country. It needs a cover design ASAP so we can roll the presses."
Yoko nodded. "Send it over and I'll have something for you in a couple of days."
"If that's all on the art front, Leonard has an update from Joan Claybrook on the Blockbuster Challenge," Warren said.
"Yes, and it's an encouraging one. Joan thinks she's solved the problem of how to give incumbents large sums of money without violating the five-thousand-dollar limit on PAC contributions to each candidate. Working with the two-billion- dollar budget we allocated to wean Congress from the special interests, she recommends that the money be spent to raise an equivalent or larger amount in small contributions from millions of voters. In other words, campaign money for each incumbent who accepts the buyback will come from mass mailings, Internet outreach, fundraising dinners, and so on. Under FEC rules, these small contributions can't be solicited directly for the candidates by name, but the donors will understand what's expected of them.
"Joan argues that this roundabout approach has many benefits. It will bring millions more ordinary citizens on board for the Agenda. It will strengthen our network of contacts in each community by bringing out local fundraising talent, activists, artists, supportive columnists, and editorial writers, all the natural leaders and 'influentials,' as the pollsters say. It will turn the billions of the few into millions from the many, with an enormous ripple effect."
"What if the incumbent refuses the buyback offer?" Peter asked.
"Then," replied Leonard, "all these fundraising efforts go to the incumbent's challengers. A no buys a boomerang. Granted, it's difficult to see how all this will work in practice since everything in this project is de novo and there's very little time for pilot projects. But we must have pilot projects in order to get the bugs ironed out. Joan is setting them up to be done in full in July in about six districts, and in a couple of states on a smaller scale. She's in constant consultation with counsel steeped in the FEC regulations and is confident that both the larger and the subsidiary questions will be resolved in our favor. By the way, she told me that working on this project has been exhausting, exhilarating, and the highlight of her career. She predicts historic reverberations."
"Let's hope her prediction is on the way to becoming a reality," Warren said.
"Let's hope lunch is on the way to becoming a reality," said Sol.
On Friday, June 16, at exactly twelve noon, Lobo got the call he'd been expecting from CEO Jasper Cumbersome. The conversation was brief.
"Lobo, we are ready to receive you on Monday, June twenty-sixth, at nine a.m. sharp. Bring with you all your intellect and all your savvy. Leave the pit bull in his doghouse. By the twenty-first we expect a detailed memorandum on everything you have learned thus far. What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of the SROs as a group, individually, and operationally? What potential allies have you considered? Where is 'the core battlefield,' as you put it? What is your estimate of cost, month by month? We also want a general idea of the momentum your plans will generate, a review of the quality of the talent you're assembling, and whatever else you deem important for us to digest before our meeting. Any reactions or questions?"
"Reactions? I like your energy and sense of immediacy. Questions? How much money are you coughing up? I can tell you right now that you're going to need mucho dinero -- no, make that muy mucho dinero. This is going to be a galactic battle. The tsunami that's heading your way is going to sweep the high ground right out from under you. And the low ground, for that matter."
"Come now, Lobo. The situation is undoubtedly serious, but don't get carried away with yourself.
"The 'situation,' as you call it, is beyond serious, Jasper. Fortunately, it is not beyond my powers to master."
"That's the spirit, Lobo. Very well, we'll read you on the twenty-first and see you on the twenty-sixth. Good day."
Lobo's parting words to the CEO belied his feelings. He was about to enter the phase of the mission where success depended not just on himself but on his operatives. No more lone wolf. He called the little pit bull, who jumped into his lap and started licking his lips madly. Lobo licked back. This ritual, known only to himself and the canine, calmed him down during moments of high tension, though the same could not be said of the canine.
The lone wolf did have one last task to complete on his own, the June 21 memorandum. Thinking and reading and refining his findings and educated guesses late into the night, night after night, he finally honed his memo, or dispatch, as he preferred to call it, into a precis of some seven hundred words. He started with his most important discovery. "The core battlefield will be the Congress," he wrote, "which is a relief. It is terra cognita, happy hunting grounds for you CEOs and your thousands of lobbyists. To date, a place well in hand." His fingers hovered over his laptop for a moment, then began flying over the keyboard.
But there are troublesome stirrings in Congress. The progressives, usually placid except for their rhetoric, have become unusually active, urging more and more of their colleagues to support a raft of bills that will apparently be introduced shortly. They are also, with some diplomatic finesse, starting to request that hearings be held on these bills, hearings chaired by their adversaries in the Republican Party. Some liberal Republicans, from New England mostly, are being courted to make the first representations to the chairs. I'm told the exchanges are very civil. For the first time in years, the chairs are feeling the heat from back home, and they want to be seen as 'fair and understanding.' Our sources see this as an early sign of weakness. But remember, Congress hasn't heard from our side -- yet.
Every one of the SROs has vulnerabilities, but how consequential and useful are they? We all have past troubles, professional and personal, we've all made dubious statements and associated with dubious people. The question is what our media specialists can do with the SROs' liabilities. I'll tell you one thing they can do. They can outsmart themselves and generate sympathy for our opponents, who have the money and media capability to fight back. Barring some really hot stuff, the SROs can turn the tables and do to you what we're doing to them. Therefore, we should put this approach on the back burner.
As for their operational vulnerabilities, they seem to be meticulous about compliance with the law. Their attorneys are experienced and well regarded. That we know. We will know much more when our people start reporting from inside their operations. Call them spies, call them infiltrators, call them what you will, but they are vital to our endeavor. I call them patriots. I've assigned a special team of them to find the club, lodge, or hotel where the SROs must be meeting, and to apply for any open staff position, however lowly. These are elderly people, and they are not always going to meet electronically if they can avoid it.
Most of the personnel I need are now on board. For obvious reasons, I'm going to leave you in the dark about the specifics. Suffice it to say that they are all characterized by loyalty, a proven commitment to business values, experience, good judgment, a critical ability to reassess and revise, and zero tendency to procrastinate. They are mostly in their thirties and forties, physically and mentally fit, and daring without being reckless. My own executive corps consists of a dozen people of the highest caliber.
Who are our allies? Big business in its entirety, along with its dealers, agents, and franchisees. The question is how much we can expect of them beyond lip service. They're a fairly independent crowd at the trade association and CEO level. Imagine whipping such august groups as the Business Roundtable, the Greenbrier Club, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the self-styled US Chamber of Commerce into the fast lane. They have always marched to their own drumbeat, and they won't want to change drummers. They'll want to go their own conventional way of fighting back and lobbying. And while that's not worthless, it's also sufficiently unfocused to increase the risk of mixups, screw-ups, and dust-ups. There simply is no time for pratfalls. You'll have to marshal your collective prestige and address this problem directly with your peers. There's nothing worse for momentum than bumps in the road and sinkholes.
As for costs, it will be mostly media, organizers, handout money to community groups, and campaign contributions. Our allies already have their infrastructures in place, of course, and that will save money. Still, I think we're talking about a ballpark figure of $5 billion over the next five months. Precisely what resources you're putting behind this operation needs careful discussion on 6/26.
Finally, momentum means recovering the offensive. Repeat: the offensive. When you're behind, you don't catch up by playing defense. Period. End.
Lobo hit Save and e-mailed the memo to the CEOs, along with a not too burdensome attachment of cogent articles and historical materials for them to read before the meeting. He added a postscript telling them that it was of utmost importance that they also read John Gardner's On Leadership "from cover to cover." Then he sat back in his desk chair and sighed. Writing the dispatch had fatigued him. He was glad it was over with and didn't much care what the CEOs thought as long as they came through with the money. He preferred to rely on his forceful persona, his oral presentations, and his quick wits to carry the day. That day was the twenty-sixth of June. Then came the showdown, the contact sport that would release new creative energies fortified by inside information. A man could only hypothesize so much. Lobo couldn't wait to get into the sweaty public ring with biceps bulging.
For all the people power that was building both as a direct result of the Meliorists and from the indirect stimulation of organized energies, the real proof of the pudding would be getting the Agenda through Congress. Throughout June, the Redirectional projects responsible for various parts of the legislation -- the PCC, the CUBs, the Congress Watchdogs, the Zabouresk-Zeftel group, which had taken to calling itself Double Z -- were working with their congressional allies in an intensive collaboration that went on below the media's radar. These shapers, movers, and shakers did not want publicity. They just wanted to work at their highest level of professionalism so as to meet their critical deadlines. Everything had to be ready by the Fourth of July. The bills had to be introduced in the right sequence, with impregnable backup material for the rebuttal battles that lay ahead. And everything had to mesh smoothly -- the publicity, the political muscle to support the legislators who were up front on the bills, the back-home pressure on all members (especially the committee chairs and the leadership) the discrediting of the business lobbies as chronic negativists, the responses to their think-tank cronies, the mass media ripostes to the inevitable corporate campaign of fear and threat, and the splitting of the opposition. The lights never went out in the offices and dens of these Agenda champions.
In the midst of all this meticulous preparation, the sub-economy was materializing rapidly along the complementary lines laid down by Jeno, who envisioned it as a Trojan horse within the established economy, and by Jerome Kohlberg, who emphasized its role in promoting sustainable economic practices and applied ethics. Jeno's acquisition specialists had gone down the Department of Commerce list of business categories and purchased hundreds of retail businesses around the country -- medical practices, beauty salons, lawn-care companies, pharmacies, oil dealerships, auto dealerships, real estate firms, machine shops, grocery stores, clothing stores, restaurants, bars, pest exterminators, tax preparers, accountants and financial planners, plumbers, electricians, carpenters -- along with a small foundry, a handful of other small manufacturing facilities, a few wholesale firms, and a dozen or so midsize agribusinesses, mines, banks, and insurance companies. The owners of these businesses were now streaming a steady flow of internal information about their industries and trades to the Sustainable Sub-economy headquarters, which was run by some of the smartest ex-merger-and-acquisition whizzes around, some of the best ex-managers, ex-efficiency experts, ex-marketeers, ex-recruiters, ex-PR chiefs, and ex-brilliant-but-disgruntled corporate advocates of a green economy. All these exes were thrilled to be free at last to bring their consciences and brains to work every day.
Always looking ahead, Jeno wanted to know whether the Trojan horses had heard of any lobbyists or trade association executives or CEOs who were canceling their customary August vacations -- a good gauge of rising anxiety and consternation over the recent wave of attacks on them. If the business establishment were the Navy, Jeno thought, this would surely be an all-leaves-canceled, all-hands-on-deck situation. According to the feedback from the sub-economy, all vacations were on. Complacency persisted among the top brass. They were either clueless as to what was coming in September or too attached to their luxuries. The Congress was on vacation in August and so were they. That had always been the routine in past years, and it would be the routine this year.
Jeno promptly notified the Secretariat of this neat bit of intelligence, just the tip of the iceberg of inside information that would flow from the sub-economy. Not only that, but early sales figures across the range of sub-economy businesses showed no decline since purchase, and in some cases even a rise as the fresh images of these energetically managed companies took hold.
The CUBs were on the march too. An unchallenged backlog of overcharges, ripoffs, cover-ups, and commercial shenanigans awaited them on every corner. It was like fishing off the banks of Newfoundland in 1800. George's purchase and conversion of the hotel had been a stroke of motivating genius. The building surged with excitement and productivity, as a dozen or more federal regulatory agencies were finding out. The CUBs coordinated their activities, cross-fertilizing ideas, tactics, and strategies. The tone, tempo, and quality of the whole project were due in no small part to John Richard and Robert Fellmeth, who maintained close contact with the project manager and the CUB directors.
A spate of CUB reports justifying regulatory action or investigation made news around the country. People were paying ever-higher prices for gasoline, home heating oil, utilities, insurance, and banking transactions. Hospital bills were indecipherable and out of sight. One mom brought her eight-year-old daughter to a California hospital for a cut finger, and by the time the separate bills were totaled up, the tab was $2,100. Agencies accustomed to auctioning off or giving away the communications and broadcast spectrums found petitioners and public interest groups arrayed against the grasping companies. Demands for the reinstatement of cable regulation met with widespread community and customer approval.
The Cable CUB went to town pillorying the dreary cable channels saturated with infomercials, with hucksters peddling tacky jewelry and miracle diets and reruns of low-grade dramas and sitcoms, the cheap way out for steadily rising monthly charges. There was even a channel for chimpanzees dressed up as humans, but none for all the good things citizens were fighting for in one community after another. Using incisive visuals, satire, and withering criticism, the Cable CUB called for a student channel, a labor channel, a consumer channel, and a round-the-clock citizen action channel, for starters. "Yeah," people began saying, "that all makes sense. We don't have to be pandered to day after day. Why didn't we think of this ourselves? We just took what they gave us."
The Investor CUB was plowing new ground with gusto. Branding high-level CEOs "anti-capitalists" who set their own pay, rubberstamped by their handpicked board of directors, the CUB was all over the Securities and Exchange Commission to require large companies to put top executive pay to a proxy vote. With a membership of 400,000, and growing by the week, the Investor CUB was a new power player in Washington and on Wall Street, where it had another bustling office. Its advisory committee included former SEC commissioners and chief accountants, former stock exchange executives, prominent mutual fund founders turned reformers, an ex-governor, two ex-CEOs, several retired state regulatory officials, and most recently, Robert Monks. Some of these distinguished people had not previously distinguished themselves by putting steel behind their long-held conviction that something should be done about the farce the corporate chieftains unblushingly called "people's capitalism." Now they were turning their guilt complexes into action.
As the Investor CUB vigorously pursued a comprehensive corporate reform program in Congress or the SEC, as appropriate, stockholder approval of executive pay became the most urgent and distracting matter on the minds of CEOs and top executives. Stock-optioned to their gills, these big fish were having nightmares about the conflict inherent in opposing measures that were very bad for them but very good for the shareholders with whom they had a fiduciary relationship. The flight began. As the weeks produced more headlines, more CEOs cashed out their stock options, stashed their fat retirement packages under their arms, and headed for the door. "I'm Outta Here!" was the New York Post's front-page headline over a photo of corpulent CEO Dirk Desmond of Amalgamated Healthcare plunging through his office door. The photographer caught just the appropriate expression on his face, a mixture of fright and greed with a touch of leer.
In Omaha, scanning the major papers as he did every day, Warren came to Dirk Desmond and smiled. He grabbed a pair of scissors, cut the photograph out, stuck it in a frame, and hung it on the wall in his den, deciding that it would not contribute to the pictorial decorum of his business office. No sooner had he finished admiring his mischief than the phone rang.
"Warren, you won't believe who just called me!" Ted exclaimed without preamble. "It was one of my Billionaires Against Bullshit, not a particularly active one -- too busy working on his third billion -- until he started following the Health CUB's exposes of phony overbilling. For years he's been doing a slow boil about the coded bills he gets, can't understand them or double-check them or even get through to someone on the phone for an explanation. Now he wants to put twenty-five million behind a group that will do nothing but collect, expose, and prosecute computerized billing fraud, whether against Medicare, Medicaid, insurance companies, unions, or individuals. And if they do a good job, he says, there's another fifty million for an endowment. He expects that success will bring in more fee-generating cases under the False Claims Act, so that the group can expand its staff. He wants to call it Battle Bogus Bills, with a triple-B insignia. So how's that for another example of our serendipitous impact, Warren?"
"Perfect, Ted, just perfect. Have him call Promotions right away. We want an announcement sooner rather than later, because this is a blockbuster issue that everyone's angry and frustrated about."
Warren replaced the receiver and looked over at the wall. "It would appear that you resigned just in the nick of time, Dirk," he said, reflecting that once the rage for justice was widely seeded, once the capability to advance justice in one area of society after another was demonstrated, more and more people of means would come forward to expand the mission. That had been the Meliorists' premise all along. Goodwill, strategic smarts, and precise organization were preconditions, to be sure, but with these at the ready, it came down to money. Even the noblest impulses needed the engine of money to have a practical impact in today's dollar-driven culture. The dollar was the dynamo. Take that away from the Meliorist arsenal, all other variables in place, and they would still be a utopian discussion club perched high above the island of Maui.
Of all the CUBs, the one composed of 550,000 taxpayers and counting probably had the broadest ideological support. Who wanted to see their taxes wasted? Who didn't believe they were wasted? The network news programs had been hammering this point futilely but persistently for years in running segments like "It's Your Money." Expose after expose, and the corporate cheaters and bureaucratic bunglers just laughed at them, because nothing happened. Because the only ones who could make something happen were the people footing the bill, and they weren't organized. Until the Taxpayer CUB. Talented auditors, accountants, economists, organizers, and investigators flocked to the new group, some from inside government, corporations, and accounting firms, others who had retired early in disgust over what they had observed or were compelled to do. The Taxpayer CUB occupied an entire floor of the hotel.
Heading the group was Robert MacIntyre, a widely respected tax reformer who had crunched numbers for the media for more than three decades. He hadn't burned out, but he knew that accurate information and crisp disclosure were not enough to effect change. If anything, the tax code was now more unfair, more inscrutable, and more wasteful than when he started in the seventies. When the Taxpayer CUB came along, MacIntyre came alive. He arrived at his new job loaded with data about how the big companies and the wealthy get away with underpaying their taxes. He surveyed his members with a set of questions designed to get them thinking fundamentally about what kind of tax code they wanted. Would they favor a 0.5 percent tax on all stock, bond, and derivatives transactions if their income tax rate could be cut by 50 percent? Would they favor restoring the corporate income tax to its level in the prosperous sixties if the revenues would eliminate the current federal deficit each year? Would they favor a tax on pollution, gambling, and addictive products that would pay for a tax reduction of a third or more on incomes below $100,000? Would they prohibit government contracts, subsidies, and giveaways to any corporation domiciled in a foreign tax haven to avoid federal taxes? These questions and others like them gave the membership a framework for taking an informed position on how taxes should be distributed in a complex society so as to suppress certain less desirable activities while freeing positive activities from current tax burdens. For example, a tax on pollution would foster the use of cleaner fuel, solar energy, and fewer toxic chemicals and pesticides. Higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol would discourage consumption and benefit users' health, as had already been shown in the case of existing tobacco taxes and rates of cigarette smoking among youth.
Macintyre also zeroed in on the IRS budget, which allocated far too little to the corporate and partnership auditing sections, costing the Treasury Department tens of billions of dollars annually in uncollected tax revenues. Similarly, the IRS skimped on fair enforcement designs to recapture some $300 billion annually in unreported individual income. Imagine the prudent use of such monies for critical public works, or to repair schools and clinics, clean up the environment, protect people's health and pocketbooks, and establish educational trust funds for every young American. Imagine the concomitant creation of well-paying, useful jobs that could not be exported.
Macintyre had a broad practical vision, but he knew broad public education was needed to overcome deep vested interests in the current tax laws. What better place to start than House and Senate hearings on a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code? It took a few calls from the Meliorist powerhouse to the reluctant chairs and ranking members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, along with some timely help from the Double Z, before Congress finally agreed to hold hearings in July. The Taxpayer CUB was now deep in preparation, marshaling issues and witnesses never entertained on Capitol Hill before.
The Consumer CUB found its field of dreams in the slumbering federal regulatory agencies, which had forsaken their enforcement role to become patsies for the businesses and industries under their jurisdiction. In the seventies and eighties a hysterical propaganda barrage from the corporatists about the horrors of deregulation had rendered these agencies toothless. Lost in this farrago of deception were the men, women, and children left defenseless against dangerous products, toxic workplace chemicals, pollution, contaminated food, unprosecuted corporate fraud, and pension looting. Lost were the workers trapped in frozen-minimum-wage jobs and sub-minimum-wage sweatshops. Lost were the patients who died or suffered grievous harm in the absence of effective medical malpractice regulation. Lost were the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of this vast federal indifference. Who wept for these Americans?
The wave of formal petitions that had so alarmed the editors of Regulation magazine was now a torrent thanks to the Consumer CUB. Promotions set up a special team to publicize its work beyond the regular media attention it was receiving. The goal was to establish this CUB as a group that genuinely cared for the people, stood with them, and would not leave them defenseless at their hour of need. It was Promotions at its best, tapping into the emotional memory and intelligence of the populace. Everyone knew from their own experience of life that there were forces on their side and forces most definitely not. Skillfully, Promotions used human interest stories tailored to a variety of media to associate "They're on your side" and "They care for you" with the Consumer CUB in the public mind. Broadcasting and webcasting this message was a high priority for the months leading up to Election Day.
All told, the full-time staff of the CUBs now exceeded one thousand, almost doubling the entire full-time corps of citizen advocates in Washington. And probably, George thought to himself as he reviewed the figures, more than quadrupling energy levels, hours worked, and results achieved.
On Wednesday, June 21, Washington, DC, was host to its largest lunchtime rally yet, fifteen thousand strong, with a parade permit to march down Constitution Avenue all the way to the barricades before the Congress. Carried live by C- SPAN, the rally began in front of the new Department of Labor building, with a range of speakers including representatives of organized labor and unorganized labor, ordinary workers, clergy, social workers, academics, and four members of Congress. Among the no-shows, who had been invited a month ago, were the secretary of labor and five assistant secretaries, the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, the chairs of the House and Senate Labor Committees, and the president of the United States. The speakers invited them again, to another rally two weeks hence, when fifty thousand were expected to attend.
Today's event was the rally of the overworked and underpaid. Its pivotal demand was for legislation taking the minimum wage to $10 an hour gross. According to estimates by First-Stage Improvements, that would put about $350 billion a year more in the pockets of workers and give the consumer demand side of the economy a big boost. The posters held up by the crowd told the story: "Work to Live, Not to Borrow!" "American Wages, American Dignity!" "Try Living Without a Living Wage!" "No Living Wage, No More Congressional Pay Grabs!" "Workers Fight Your Wars, You Reap the Profits!" ''Workers' Needs vs. Corporate Profiteers!"
When the march was over, some of the ralliers went to visit their members of Congress. As Leonard's organizers well knew, most protest rallies in Washington took place on weekends, for obvious reasons of maximizing turnout. But on weekends the politicos left town and could easily shrug off the protests. Weekday rallies might be smaller, but they often had a greater impact because Congress and the press were at work.
A delegation from the Tennessee Congress Watchdogs, mostly textile workers, had wrangled a meeting with their senior senator, Majority Leader Tillman Frisk, who was making noises about running for president. He was an MD, and a millionaire many times over from his family business, which owned a chain of hospitals. When the workers were ushered into his office, he rose from his desk and greeted them warmly, asking them where they hailed from and managing a homey sentence or two about Johnson City, Nashville, Oak Ridge, Knoxville, Memphis, and so on. Pleasantries completed, the head of the delegation, Alvin York, got down to business.
"Senator, why haven't you introduced a living wage bill? I understand you always support an annual pay hike for yourself and the rest of Congress, but the minimum wage of five-fifteen an hour has only been raised once in the last eighteen years. According to the Department of Labor, it has less purchasing power than the minimum wage in 1949."
The senator was nodding deeply. "I understand, and I sympathize with your concerns."
"Then why are you opposed to a living wage, say, a ten-dollar minimum wage, which only adjusts for inflation since 1968?"
"Well, I'm no economist, but my top economic advisers and many other economists say that raising the minimum wage to anywhere near that level will cost jobs. The poor and the teenagers will suffer."
"By that logic, why not reduce the minimum wage to create more jobs? Do you see where you're going here -- the road to serfdom, meeting the Chinese competition? Senator, will you or will you not support a living wage? Your position will sway the entire Congress. Your support will uplift tens of millions of hardworking people who can't meet their family's needs. Health bills are shooting up, gas prices too, home heating oil, food, rent --"
The senator held up his hand. "You make some good points. Let me rethink the issue."
"You've had years to rethink it," said Bettie Page, a copyeditor at the Nashville Tennessean. "Are you trying to get us out of here without answering one simple question? Will you support any raise in the minimum wage?"
"I can't answer that question until I balance the job loss figures against the benefits of increased pay. What good is a living wage if you don't have any job at all, my dear?"
"We're going around in circles here, Senator," said Casey Jones. "How much do you make an hour? How much will you get in pension payments?"
Senator Frisk ahemmed. "Well, I've never figured it down to the hour. Good heavens, I must work eighty hours a week around here."
"Well, let me figure it out for you," Casey said. "Counting your perks, benefits, and allowances, you make over a thousand dollars a day, five days a week."
"My good friend, I'm not in this for the money. Do you know what I used to make for an open-heart surgery?"
"Our taxes give all of you up here a very good salary, life insurance, full health insurance, excellent retirement security, and on and on," said Flora Hamilton. "What makes you think you have the moral authority to govern when you deny forty-seven million full-time American workers a subsistence living wage? Haven't companies raised their prices big-time over the past two decades, Senator? Hasn't management's compensation gone up over the past two decades? I'm really getting tired of your evasions."
Senator Frisk sensed that the meeting was getting out of hand. "My dear, I'm not being evasive. This is a very difficult issue. We've had many small businesses tell us that raising the minimum wage will shut them down, and many larger ones claim that it will make them go abroad. I have a responsibility to address their concerns as well."
Alvin jumped back in. "Senator Frisk. you represent people, not corporations, unless I'm mistaken. People are hurting. Their children are hurting. America is being Wal-Marted to death. Your first responsibility is to the people. You're making some of the same arguments used against the abolition of child labor, but the Congress went ahead and abolished child labor, and the children went to school instead, and the factories had to hire their parents. Did our nation collapse?"
"Senator Frisk, remember Henry Ford I?" asked Archie Campbell, a firebrand from Chattanooga. "In January 1914, he announced to the world that he was going to double his workers' wages from $2.50 to $5.00 a day. When his fellow auto executives angrily demanded why he was destabilizing wages in the industry, he replied that he wanted workers to be able to afford his cars. Wages up, consumer demand up -- that was the American way until the eighties, when the reverse race to the bottom began. Lately I've been reading a lot about the history of wages in our country, and your response just doesn't wash."
A loud buzz pierced the room. Senator Frisk looked gratefully at his intercom and pushed the button. "You're wanted on the floor, Senator," his secretary announced. "Thank you, Dixie," he said, standing and smiling at the delegation. "Well, you heard the boss. It's been a delight to get your views, which I am sure are sincerely and deeply held. Don't forget to sign the guest book on your way out so we all can stay in touch."
Alvin stood too. "Senator Frisk, they say you're going to run for president. We've been trying to get an answer from you about a living wage for tens of millions of voters whose support you'll need. We've come all the way from our home state, your home state. We are entitled to a direct answer. Fifteen thousand people just rallied here in Washington to demand a ten-dollar minimum wage. We ask you again, do you support a living wage in this country? If not $10.00 an hour, would you back any raise at all, or do you support the current freeze at $5.15? Tell us now, one way or the other."
Senator Frisk walked briskly toward his office door. "My apologies, friends, but I have to rush to the Senate floor for a vote. Good day. God bless."
"Well, we'll still be here when you come back, Senator," Alvin said.
Archie got to his feet and gestured around the office. "And we're not leaving until we get an answer. There's plenty of rug room and sofas for a good night's sleep," he said with a friendly smile.
Senator Frisk blanched and stormed out of the office. Carefully closing the door, he turned to his secretary and said, "Call the sergeant at arms and have them escorted from the premises. Call me on the floor when they're gone."
Seven minutes later, four Capitol Hill police officers arrived at the senator's office and asked the workers to leave.
"Officers, we haven't finished our meeting with the senator," Alvin said. "We'll wait for him to get back from the floor."
'"I'm afraid you'll all have to leave, at the senator's request," said the captain.
"Probably best if we do," Bettie said, walking to the door. No one followed her. Outside, in the hallway, she slipped into a restroom and called Congress Watchdog headquarters on her cell phone so they could alert the media that a confrontation was brewing in Senator Frisk's office. "It looks like things are heading for a sit-in," she said. "We'll wait as long as we can before we drop to the floor so the press will have time to get up here."
"Hang on," said the assistant who'd answered the phone. "I'll put you through to the project manager."
"What?" the manager said after Bettie explained the situation. "Are you crazy? If you get arrested, they'll book you at the police station and ask you all kinds of questions that we may not want you to answer. Not yet, anyhow. Look, all of you are workers, but we know and you know that you have skills and experience that go beyond your jobs. You've all participated in citizen action and taken civil disobedience training. You've all been vocal in your communities on a wide variety of matters. That's why you were drawn to the Watchdog groups. That's why you were chosen to go up to Capitol Hill. A sit-in at Frisk's office would throw us on the defensive, and that violates our cardinal rule: Never volunteer yourself into a defensive position."
"Well, what do you want us to do?"
"Above all, stay calm. Say that you're waiting for the senator to return so that he can decide. Just keep repeating, 'Let the senator decide.'"
"He already has, and we already said we're not leaving."
"'We' who? Who said that?"
"Archie. He mentioned the comfortable couches and all the rug space."
"Only Alvin has the authority to make such a drastic decision. Did he try to override Archie?"
"He didn't have a chance, because Senator Frisk left. He seemed a little upset."
"Do you remember the code phrase for backing off from a confrontation, Bettie?"
"Well, get back there and use it before all hell breaks loose!"
Bettie rushed down the hallway to the senator's office to find the workers remonstrating with the increasingly impatient officers. The police had already decided that the workers would have to be dragged out, but they were waiting for reinforcements to be on the safe side.
"Why can't we all be civil with one another?" Bettie shouted over the hubbub.
Everyone froze, the police startled by her return, the workers catching the code that meant they should leave peacefully just before they were arrested and make the most out of the press coverage that was on the way.
"Aw, hell, she's right," Alvin said in his best down-home drawl. "Us Volunteer Staters tend to get ourselves a little too worked up sometimes. Say, any of y'all from Tennessee?" Whereupon the police and the workers fell into friendly small talk -- one of the officers had attended Middle Tennessee State, and another was born in Nashville -- which served both sides, since the police were waiting for reinforcements and the workers were waiting for the press.
As it happened, the reinforcements and the press arrived at the same time. The senator's secretary asked the press to stay in the hallway and ushered the police into the office, where the two sides faced off.
Alvin broke the tense silence. "We aim to wait for the senator to return. It's the natural thing for constituents to want to do. We'd like to bring our discussion of the living wage to closure. I mean, what do you expect us to say to the reporters outside if we don't see him again?"
"Senator Frisk will be on the floor for several hours for a lengthy debate on an appropriations bill," the captain said. "You'll have to leave now."
"You're sure that's what Senator Frisk wants? Okay, we're going. Nice to meet you, Captain, you're a gentleman."
Out in the hall, the workers were besieged by reporters. Alvin gave a mini press conference facing six cameras: "Senator Frisk, majority leader of the Senate and a prospective presidential candidate, refused to answer the simple question vitally important to forty-seven million full-time American workers: Will you support legislation for a living wage and lead it through the Senate?" The other workers got their say in with their own variations and some great sound bites, and then strode down the hallway together, with cameramen trailing them for the usual cutaways. As the elevator doors closed, Alvin, Archie, and Bettie raised their fists.
Watching the news that evening at home in Waco, Bernard turned to his wife, Audre, and said, "The pitchfork people have breached the gates of the cowardarians. The Rubicon has been crossed."
June 26 arrived. When Lobo was ushered into the Leviathan penthouse boardroom, the first thing he noticed was that the number of CEOs had more than doubled, to nearly thirty. What massive industrial, commercial, and financial power was represented around this burnished mahogany conference table! Lobo was impressed but didn't show it. He had to assume a commanding presence at the outset.
CEO Cumbersome made the necessary introductions crisply. "You may commence, Lobo," he then intoned. "The floor is yours."
Lobo stood at the end of the table facing them all. "Gentlemen, if there is one reality I have grasped in my work since our last meeting, it is this. Nothing that I convey to you as to how, when, and where to mobilize will be as important as the intensity and depth of your individual and collective determination. Why? Because that is how the SROs have brought us to this pass of erupting crisis. Permit me to ask how many of you have read John Gardner's On Leadership, a hundred and ninety-nine pages of paperback dynamite."
Three of the original eleven business tycoons raised their hands. One who did not, William Worldweight, CEO of the largest machine tool and robotics manufacturer in the world, grumbled, "Lobo, we are already leaders by definition. You're treating us like students."
"Sir, this book presents a treatment of leadership far beyond what it takes to rise to the top in a large corporation, although there is some overlap. It's a historical overview of the leadership traits pervasive throughout the ages and cultures. Just scan the table of contents and you'll see what I mean. You'll never view yourself in the same way again. If you dive into what Gardner has to say, you'll come up far more ready to defeat this current assault on the American business way of life."
Newcomer Norman Noondark lifted his heavy lids and asked, "Why didn't you provide us with an executive summary Lobo? We're busy people."
"Mr. Noondark, the entire book is a summary, and a very concise one, of twenty-five years of thinking, reading, and writing about the subject of leadership. Surely Gardner is worth a few hours of your time. I won't belabor the subject, other than to repeat that for the task at hand, the bottom line is all of you."
"I found Gardner's book to be philosophically and operationally motivating," said Wardman Wise, trying to get the meeting back on track. "I'm sure my colleagues will turn to it as soon as possible. Please continue."
"Thank you. You have before you my dispatch of June twenty-first. Before we discuss it, a caveat: in everything we undertake, there must be no false starts, no worthless detours, no dead-ends, no matter how plausible they may appear. There is no time for such diversions. Now, the core battlefield, as I said, is the Congress. Our friends on the Hill tell us there is furious activity up there. The raft of bills we expect soon are of the kind we are accustomed to opposing. But first things first. We must launch a national media attack on the SROs by tapping into people's fear of instability, of the unknown, of losing whatever little they now have economically. We raise the specter of soaring taxes, corporate flight, spreading unemployment and impoverishment, and then we say something along the lines of 'But the SROs don't care, do they? They're old, they're super-rich, they don't have to worry about the future.' We'll use Sol Price's attack on Wal-Mart to drive this theme home with dramatizations featuring everyday folks -- remember Harry and Louise and what they did to healthcare reform? The fear campaign must embrace the business community as well. If stock markets falter, if economic indicators become shaky, if business and consumer confidence begins to decline, so much the better in the short run. In the seventies, the popular Labor prime minister of Australia was literally fired by the Queen of England's representative -- a reserve power never used before -- because the business bloc saturated the country with scare stories about economic instability. A few well-timed announcements from foreign companies that they were pulling back investments Down Under, and the rest was history. The same tactic has worked in many less developed countries, but its success in Australia shows how feasible it is here. Already we've seen stories about European and Japanese CEOs wondering what's happening to the business climate in the world's largest economy. A rebellion of the super-rich against big business is beyond their comprehension. Some commentators in the foreign press have suggested that their governments shift away from the dollar and look at other countries' bonds instead of pouring so much into US Treasuries. Just imagine what would happen if the Japanese and Chinese started selling their Treasuries. It's been giving Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce nightmares. Instability? Uncertainty? Unpredictability? These are poison darts into the heart of their dominance. It's our job to make them see that we can catch the darts in midair and throw them back."
CEO Justin Jeremiad frowned. "You are aware, of course, Mr. Lobo, of the detailed alert sent out by our friends at the American Enterprise Institute regarding the sudden surge of regulatory petitions. If we are to launch any public relations drive, I should think it would be on the subject of overregulation stifling innovation and breeding more paperwork, more big government. That's what the SROs want -- the iron yoke of Big Government on our back."
"Exactly, Mr. Jeremiad, exactly the way to go. Yes, I'm very well aware of the AEI alert, and it's wonderful grist for our fear mill. At this point, we needn't go into detail about the content of the first-stage media buys to delegitimize those obsolete businessmen. Suffice it to say that my teams are ready and raring to go. My dispatch outlines the parallel paths that must be pursued on a strict timetable. My structure of action allows for adaptation and expansion as we detect and foil SRO initiatives. And as my people move into their groups at various levels, we'll be finding out more and more earlier and earlier. But the central question remains, gentlemen. What resources, material and human, are you yourselves prepared to commit?"
CEO Cumbersome looked around the table. "We have collectively committed to giving and raising two billion dollars for the immediate revving up of the engines -- an unprecedented sum from us, unencumbered by corporate governance and SEC rules. Obviously, this is not a blank check. We will assign three of our best staff to work with you on a daily basis to assure the efficient flow of money to your operation and then out of your operation into the fields of action. More money will flow when the attacks by the SROs present a clear and present danger to specific industries. Then we will be able to tap into corporate funds, but to what extent I can't say. Remember, the trade associations will be issuing a barrage of frantic alerts and dunning their member companies, as is their wont.
"Now, as for our personal involvement, that's a tricky proposition. You are looking for a dramatic mano-a-mano confrontation on the media front lines. You want us to pair off against men like Joe Jamail and Warren Buffet and Bernard Rapoport and Peter Lewis and George Soros. Fine, but any one of us who goes up against them will have to clear some hurdles. First, he will have to be a publicly visible executive, or at least well known to the business press. Second, his debate skills must be up to his opponent's. Third, he will have to take an indefinite leave of absence. Fourth, he will need a gut sense of the mortal danger to the unfettered marketplace and our economic way of life. Tell me, Lobo, how many CEOs will make it to the finish line?"
"You tell me, Jasper."
"From the top rank, I can think of three, possibly four. We've had some volunteers from start-up companies, Silicon Valley types, youngish, angry, brash, supremely self-confident. We're not sure they're sufficiently well known or sufficiently seasoned, and we worry about the image factor -- young brutes beating up on distinguished old retirees who are already folk heroes. You know the media, Lobo."
"Well, it's a problem only you can solve, I'm afraid. Perhaps more calls, interviews, and personal contacts will bring some leaders forward. Try to raise their sights. Give them a sense of their historical significance if they enlist in ... We need a brand name here -- in what?"
"Yes," said CEO Edward Edifice, "our cause needs a memorable name that goes beyond the usual Chamber of Commerce cliches about free enterprise, beyond the usual tired slogans like 'Defense of the American Worker' or 'Defense of the American Way of Life.' How about 'Enlist in the Defense of the Greatest Economy in the History of the World'? That's general enough, and at the same time hits lots of specific buttons for lots of people."
"I like it, I like it very much," said CEO Roland Revelie.
Lobo did his best to assume an appreciative look. If this was their idea of a motivational catchphrase, things were worse than he thought. "I like it too, but on a matter of such import, perhaps we should retain a good PR firm to give us a few more options?"
"Let's do that," CEO Martin Mazurowski said gruffly, "and let's get back to brass tacks. A mentor of mine, at the time CEO of Coca-Cola, once told me that big business appears invincible but is in reality very fragile and can easily shatter under certain pressures. We have to be very careful here. How are we going to feint destabilizing the economy and then accuse the SROs of doing just that? You suggest we bring down the stock market a bit, as if we could control whether it goes out of control in a panic. I find some of the tactics you've proposed highly dangerous in execution, Lobo, and possibly illegal. I was trained as an engineer, and a basic principle of engineering is to keep it simple. Let's have some plain talk. Let's declare straight out why we don't think this is good for the country, folks, and don't you agree? Two billion dollars can do a lot or do us in. Let's be sure we don't have more money than brains."
"I agree only to the extent that we're mostly flying blind right now," Lobo said. "The prizefighters are circling each other and haven't yet clinched. But our opponent has been in training for months now, whereas we're surrounded by all these powerful trade associations, business groups, dealer organizations, big banks, big insurance companies, big HMOs, big this and big that, and for this big battle, they're flabby, out of shape, complacent, unready, not thinking outside the proverbial box, and not even aware of how off balance they are. By contrast, those of us in this room feel the danger keenly. We know a great deal about the SROs and will know more every day. We have a vastly greater sense of personal commitment and urgency, and we must turn everything we have into a crowbar to pry the sleeping giants into action.
"Look," Lobo went on, his voice rising, "it's true that we can't be reckless and precipitous, but it's finito if we're too cautious. America is the land of the bold and the brave. That's what has marked the breakthroughs and victories in our pioneering country and its expanding free market economy. Our nation has the great eagle as its symbol, not the pigeon or the robin. The great eagle kills its prey and eats it. It takes no prisoners. Haven't we all sung 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'? Don't we need a 'terrible swift sword'? When we first met, I began by asking you what you don't want me to do. It's time for an answer. I have to know how far I can go to win, to defeat these superannuated troublemakers who should be playing checkers or shuffling on the golf course."
CEO Cumbersome responded without hesitation. "Take it to the outer edges of the legal limits, but stay within those limits. Stay in close consultation with your legal counsel. Anything further?"
"I think more talk at this point will only confuse us," said Wardman Wise. "In Lobo, we have an offensive weapon with sonar and heat-seeking capabilities, and soon we'll discover where and when and how to zero in on the forces of disruption. Lobo, we must have good internal communications. You'll need to create a closed-circuit system so that we can safely contact each other and you. You'll keep us regularly informed about what you're doing, and we'll do the same as we work on lining our peers up to contribute their money, influence, and time. And I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready for some dinner now. The hotel dining room is superb."
"Hear, hear!" swept around the table. Lobo was hungry too, but how could they be thinking about their stomachs at a time like this, especially after his impassioned peroration?
Just as Cumbersome was about to adjourn the meeting, Sal Belligerante spoke up. "A passage in John Gardner's book is appropriate here, in case we're ever tempted to exchange the mantle of leadership for the shroud of despair. I quote: 'Leaders cannot hope to have that kind of impact unless they themselves have a high level of morale. There is a famous story about a general on George C. Marshall's staff who reported to Marshall that some of the officers had morale problems. Marshall said, "Officers don't have morale problems. Officers cure morale problems in others. No one is looking after my morale." It is a sound principle. Low morale is unbecoming to a leader.'" Belligerante looked up and smiled as he finished reading.
Lobo smiled back. Perhaps there was hope after all.