Thursday, July 06, 2006


A Greek tragedy played out for the zillionth time

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
- Mark 8:36

It appears Ken Lay pulled off the ultimate prison escape yesterday.

You'd think I would have danced a jig in delight. Ding dong, the witch is dead. Or maybe I should have been outraged that he didn't get the punishment many of us feel he deserved. After all, here was public enemy No. 1 for us liberals, the poster boy for everything wrong with corporate America and our money-dominated political system. I rejoiced when he was convicted. I guffawed heartily the other day when I received this month's Texas Monthly magazine in the mail and saw the small tag on the cover teasing, "Kenny Boy Gets His." In fact, we watched "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," just last week (As Netflix subscribers we're quite slow in getting to the latest movies). I watched the documentary with great satisfaction, knowing what I thought was the ultimate outcome, that Kenny Boy was indeed getting his. Obviously, I had no idea at the time what the ultimate outcome would be.

But instead of feeling outraged or thrilled, I just feel kind of sad. I actually do feel sorry for Ken Lay. You know us liberals, how we feel sorry for the worst criminals and always seek to understand those who do terrible things. And look at the terrible things Lay and his minions did. There's the 2001 California power crisis, originally blamed by conservatives on state authorities, but in retrospect clearly the work of Enron trading floor warriors who sought to kidnap every last watt from the state as some sort of twisted ransom scheme. Imagine the essential services and commerce disrupted to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. And we can't forget all those employees who stood by helplessly watching their frozen retirement funds drain away like the California power grid while Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow were cashing in secretly on their own investments to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Some conservatives say these rank-and-file workers got what they deserved for their alleged greed, but most of us in middle class America have more empathy than that. There but for the grace of God, we say.

So goshdarnit, why do I feel bad for this guy? I suppose because sometimes it's not fun at all to see someone get his or her just desserts. And I have no doubt that Ken Lay saw himself as a decent guy. I'm sure he honestly saw himself as some sort of visionary out to reinvent American business, a John D. Rockefeller for our times. He was known for his personal generosity, dispensing millions from his own assets for causes I'm sure were worthy. Like me, he belonged to a United Methodist church, so I assume that in his heart he felt he was a good Christian. And perhaps God agrees. His friends all were quoted in this morning's paper, describing lay as a good friend and gave many examples of his personal magnaminity. Who am I to argue?

So how do we reconcile these conflicting pictures of personal generosity and corporate callousness in the very same individual? It seems that the first answer is a matter of compartmentalization, that phenomenon allowing people to act as bastards in the workplace and act as dear friends, parents and otherwise generous souls away from the workplace. There's a line between work life and private life, the compartmentalized soul says, and the two can be kept separate. You've probably worked with - or more likely worked for - one of these people. You couldn't stand being around him, but were shocked to learn what a kind, decent soul he becomes when he goes home from the office. Or perhaps you've been good friends or gone to church with someone like this. You think she's an example of true Christian kindness and charity, and later you're crestfallen to learn that perhaps she mistreats her employees or behaves unethically on the job. There in a nutshell lies the essence of Ken Lay's character.

Lay was also a greedy and arrogant man. He craved money and power more than anything else, certainly more than any sense of ethics or decency could rein in. He labored under a long history and personal track record of winking at gross ethical violations and even outright crookedness. Hear no evil, see no evil, Lay seemed to say. Be sure you're making me lots of money, but please don't tell me what you're doing to earn it. This affected ignorance allowed Lay to plead that he knew nothing of what Skilling and Fastow were up to, yet of course he knew damn well the whole time. Ultimately, his tolerance for malfeasance and the increasing belief in his own corporate divinity led to his downfall.

So Lay never will go to prison. Still, he paid dearly. His fall from the uppper echelons of Houston's power elite must have been unbearable. To watch the corporate empire he built himself crumble into dust must have been the ultimate punishment. And for such a man who thirsted for acclaim to see his name and image loathed by the American public, it must have just killed him worse than any heart attack.

So Kenny Boy really did get his, after all. It's a timeless Greek tragedy. Apparently, the Athenians had a few Kenny Boys over 2,000 years ago. Clearly, Ken Lay was alive and well in Shakespeare's day. And because the arrogant and power hungry learn nothing from history, the tragedy will continue to repeat itself over and over again into perpetuity.

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