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The Impromptu Meeting
walked in my office and gently closed the door behind him. He approached my desk, cautiously rolled back
one visitor’s chair and sat down. For
the year-and-a-half since he promoted me to assistant-controller, I could not
recall a single instance when he had done that. Typically, he would stop at the door to exchange
greetings or make a request, and leave shortly thereafter. “Something
must have gone awry,” I thought, struggling to keep my composure amidst the
heavy thumping of my chest. I stared at
him intently, anticipating some unpleasant news. He responded with a facial expression
that looked like a cross between a grimace and a smile–yet not a word. I managed to crack a smile so as to reassure
him. It must have come across as
contrived, judging by his puzzled look.
He pulled up closer, laid his wrists on the desk, and reverted to a
grave expression–speechless, still. “Words are not easy to come by in situations
like this; they always fall short, never sound right,” I reasoned. I tried
to scrutinize his demeanor for clues. Nothing
much, safe for a hardly discernible frown…
“Get on with it, Pal,” I urged
him on from within, a bit annoyed by what I perceived to be theatrics to drive the
drama to its climax—as was often the case before the “executioner” swooshed
down the axe of unemployment. Truth be told, Stefan never struck me as the type
to indulge in such theatrics. But that
he would not utter a word left me no choice but to entertain those unsavory
thoughts. I surveyed my desk and its
perimeter for a sense of what I would leave behind. Quite a mess:
ledger printout binders strewn on the floor; in-and-out tray reeling
under correspondence of all sorts; stacks of checks and purchase orders
awaiting signature amidst bulky file folders claiming the lion’s share of desk
space; and at the upper right corner of this cramped real estate, insulated
from that insanity, my family picture–“the first family” as one of my
colleagues dubbed it—looked on. I took
an oblique peek at the jolly faces, as a sort of reality check. I visualized their incredulous
reactions. This thought, in itself, sent
a chill down my spine. With this in mind,
I summoned a resolute gaze and directed it at Stefan. His face took on a somber
expression as if some ailment was gnawing at him. This awkward moment was in sharp contrastHHhHhhhhhhhhhhhhjjjj with an encounter
we had a couple of hours earlier, when we bantered about the weather, sports,
and the like. Nothing prepared me for this
drastic change, for this silence—a silence that felt an eternity long and a ton
heavy. Well, enough of the drama! I
scratched my throat. Stefan heeded the cue.
As if he finally came to terms with himself, he raised his head, looked
me straight in the eye, and decided to cut to the chase.
“Well, I came
in to let you know that today is my last day with the company.”
it’s fair that you hear it from me,” he said.
you…” He did not give me a chance to
finish my thought.
things haven’t been working out lately.”
say we’ve had differences about the direction we are going in, about some
strategic issues, you know,” he said hesitantly, in an obvious effort not to
divulge any sensitive information.
was sort of riding against the tide. You
know, I thought certain things could have been done differently,” he continues,
still carefully choosing his words. “Obviously,
it didn’t work out… Anyway, I had to let
you know because you report to me and, as you know, I have a great deal of
respect for you.”
“Well, thank you for that. And I want you to know that I truly appreciate
the opportunities you gave me and the doors you opened for me.”
Another awkward silence fell between us. I felt some guilt
for having misjudged him. I had it so wrong that I felt ashamed of my
characterization of his visit.
“Sorry, Stefan,” I muttered. Clutching the arms of the chair, he slowly
rose. “What are you going to do?” I
know yet,” he replied. “For sure I’ve
got to look for another job. It does
feel awkward; I’ve never been in this situation before,” he added “The toughest
thing for me is…”
As Stefan let out his concerns, I
could not help looking back at our itinerary over the past four years.
Back to the Beginning
I preceded Stefan
at the company by about six months. I
was brought in by his predecessor as a temporary financial
analyst/accountant. At that time, I was
working for a New York placement firm, whose clientele figured among the
prestigious Fortune 500. Due to my track
record, the firm considered me a good candidate for long-term assignments. So, when this second-tiered affiliate of a
powerful leverage buyout company was in need of an accountant to help with a variety
of tasks ranging from account reconciliations to systems conversion, the agency
deemed that my skillset matched up well with the assignment and recommended me.
On a September
Monday morning, I showed up at the direct marketing professional book club
company and met Bobby W.–a red-haired, medium-built middle-aged man with a
small hunch. He greeted me with a wide
but short-lived grin and walked me to his office, palming en route his fancy
sax-shaped pipe in his left hand. His mahogany-stained
desk was clean and hosted a folder facing his chair. We sat for the opening
conversation. He lit his pipe (we were
then light-years away from the smoking ban); he dragged the folder closer and
opened it. It was empty. He apologized for not finding the resume that
the placement firm had faxed him. I
tendered him the extra one I was advised to bring with me, just in case… This event, coupled with his tiny eyes
shielded by silver-rimmed spectacles, conveyed the image of an absent-minded
professor more than that of a controller.
For about half-an-hour, he discussed the nature of the assignment and
what he expected of me. To start with, he
tasked me with the reconciliation of payroll accounts, which had been a
conundrum for his office. He did not
have a payroll subsidiary system that could interface with the general ledger. Payroll entries were processed manually and
posted to the mainframe system. These entries were input pell-mell into the
general ledger visibly by an inept or a hasty hand, and caused the financial
statements to be misstated. My task was
to help the payroll manager, Rosalind H., analyze the entries and make remedial
adjustments. Bobbie W. wanted the
clean-up done by year-end so that the financials would not be skewed and the
new financial systems could start off with a clean slate.
When I was
one month into the project, Bobby W. hired Enrique R. to oversee the implementation
of the new financial systems. Till then,
the company’s systems of record consisted of a mainframe computer named
Cullinet. Mainframe computers by the
early 1990’s were falling out of fashion, for they were bulky, slow, and had
many limited functionalities. Cullinet
had run its course. It was time for an
upgrade and an opportunity to cash in on the promises of the new computer age,
characterized by smaller and more efficient operating systems, more flexible
software applications. The company
elected to migrate from Cullinet to MAS90, a new wave Windows-based financial application.
Enrique was to ensure the migration. For
some reason, that news was never made public.
More out of absent-mindedness than malice, I surmised, Bobby failed to
fulfill the formality of introducing the new hire to the staff. Regardless of the motive, this breach of
decorum did not sit well with Enrique. After
all, he needed an introduction.
Standing four-foot-something, the baby-faced Napoleon-like Enrique looked more
like an intern on a filing assignment than the project manager whose mission was
to usher in a new technological era in the company, to transition the office to
Windows-based operating systems, and to efficiently manage the month-end close
and reporting processes—an enormous undertaking. He was
not ready to discard the thought that Bobby intentionally down-played his
coming on board. As he recalled, Bobby
seemed the least impressed, among the interviewers, with his credentials. True, he would not bring in heavy hands-on
experience in systems implementation; he never pretended so. He had a knack for systems, kept abreast of
the rapid development in that area, and had enough theoretical and hands-on knowledge
to hold his own in dealing with experts in the field. Rather, he was trained as an accountant at
some small publishing firm he had been with since high school. There he grew under the tutelage of an
experienced accountant, whom he credited with instilling in him a keen interest
in accounting, with sharpening his skills at balancing books and reconciling
accounts—which, ultimately, influenced his decision to seek an accounting major
in college. He was an accountant who
dreamt of becoming someday a certified systems engineer. As noble a pursuit as it sounded, this was
not about to make Bobby W. swoon. A
certified public accountant (CPA) with many years of experience, he has seen
better credentialed candidates in his career.
So, from that point on, Enrique figured that he has to prove his worth
to his new boss.
It took me
about six weeks to help straighten out the payroll project. Bobby assigned me next to the Royalties
section to lend Irina E. a hand with the reconciliation of the royalty accounts. Royalties played an important role in the
book club line of business. At its core
were intricate contractual and accounting issues between authors and publishing
companies, made even more challenging by advance payments to authors. On a quarterly basis, the accounts had to be
reconciled so that the company’s liabilities could be assessed and royalty
statements and payments issued accordingly.
Yet again, there was no subsidiary software to feed the data to the
general ledger or to the accounts payable module. Suffice to say that it was another laborious
process, which resulted in stacks of written up journal entries to be keyed
into Cullinet. Irina, who was still
quite young and enrolled part-time in a Bachelor’s program at the City
University of New York, had been entrusted with this important job for a number
of years, with temporary help at peak times. Before I could put a dent into
this project, Bobby directed me to
assist Enrique with the systems conversion, as year-end was approaching.
joined Enrique, two consultants from the software company were on hand to
support his endeavor: the portly and bushy-mustachioed Andy G.—the bon vivant type; and the younger,
slender and relatively tall Andy S.—the all-business type. They complemented each other, in that one
concentrated on the mechanics of the conversion, while the other dealt mostly
with security and server issues. This
collaboration, which started under the best auspices judging by the chemistry
that was developing among the three, was suddenly curtailed when Andy G. succumbed
to a heart attack after tennis practice.
He was forty-three. He would not
be replaced. Enrique lobbied for support
staff to help him with some of the menial tasks. Bobby assigned Christie T., a secretary/clerk
who had been supporting the accounting office for the past decade or so. She was the uninhibited type, whose specialty
was to shoot off her mouth—which brought her a large share of trouble. However, her undiplomatic style was the least
of Enrique’s concerns; they bonded instantly.
Good Bye, Bobby W.
signs of malaise between Bobby W. and Enrique surfaced. The latter did not feel that his boss understood
the intricacies of the task at hand, while at the same time he was trying to
micromanage him. Politically astute for
his young age, Enrique managed to have the ears of the vice-president of
Operations, Den C., the brain trust of the company, and of the CFO, Sammie B.,
a mild-mannered and very affable man with a ready smile. He interviewed with them as well for his
position and left an indelible impression on them. When he came onboard, his ability to shine in
meetings had further won them over. He
judiciously leveraged this relationship to navigate the political waters in the
firm… Bobby, however, could not parallel
such success. In fact, Den and Sammy
grew disenchanted with him. This
association abruptly ended when a month-end close went awry. At this point, I will open a parenthesis to
explain some accounting terms, such as accruals, month cut-off, late bills, and
month-end close. Accruals are transactions–e.g.,
supplies purchased, professional services rendered, salaries due– that have been
incurred for a particular period, but not paid by the end of that period. Under the accrual basis accounting method, a
company recognizes such expenses in the accounting period in which they are
incurred so as not to overstate its net income.
(Most corporations elect to use the accrual basis accounting method as
opposed to the cash basis, under which transactions are recognized when cash
actually changes hands.) Secondly, month cut-off is a mechanism that large corporations
use to facilitate timely completion of their consolidated financial statements;
the cut-off is a few days shy of the end of the month. For instance, the cut-off for the month of January
could be January 24th because January 31st would make it
impossible for the parent company to close its books in a timely manner and publish
its consolidated financial statements on time for the month of January. In that
light, the month of January would run from December 25th to January
24th. The cut-off would apply
to revenues as well. Under the matching
principle, all expenses applicable to a period must be recognized against the
revenues earned for that period. Thirdly,
late bills–a terminology peculiar to this company– consisted of vendor
invoices the dates of which fell within the reporting period, and which were
received after the cut-off. For
instance, January late bills would be made of invoices dated December 25th
through January 24th and received after the cut-off. The Accounts Payable department was to total
the amounts due for these invoices and communicate the total to the
Accounting department. The total was
then recognized (accrued) as January “late bills” accrual via manual journal
entries, otherwise January expenses would be understated and income overstated. The intent was to reverse the “late bills” in
February, via another manual journal entry, otherwise February’s expenses would
be overstated and net income understated. Lastly, month-end close is the
process involved in ensuring that the various accounting books (ledgers) are
properly closed out, i.e., reflect all transactions pertinent to a period. This background having been set, let’s go
back to Bobby W.’s dismissal. It
happened during an October month-end close.
The September late bill journal entry was not manually reversed in
October. As those late invoices were actually
keyed into the Cullinet during the month of October (September 25th-October
24th), it was important that the reversing journal entry, likewise, take
place in October to avoid duplication of these expenses: through the September manual journal entry,
those bills were recognized in September; then, through the system, they were
recognized a second time in October. Late
bills were a burden to contend with month in month out, especially in an
environment where system limitations could not help with an automated reversal
process. And Bobby W. did not have a
fail-safe procedure to deal with them; apparently, he did not even have a
month-end close checklist. As the bills
tended to be of material size, net income for October plunged against all
expectations. This was a big deal. This could not have come at a more
inopportune time, precisely when the parent company was trying to establish a
solid track record in preparation for “going public.” Thankfully, the 250-pound Den C., posing as a
quality control linebacker, spotted the error.
He was skeptical of the “worse-than-expected” results and sifted through
the records. He saved the firm the
embarrassment of having to revise incorrect financial statements submitted to
the headquarters. That this error slipped by, unnoticed by Bobby W., smacked of
incompetence in the eyes of senior management. He was summarily sacked.
dismissal did not trigger widespread consternation. He did not have an army of backers ready to
come to his rescue. In fact, one would
be hard-pressed to find anybody sympathetic to him or chagrined by his
departure. The ladies were the most
ardent cheerleaders of his demise. Stories
abounded about how uncomfortable he had made them feel. He was rumored to display lewd behaviors in
their presence or around their cubicles.
Some insinuated that, when he had his hand in his pant pockets, his fingers
were not actually counting his change; rather they were roaming his sub-abdominal
ravines and valleys, toying with his precious limb. One who deemed this depiction a bit
exaggerated and found Bobby some attenuating circumstances was harshly rebuked.
“Well, if he’s
not comfortable in his briefs, why doesn’t he wear boxers then?” thundered loud-mouth
Christie indignantly, visibly annoyed by that lone dissenting view.
Suffice to say that Bobby W.’s
journey was an uphill battle on many fronts.
But one could never tell from his demeanor the storms he was faced
with. Though his empty gaze at times
suggested something was eating at him, he strove to dispel any notion that
things were not going well for him. To
the usual “How are you?” he invariably responded “Never better!”—which came out
like a well-rehearsed refrain.
news of Bobby W.’s dismissal reached him, Enrique was not the least surprised. He saw it coming, he said. He could not help feeling somewhat
validated. He had called Bobby W. out on
a number of occasions and felt he was not up to the task. Despite his experience as a CPA, Bobby W.
could never reach cruise speed at the company; the publishing/direct mail
industry tested his ability to adapt to a new industry and served him what
amounted to be an insurmountable challenge.
Now that his boss was gone,
Enrique could strengthen his position. Now
was the time to back up his astute political maneuvering with palpable
deliverables. His challenge was to transition
seamlessly from Cullinet to MAS-90. He
figured that the two of us, with the technical help of the consultant, Andy S.,
and Christie, should be able to establish the structures and procedures to run
a successful parallel between the two systems and charter a new technological
course for the company.
Enrique charted out the project
schedule with target dates and milestones.
My initial assignment was to set up the chart of accounts, define rule
codes for the types of accounts, and enter the budget data. Then, I had to create the financial reporting
package, which consisted of dozens of reports from profit and loss (P&L) statements
and cash flow to balance sheet and supporting schedules, and an array of
departmental reports for the major product lines. Enrique was to design the account structure, set
up the security features, parameters and attributes, and uploaded the
reconciled account balances and cumulative activity. He insisted on personally taking care of the
accounts payable (A/P) conversion. (He
always had a soft spot for A/P; I supposed it reminded him of his days at the
small publishing company.) The two of us occupied an office and spent a great
deal of time pouring over the systems manuals to make headway with our
respective tasks, meet milestones, deliverables, deadlines, what have you. It all had to be done in time for submission
of the first quarter financial statements to the parent company, in just about
three months’ time. Above all, the systems’
parallel presented a most serious challenge.
On the one hand, it meant duplicate tasks for the staff, as they had to
process the same transactions separately on the two systems. This created a sort of malaise, a suspicion that
all this was not just a makeover of the financial systems but part of a
strategy to achieve economies, which eventually would cost them their jobs. How cynical of Management, they must have
thought. Yet, as unpopular as the conversion could be, the staff felt it was
unwise to antagonize Enrique, whose star was rising. On the second hand, we had to produce MAS-90
financial statements that tied into Cullinet.
gave Enrique the free hand he longed for. They had no choice. Except Den C., they were not versed in, nor
did they care about, the intricate world of systems parameters, identifiers, attributes,
etc. They cared about results. Enrique knew it as well and made sure he kept
them abreast of the developments via regular meetings or briefings. We achieved some notable progress along the
way, such as a trial balance that tied into Cullinet’s. It was all well and good but, to senior
management, it was still a long way from the more palpable and palatable profit
and loss statement (P&L), the ultimate avatar of success by which they
could gauge the bottom line. This was the
thrust of my assignment: designing the
company’s financial statement package starting with the P&L. Such a task was all the more challenging that
there was no canned report that we could customize. We had to create a template from scratch and model
it upon the Cullinet P&L. Two months
into the conversion, the parallel was a painstakingly slow-moving, elusive and
frustrating process. Two weeks from the
deadline, the P&L was still in an embryonic stage. I did manage to bring some data into specific
lines of the statement, but the challenge was to make formulas, such as gross
and net margins, percent-of-sales calculations, and variances versus budget and
prior period, work and print out. Down to the final week, I worked on the
template with much frenzy and excitement–frenzy caused by the pressure to
deliver and excitement brought by the creation process. Yet, the excitement was tempered by the
realization that a lot was riding on the success of the conversion and that not
delivering it would be a death sentence for many people, including Enrique and
myself. D-day was a Friday. The
night before, I broke through with the formulas, safe for the variances, which
calculated backwards. It was late into
the evening; we decided to call it a day.
We had one more day to get it right.
We came in early that Friday. Enrique
reviewed his project management checklist; everything was pretty much on
schedule. Andy S., the consultant, had
been on hand all week long, making sure all security features were in place,
that the server was running as it should, that the data on the test company sustained
all checks and balances, back-up procedures set. Everything was fine… except for that darned P&L,
the ultimate test that would give comfort to upper management. The Cullinet P&L was run. And waiting… Would MAS-90 match up? The stakeholders were waiting with great
anticipation. We noticed more traffic
around our office with occasional furtive glimpses inside as if to gauge the
mood in there or catch vibes or clues on how things were proceeding. The mood inside
was indeed intense, but not panicky.
Enrique was not the type to easily depart from his composure. As striking as his physical resemblance with
Napoleon was, he did not share his petulance. He did share his intensity and
pugnacity; however, he did not wear his feelings on his sleeves, as it were. So, as much as others tried to read him that
morning from afar, he did not give them much to walk away with. We kept our cool; at least from our
perspective, there was light at the end of the tunnel. And, indeed, around midday, Eureka! I broke through with the variance formulas using a
small scale of dummy figures: an
increase in expenses over budget returned a negative variance, while an
increase in sales showed a positive one.
With this step, I sensed victory finally in sight. After successfully rerunning the statement
with a larger set of dummy figures, I let Enrique know of the breakthrough and
signaled we were ready to run a test… This was the true test, this time against
live paralleled data. Right around lunchtime,
I ran the MAS90 P&L, still with a knot in my chest and hoping it would work
out. Enrique and I poured over the
report, eye-balled the bottom line and scrutinized the variance columns. We pulled the Cullinet control report. Hurrah!
We had successfully crossed a major hurdle in the parallel process. Enrique picked up the two reports and paraded
them within the corridors of power. He
had achieved legitimacy.
Stefan E. in the Mix
of the systems conversion added wind to Enrique’s sail. His plan was to leverage this success toward
a bigger stake in the organization. He
let it adroitly be known that he was not going to be content to be a middle
manager position on par with the other two or three managers who were already
onboard. He thought of himself of a different caliber that brought to the
organization a multi-dimensionality the other managers did not possess. In addition, he did not feel bound to comply
with the status quo, with which the other managers had grown comfortable. Meanwhile, between us a bond was burgeoning. For
years to come, Enrique was going to be an advocate for me in terms of my
professional growth. Our relationship was
one of mutual respect and camaraderie. We
shared stories, cracked jokes. The
offspring of an American Indian father and of a Jewish mother of Russian
descent, he had an older sister and a nephew to whom he was a father figure and
felt like an older brother. Of his
grandmother he painted the portrait of an austere lady whose favorite word in
the English language, “Ingrate” or “Ungrateful”, continued to fondly
resonate with him and trigger many a chuckle due her heavy Russian accent. He disclosed his penchant for fast cars—Mustang
in particular, his infatuation with the Rock group Guns and Roses. He confessed
his agnosticism, revealed his fascination by the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and
his depiction of human nature under the guise of dark stories. He could speak as a connoisseur of French
impressionism, particularly of Degas’ painting.
I found all that quite impressive, as I encountered that breadth and
depth of knowledge only among the top layer of the corporate world, not at
staff or mid-management levels.
for Bobby W’s replacement culminated in the hiring of Stefan, a CPA with years
of publishing experience and auditing background. Stefan, Enrique’s new boss was a mild-mannered
man with a singular timber which conferred a funny tone to his conversations—kind
of a soprano tremolo mix. His redundant
derriere reposed on short legs, one of which had a noticeable limp. This tableau made him an interesting
figure. He did not come across as having
joined the company with an agenda.
Surely, the firm was in the midst of transition, but he did not see his
role as a catalyst for change. His first
preoccupation was to make sure the new financial systems delivered on the
promises everyone had come to expect.
The stakes could not be higher for him: after all, he was from that
point on in charge of the financial statements that would wind up every month on
the parent company’s CFO’s desk. And, in
a more visible way, the cover memo that accompanied these statements en route to
Park Avenue was going to bear his name.
So, he had a vested interest in ascertaining that the systems that produced
them were a well-oiled and well-maintained machine.
as Den’s direct report, Stefan has stewardship of his legacy. He would not dare squander the goodwill his
boss had amassed through many a late night devising controls and procedures, through
oft-times contentious conversations with auditors. He knew he could not afford to tamper with
that legacy with impunity. His
predecessor’s fate was a constant reminder of how unforgiving and fatal lapses
could be. Other challenges laid ahead
for him, as talks were underway for the acquisition of a well-known Tri-State
publishing company. The headquarters had
not decided on the form of its integration into the corporate structure;
however, rumor had it that it would be splintered, with one of its two divisions
partnering in some fashion with our company.
That spelt growth for our operations and, along with that, more
thing first: staffing was paramount. Stefan had to go through an inventory of his human
capital, assess its quality, caliber, and adequacy. The accounting department was headed by Luke
C., who had been with the firm for many years and weathered numerous storms. He was very familiar with the operations. The
conservative and cautious Luke did not see a need to deviate from established
practices. Stefan had no qualm with
that. He was further reassured that Luke
was backed up by a seasoned accounting supervisor and a relatively stable
staff. Yet, he knew he had to play his
hand with dexterity. On one side there
was Luke who felt a high degree of allegiance to the company; and, on the other
hand, there was Enrique who felt no compulsion to maintain the status quo. Stefan had to find a happy medium between Luke’s
“make no waves” attitude and Enrique’s “rock the boat” approach. That these two did not develop any working or
social relationship whatsoever made the task even thornier. Enrique thought of Luke as being too
cautious, timid, lacking self-confidence, and incompetent. Luke saw Enrique as brash, ambitious, and pretentious,
and deliberately kept his distance. Stefan’s
other direct reports had issues of their own.
Payroll was in the hands of Rosalind H.
However, she badly needed an assistant; part of the reason why I was
brought was that she did not have the manpower to clean up the payroll imbroglio,
reconcile all the accounts, and handle the various State and Federal filings;
all she succeeded in getting was temporary help. Accounts Payable did not have a supervisor
for quite some time. It had some
semblance of stability thanks to a long-time assistant supervisor who filled
the interim. So, Stefan had its work cut out for him.
The World of Den C.
aside, Stefan had to create slack so he could fill the vacuum Den gradually left
as he moved to other areas of operations.
This necessity was all the more pressing that the takeover talks
ratcheted up and demanded more of Den’s time.
As the Vice-President for Finance, Den played a major role in takeover
transactions. He was the guru of
acquisition reserves—a kind of reserves set aside to provide for transition
costs, or acquisition-related expenses; i.e., costs of running parallel
operations until the new company could integrate our structures. One example of
such transition costs would be those of migrating data from the acquired
company’s systems to the parent’s systems due to incompatibility. Because of their temporary, extraordinary,
and oft-times redundant nature, these costs would not be considered period
costs, as they would negatively impact net income. Den made sure they did not wind up on the
P&L, but rather against the acquisition reserves. To that end and due to the high audit
exposure they were subject to, he set the protocol for expensing these reserves
and personally authorized all related journal entries. He was an old hand at this. A couple of years back, he conducted due diligence
in the buyout of a prestigious luxury-bound professional book club from
Virginia. He was looking forward to a
repeat. In addition, he devised all the reserve
adequacy studies (inventory, receivables), monthly equalization schedule for
rent holidays, amortization schedules, you name it. He was a master at building cushions for
“rainy days.” His resourcefulness made
believers out of Sammy, the CFO and Petey, the President. Both would not make a financial decision
without running it by him and securing his “imprimatur.” He made them look good, especially at
year-end when their bosses at the headquarters pressed for “more goodies” after
preliminary EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and
amortization)—a key measure of operational success–had been flashed over. That was the time when he got to show his
craft. And did he relish it! Flashing a
self-congratulatory grin, he would “go to work,” as he put it. And infallibly, time and again, he came up
with the “goodies” the headquarters asked for, to Petey’s and Sammy’s elation. He wielded
such influence within the company that the auditors would not complete their
engagement without a series of chats with him; that the parent company felt
gratified that he was on board as its plan to “go public” was picking up steam. This was Den’s carefully woven legacy—a world
of creativity and excitement, but also a world of “living dangerously”–a
treacherous one fraught with perils, where all faux-pas were potentially
deadly. Yet it was where the glory was;
where his impact was most enduring; definitely where his heart was, not in the
trenches of day-to-day operations. He
could not wait to be relieved from that day-to-day business and pass onto Stefan
the predictable world of accounting, staffing, systems, etc.
From Milestone to
Meanwhile, the new systems implementation
marched on. I fine-tuned the P&L and
issued a couple of key departmental reports.
Enrique put the final touches on the security features, his allocation
program routine, and nightly server backup processes. Then, to support the new acquisition effort,
we tested the systems’ ability to house additional companies and consolidate
the results—again a new territory.
Enrique figured he needed extra help.
His budget allowed for another temporary accountant. Stefan approved the paperwork right
away. Enrique contracted with Patti H.,
a CPA who counted many years of experience in public accounting at one of the
Big Six. She could not start until a
week later, after she had finished grading the CPA exam; she was under contract
with the AICPA for that service. Patti
was to help me to set up a plethora of supplemental schedules and complete the
financial reporting package. She was a
middle-aged woman who had no predilection for small talk or socializing–definitely
not the loquacious and vivacious type. She kept to herself, would not jump into a
conversation even when an opening was made to her. On the Myers Briggs chart of
personality types she would be a strong I (introverted). If she were forced to concede a smile, it was
just a furtive one, not longer than a flicker, after which she would
comfortably revert to her normal stance of impassivity and impenetrability. She had strong professional ethics; she
always came in on time and left at the stroke of 5:00 pm. A heavy smoker, she could not wait to leave
the building to devour a cigarette once outside. (She would not smoke on the premises, though
we were years away from the smoking ban.)
The task at hand was: set up the
P&L template for each of the ten product lines, create templates for
natural expense departmental reports, and test them out. Patti’s efficiency
helped us get ahead of schedule in a number of areas. What helped as well was her hermetic demeanor,
which did not leave any room for goofing off. In the meantime, Enrique divested himself from
the systems operations; he hired and trained Jena G., a petite, headstrong,
heavy smoker as well to take over that part of operations. This progress
allowed Enrique to start devoting time to the acquisition because systems
support was needed in that area. The fringe
benefit of this change, from Enrique’s vintage point, was that it put him in
select company with Den. The duo made
frequent trips to Connecticut to be familiarized with the acquisition prospect’s
modus operandi and its integration plan within the structure of current
operations. Enrique had been thinking
about life after systems conversion. These
trips with Den cracked the door open for him to build up on the goodwill he gained
from the stellar systems migration he spearheaded. The takeover of the
Connecticut Company called for significant changes in the make-up of the
company. The modalities of these changes
were still in their infancy; ideas were tossed around towards a pragmatic
solution that would minimize disruptions in the workflow and safeguard the
market position these companies enjoyed.
All this was music to Enrique’s ears.
He envisioned a position with staff responsibility and a direct line to
Stefan. Under no circumstances would he
settle for a position under Luke C., who, by his assessment, did not have the
depth and width of knowledge required of the holder of a managing position of
such importance as accounting and finance.
The company was not at the point of crossing that bridge; however, he
put everyone on notice as to what his plans were.
Stefan’s Highs and Lows
Stefan’s learning curve did not
seem a steep and arduous one; he was making important strides in his new
position. Overall, the reaction to his coming on board was positive. Under the tutelage of Den, he survived his
first quarterly close. He showed he was
capable of owning this process. He was
more engaged than his predecessor. He
met regularly with his direct reports, trying to understand their individual
responsibilities and apprise himself of the culture and ambiance of the
place. The staff was a diverse bunch, in
terms of age, social extraction, national identity… They got to take a closer look at him. He came across as a nice guy, a family man
with two teen-age sons whom he always found a way to bring into his
conversation. It did not take long for
people to notice his tendency to shoot from the hip, perhaps more out of
awkwardness than malice, perhaps from pushing too hard to be funny—which he was
not. He was slowly building a small
reputation as a gaffe machine. Another
particularity of his was forgetfulness. From
a conceptual standpoint, Stefan showed good command of generalities and could
perfectly relate his experience to current situations. However, for the life of
him, he could not commit a figure he saw the day before to memory. A key figure from the financial statement
draft could change from one day to the next, and he would not have noticed
it. Things like that would irked
Enrique. That an accountant was
oblivious of facts and numbers was unforgivable. Enrique, who had learned this lesson from his
old mentor, held in high esteem those in the accountancy field who could argue
that some figure changed from what it was a couple of weeks earlier. He predicted that this lack of awareness on
Stefan’s part would doom him.
New Role for Enrique
Patti and I played our part in the
successful conclusion of the first monthly and quarterly closes. Except for the balance sheet, we created and
ran a whole core of financial reports by departmental or product lines,
comparative analyses, natural expense schedules. With this achievement came the realization
that a temporary assignment was nothing but fragile and insecure. Enrique had to make a decision; he could no
longer justify the need for two temporary accountants. He let Patti go, with a promise to bring her
back when conditions would allow. Meanwhile, the takeover was in its final
stages. The most likely scenario was
shaping up in the form of a realignment of the Connecticut operations. The youth book club was big enough to stand alone
and would remain intact in CT. The children’s
magazine, however, was subject to wide-ranging changes. From an organizational structure perspective,
Petey would be president of both the NY and CT children’s magazine operations;
as such the publisher of the latter would report to him. While still headquartered in
CT, the children’s magazine would enter into an operational partnership with
our company as regards fulfillment and accounting. More specifically, the administration,
marketing, editorial, copywriting operations were to remain in CT; fulfillment
functions (order processing and related functions such as accounts receivables,
inventory and warehousing) would be handled in New Jersey; the accounting,
payroll and systems functions were to be outsourced to our company in New York,
with an allocation scheme of 35% for payroll and systems, and 100% for accounting. In other words, the entire accounting
functions would be housed in New York. A
separate accounting section! Enrique was
vying for a position of significance evolving from the systems conversion
experience. Having established his
credentials in that regard, he would also be in charge of the new accounting
team. That was killing two birds with
one stone… that is, if he were offered the position. Why wouldn’t he be? He had lobbied for it,
plainly spoken about his ambitions, and secured an interview with his mentor, Sammy
B., and virtually received assurances that the position would be his at the
opportune time. He knew that it might
take another couple of months to finalize the deal, and some four months to
transition from CT to NY. He understood
New Team on the
Block: Baptism by Fire
The acquisition was finalized. The realignment was done along the lines
indicated above. Enrique became the
accounting and systems manager for the children’s educational magazine segment,
whose senior management, including the publisher, remained in Connecticut. But Enrique was based in New York. He needed a staff. He recruited two young ladies who possessed
some publishing experience—one of them having worked for a sports magazine
start-up that debuted with much fanfare two years earlier under the stewardship
of a venerable sports commentator but unraveled not long thereafter. Enrique considered her recruitment a
hit. To complete the team, he needed
someone to play the role of second-in-command, a lead accountant. He hired me for that position. By so doing, he had to wrest me from the
agency. I had worked for the latter for
so long—plainly speaking, they made quite a bit of money off my services–that they
settled with the company for a symbolic fee.
Stefan did not see this as a barrier.
This was how I parted ways with the agency, through which for the
previous three years I acquired valuable finance and accounting experience at
two top brokerage firms and a worldwide benefit consulting firm. Enrique prided
himself on assembling a “strong” team. As
a foursome, we made a couple of trips to Connecticut to acquaint ourselves with
accounting issues and procedures, and develop a rapport with our peers on the
other side of the border.
The real test for our team came at
the first month-end close. One of the
rituals of the close was the submission of the financial statements (“FS”) to
the parent company for the month. To
make sure the induction into this sacred corporate tradition was done under the
best auspices, Den claimed the task of breaking us in. We
were thrilled at the prospect of being trained by the architect of the
company’s modus operandi. The report was
due to the headquarters on a Friday. All
through the day we waited, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, Sammy’s cardinal rule about the FS
was made abundantly and redundantly clear to us: under no circumstance should the FS be late
to our parent company; no effort should be spared to deliver the thirty-page package
on the due date—late night or wee hours of the morning were all part of the
bargain. At 4 pm we were still waiting. By then we had printed out all the relevant
systems reports. How to translate them
into the financial package was the issue.
Stefan advised us to take the first stab at it. He had finished reviewing the FS for the sister
company and was looking forward to a quiet weekend with his family. Around 5:30, Den decided it was time to take
over. We gathered in his office. He took a quick look at the preliminary draft
and asked about our preferences for dinner.
We looked at one another with a surprised frown. Did he mean…
“We’re not going to be done soon”
he added with his characteristic grin, while rolling up his sleeves.
We didn’t know what to make of it,
exchanging bewildering looks among ourselves.
When he passed out menus to us, we realized he was serious, yet secretly
hoping we could cut out much sooner than he anticipated. The package consisted of main statements
(balance sheet, cash flow, and P&L) and subsidiary schedules tying into them. However, statements and individual schedules were
not systemically linked, so that any changes affecting the sub-schedules would
not automatically flow through the main statements; and vice versa. It was a
maddening cross-referencing exercise.
Den showed how deftly he could juggle with the figures to validate the
reported financial data. We finished
eating dinner around 9:00 pm and were still working on the first draft; we had
left out about one-third of the schedules, unsure of what to do. The package had to be thoroughly done. All in all, it was 2:30 in the morning when
we were doing the final proofreading of the package. Everybody at that point was run down, but so
close to the end we were resolute to make the last ditch effort. At 4:00 a.m. Den christened the package and
ordered it routed to Park Avenue. It had
to be delivered before the next working day.
Enrique volunteered for the assignment to make sure that the package was
placed at a convened location to be picked up by the first person in. It was then 4:30 am. By the time the limo dropped me off home, it
That session of “baptism by fire”
left an indelible impression on us and fostered our understanding of the
business. Through Den’s training we
began to grasp the intricacies of the procedures that supported the
transactions on which the financials were based. Little by little, we took ownership of that
process. Yet that first experience left a bitter taste in the mouth of one of
the new hires, Martina, who thought she didn’t bargain for the late nights and
the pressures that financial reporting brought to bear. She didn’t have strong credentials in the
accounting arena. Enrique knew about her
limited accounting skills, but was enraptured with her communication abilities,
her forthrightness and aggressiveness; she fit the profile of a “go-getter”. At the other end stood Shondra, who possessed
very good accounting skills but did not have Martina’s flashy, flamboyant and
outspoken style. All in all, they
complemented each other. Subsequent
month-end closes with their plethora of financial schedules and analyses were
not as painful as the first one. We
picked up the pace and curtailed the turnaround time as expected. Yet the late nights around the last week of
the month and the first week of the following month were a normal
occurrence. Moreover, we had to black
out the month-end close week on our leave time calendar so that all of our
efforts could be dedicated to the close.
Eventually, Stefan became involved
with our side of operations. He took
over the review of the financial statements from Den. Also, he moved on to fill the accounts payable
head position. The best candidate would
settle for a managerial title and demanded that the Royalties be overseen by
her. This settlement outraged Enrique,
who deemed Stefan was conned. That she was a CPA did nothing to temper
Enrique’s criticisms. “What respectable
CPA would go for an accounts payable job!”
He quipped. His take was that
Stefan played into the hand of a con artist.
He could not wait to meet her.
Missing in Action
Months passed. Our team grew more acquainted with our job;
our learning curve turned out being relatively short. Our progress was shortened by my going on medical
leave for surgery due to a herniated disk.
This would put me out of commission for some six weeks. For the three weeks preceding my
announcement, I had been plagued with excruciating pains on my lower back,
which necessitated a MRI. The specialist
I was referred to, one of the best in that specialty, recommended surgery. My announcement was greeted with surprise by
Stefan. He asked me to see him. He pounded me with questions about my
symptoms, about the options I was presented with. He commiserated with me. He was surprised that I didn’t want to
consider these options–to which I responded that my decision was a no-brainer
considering the pain was unbearable and one of the finest neurosurgeons around
would be presiding over the surgery. He
concluded the chat with a look I could not decipher at the time—a mix of pity
and bewilderment over what he perceived to be a foolish decision; then he said,
“You’re a brave man.” Only then did I reckon that his keen interest was in a
sense self-serving. Only then did I
connect the dots to and realize that he procrastinated all along,
notwithstanding the pain he endured, and in the end wound up with a permanent
limp, because he was scared of surgery and talked himself out of it.
I was out on disability leave for
six weeks during the summer. Due to the seasonality of the educational segment,
my absence did not have a detrimental impact on the operations. The period May through August was the
enrollment season for the upcoming school year.
From the perspective of operations, this was a busy period for the
Fulfillment Department as, pursuant to the spring promotional campaign, teacher-parent
associations (TPA) from schools across the country forwarded student
subscriptions to grade K-12 periodicals before the summer break. Fulfillment had to make sure that the
customer accounts were set up, production scheduling was in gear, adequate
inventory in place, delivery logistics planned so that these orders could be
filled at the start of the school year.
As for the Accounting section, this period marked a brief interlude
where, due to the above-mentioned seasonality, scarcely any revenue was earned,
safe for the higher grade book clubs. Most
of our time was devoted to cleaning up the books, maintaining the deferred
revenue accounts and the related recognition calendar. It was also the time to review the
receivables, process eligible write-offs, and study the adequacy of the
reserves. These tasks were performed at
a higher level, namely by Den, with our input.
All in all, that period was less taxing on the staff: the monthly closes were relatively uneventful
and took much less time to complete. So,
insofar as its impact on operations was concerned, my leave could not have
happened at a more opportune time. In
fact, Enrique only called me twice about business. He made sure that I received all the benefits
I was entitled to. He also asked me,
when I was ready to resume work, if I needed limo service for the first couple
of days to ease my way back into the flow.
I declined. He then proposed a
flexible schedule for the first week to allow me to avoid the rush hour hustling
and shoving on the subway.
Enough for Martina
I was welcomed back to the office
six weeks later to find that a lot of changes had taken place. Enrique had recalled Patti, this time as a
full-time lead accountant. In my
absence, he promoted me to accounting supervisor. The paperwork was processed in time for me to
sign it upon my return. That was quite a
surprise. Stefan hurried in to find out
about how I was feeling and looked amazed that I actually was able to walk on
my own. All along our conversation, he kept
saying “Amazing!” In the end, my recovery
went on schedule. People had a clear
sense of my progress three months later at the Christmas party when I rocked
and rolled my way around the dance floor…
I found out upon my return that the company had moved closer to its
goals of going public. This was lauded
as a collective effort, as a testament to the strong esprit de corps that, in management’s word, had always been the
hallmark of the company. They
acknowledged the effort the staff put forth and the enormous sacrifice they
sustained. In return, they pointed to
substantial benefits that would be accrued, once the parent company achieved
publicly-traded status. But the headquarters
placed the onus fairly and squarely on the subsidiaries’ management to deliver
quality financials and steer from embarrassing situations leading to restated financial
statements due to errors or omissions of material significance. They made an unwavering commitment to an
excellent track record with Wall Street analysts; to that end, restating
previous earnings statements, or recanting quarterly estimates, would be viewed
unfavorably as such events would indubitably drive stock price south. Our management felt confident they had the tools
and staff to tackle this endeavor, and strove to instill in everyone the utmost
professionalism that going public called for.
Translation: more late nights ahead
during month-end closes. This crossed Martina’s
tolerance threshold: she reached the
conclusion that she had to stop that madness before it became
irremediable. The greener (rather,
saner) pastures that she was seeking showed up in the form of a smaller company
where, much to her delight, she would be involved in marketing and have nothing
to do with accounting.
Martina’s resignation opened up a
position for an accountant on our team. Our
search brought on Charlie R., a communicator of the highest order, brimming
with self-confidence. He was very
impressive and overshadowed his competitors, despite not having completed his
BS. He had relevant experience as he came
from a famed publishing firm. We did
extract from him the commitment to pursuing his degree. The gregarious Charlie R. did not take time
to acclimate to the ambiance of the office.
His knack for catchy and very a-propos phrases, his humor, his athletic
physique, and his diverse interests—ranging from hockey to skiing to kayaking–made
him a widely sought-after conversationalist.
He became rather quickly the most popular figure in the office; he was
granted audience by everyone… However, his
wondrous communication abilities did not find an echo in his day-to-day work. Generally good, the quality of his work did
not live up to our expectations or equate to his command of accounting concepts
and general issues. Not that he did not
do his job, we just expected more of him.
That was always a contentious point at performance review times.
Stefan was getting more comfortable
in his position. During one summer
break, he brought in his oldest son, a polite high school sophomore, to work on
an Accounts Payable assignment. Stefan
paraded him with great pride throughout the office, introducing him to
everyone. He figured that his son had
reached an age where he could appreciate the value of work and effort, and in
the process “earn a little bit of money.”
So, he took him under his paternal wings so as to instill in him these
values early in life, give him a feel for Corporate America, and show him
first-hand his personal success in the hopes that junior would emulate him some
day. Another time, he brought his younger son and
went through the same ritual with him. Between
Stefan and his sons one could tell they belonged in the mutual admiration
society. Look in their eyes and you’ll
see on the one hand filial veneration, and on the other hand paternal pride.
At Odds with the Bosses
By his first anniversary, Stefan took
ownership of the financial statement review and submission process for both
companies. By then, Den had been out of
the financial reporting scene, preoccupying himself with growth strategies. Notable staff changes took place. Enrique was promoted to assistant-controller. As such, he was somewhat removed from day-to-day
operations so that he could lend Den a hand with the strategic initiatives the
latter was engaged in. Corporate
targeted some promising limited liability corporations (LLC) with a niche in
publishing to grow our side of the business.
Enrique was to assist him with due diligence with respect to these acquisitions.
To fill the void caused by his lesser involvement in operations, Enrique
lobbied for me to succeed him as accounting manager. The cascading effect continued with the
promotion of Patti to accounting supervisor.
Growth potential together with the
upward motion of staff created an open position in my section. We hired Chuck S., an internal candidate who was
working as an accounts payable (AP) representative. He came in with excellent credentials from a
transnational corporation, where he was the AP supervisor; he was laid off when
that company moved some of its operations out of New York City. My considering him to fill the staff accountant
opening was perhaps the most contentious issue that arose among Stefan, Enrique
and me. Chuck was in a horse race competition
with another candidate–a young man, polished, All-American type, who had
played quarterback in high school and college.
We all were impressed by him. His
only drawback was his lack of experience.
We figured this was compensated by his savvy, his aggressiveness, and
his presumed ability to adapt. Chuck, for
his part, was a known quantity—a diligent worker who earned his stripes the
old-fashioned way, by delivering solid work without fanfare. He joined the company in a position for which
he was overqualified. He accepted it
wholeheartedly, hoping that his performance would speak for itself and clear a
path for eventual promotion when the time arose. I appreciated his depth,
modesty, and sense of commitment. For
all of that, Chuck was my first choice–which put me at odds with the Human
Resources Director–Marcie, Enrique, and Stefan. All three were enraptured with the outside
candidate’s poise, energy level, and star power potential. I shared their assessment. However, my preference was to fill the
position from within, unless the outside candidate was “head and shoulders
above my internal candidate.” Clearly,
this was not the case. If anything,
Chuck had a leg up in terms of experience and should hit the ground running
without much concern for a steep learning curve. Also, he was already imbued with the
company’s culture and transitioned rather well to it; he felt that the position
fit into his career plan and saw growth opportunities in the company, which
meant that there was a low turnover risk.
Enrique rallied Stefan to his view that the outside candidate would be a
strong asset to the company’s future.
Although they liked Chuck, they felt that he did not show the
aggressiveness and the temperament that this line of business required, to
which I begged to differ. For a moment,
there was a stalemate.
“Why don’t we ask Miffie (Chuck’s
boss) about her assessment of Chuck’s performance and prospects?” I
The question seemed to have taken
my interlocutors aback. It was an
unconventional move. Per company policy,
internal candidates were prohibited to even broach to their supervisors their
intent to apply for an open position.
Likewise, Human Resources and peer managers would go to all lengths to shroud
in secrecy such pursuits by a candidate until he or she accepted the offer. So, my move was unprecedented and risky in
terms of breach of protocol and exposure of a candidate to potential harm. Risky also in that I counted on the
supervisor’s acting for the greater good of the company and not reacting in a
self-preservation mode, thereby scuttling Chuck’s opportunity to grow. Knowing well that such procedural infraction
would not sit well with Human Resources, we convened on a visit with Marcie to
apprize her of our intent and secure her clearance. As expected, she looked bewildered; like
everyone else, she was enthralled by the performance of the young
All-American. A straight shooter in her own
right, she did not hide disappointment over the direction we were taking.
“I don’t think you need any advice
from me; I hope you know what you’re doing.” She warned.
Miffie was away for a conference when
we called her up and announced the reason for our call. I remember her voice on the other line,
hoarse from a recent bout with a cold.
“What’s wrong with you, people, going
around stealing people’s staff? He’s one
of my best players. How fair is
that? Stefan, I can’t believe you’re doing
this to me.” She rattled off.
After her initial shock, she gave
us an objective assessment of Chuck’s tenure in her department, drawing on his
strengths as well as his weaknesses.
Overall, it was a very positive assessment, better that I could ever
“Would you hire him again, if it
came to that?” I asked to conclude the conversation.
“In a heartbeat!” She responded.
Thus, Chuck emerged as the victor in that
race. I felt that I forced Stefan’s and
Enrique’s hands on this issue. To my
recollection, this was the only instance where I openly disagreed with Enrique;
we normally operated on the same wave lengths.
But he was gracious enough to bow to my decision. Taking the cue from him, Stefan followed
suit. After all, as they asserted, this
was my section and I was the one either candidate would be reporting to.
Thanks, but No
On a mid-week morning, a laconic
e-mail from Petey’s secretary summoned everyone to the vestibule, a venue spacious
enough to accommodate a large crowd. A summary
note from the president could never be about frivolous or inconsequential
matters. Within a minute of receiving the e-mail, groups
emerged from offices and cubicles and streamed along the hallways to converge
in the vestibule, where we stood shoulder to shoulder awaiting the arrival of the
management foursome. The air was thick and
the silence as heavy as a concrete slab.
Some tried to break it by engaging in some incoherent small talk; others
could not simply ward off the apprehension all too visible on their faces. What could this be all about? It was not one second too soon when the
executive group showed up. Without
ceremony, Petey brought up the reason for the convocation:
“I’ll be brief. The purpose of this gathering is to announce
that Sammy B. has resigned as chief financial officer,” he said, visibly shaken.
A muffled “What!” emanated from the
incredulous crowd, some turning to one another as if to confirm what they
heard. Petey went on to thank Sammy for his
immense service to the organization, unparalleled contribution for the past 15
years spearheading the exponential growth the company had known. All the while, Sammy stood by, a couple of
steps behind Petey and next to Den and Marcie, the Human Resources director;
his face harbored a radiant smile.
“Sammy will surely be missed,” Petey
stressed, turning towards him with a nod, as if to make sure he drove this point
home. “We’re grateful that he is more than generous to extend his stay to three
months to allow for a smooth transition. I thank him, on everyone’s behalf, for his
generosity: this is classic Sammy. Join me in congratulating him and wishing him
luck in his future endeavors.”
Invited to say a few words, Sammy
started with thanking the staff whose hard work made the company’s success
possible. “That’s the sad part of the situation. Some of you I came to know on a personal
basis; I’m going to miss you all. Keep
up the good work. Good luck,” he concluded.
Sammy’s resignation took everyone
unawares. In the weeks and months prior,
his demeanor left no clue to any dissatisfaction or dejection. He never
departed from his clear, pristine smile and proverbial affability. The reason
he put forth for his departure could not be more laudable: he needed to spend
time with his family. The pressures of
the job and the inflexible schedule of a busy executive had transformed him into
an absentee dad for his young kids who were approaching puberty. He needed to be there for them and with them,
to see them grow and be a part of their lives.
He would also be able to supervise the construction of his new home,
from which he hoped to conduct a small scale consulting operation. Everyone saluted such a noble endeavor and
took it at face value, given Sammy was the epitome of genuineness. If there should be any doubt about his reason,
his disarming and infectious smile dismissed it. Yet, the suspicion that something else could
be in the midst of his decision was persistent.
“For God’s sake, he is only forty-something,” bemoaned Christie. That
he chose to forfeit all the perks and promises made by the headquarters; that
he stepped out of the limelight as the parent company’s quest for “publicly
traded” status neared fruition could not be fathomed by some. “Why at that
particular juncture?” they pondered. The
answer to this question would never be known.
Guesses were aplenty: the company
was solvent; surely, there were some fissures in the edifice that, if not
attended to, could lead to cracks on the wall. For instance, the core product
line that represented some 50% of the business was maturing and augured paltry growth;
the expectations that accompanied the acquisition of the luxury bound editions never
fully materialized. Tough decisions needed
to be made in terms of divestitures and going lean… and mean. “Mean” was definitely in the offing. That was the part that probably did not sit
well with Sammy, and that he was running away from. “Rough and tumble” times surely lay ahead–times
that were more fitting for an ogre than a genuinely nice guy. These were the times when the business world
was abuzz with the craze of hostile takeovers, leverage buyouts, re-engineering,
downsizing, right-sizing, what have you!
The times when Michael Milken, the king of junk bonds, was a demi-god in
the suites of Wall Street, courted by high-end investors lured by his
high-yield junk bonds. Our parent
company’s parent was itself knee-deep in that midst and perfected the art of
deal-making. Strategic realignments were
taking place in the market place. This
new dimension brought along new realities, new pressures to bear by executives
who were forced to look inward for ways to cut costs under the threat of a
Damocles sword of hostile takeovers. These
behaviors brought in new rules into the corporate game and influenced the way
it was played in many ways. In our case,
the constant demands of the headquarters to improve the bottom line and the
pressures brought to bear by the prospect of a publicly-traded company started
to weigh in heavily on the office atmosphere:
the air felt thicker, and the oxygen thinner. Sammie B. experienced first-hand the weight
of the change of direction and the malaise that accompanied it, and decided to
part ways and
forgo the alleged benefits his superiors had been touting about their ongoing
strategy. Thus a class act bowed out. By
the time he left, a replacement had yet to be hired. Den was called upon to assume the interim.
Man on the Move
No immediate change at the
individual department level resulted from Sammy’s departure… at least for those
of us who were on the front line of operations.
If anything, Stefan picked up more of Den’s functions. In compensation, he received the additional
title of Assistant VP-Finance. Other
than that, it was smooth sailing in operations as we were at optimal staffing
levels and the assignment mix was judiciously calibrated to assure the efficient
utilization of our resources. In that
light, it did not take long for us to appreciate the dividends Chuck’s addition
brought to the team. He was in charge
of reconciling our cash and prepaid accounts.
What particularly won Stefan and Enrique over was the discovery of a
large cash balance in the company’s bank account, which, by both company and
headquarter standards, was a heresy. The headquarters used a cash concentration
system, under which, on a daily basis by close of business, they “swept” all subsidiaries’
bank deposits into a concentration account.
The “sweep” was then invested in
safe overnight instruments such as repurchase agreements (“repos”) or
inter-bank lending for reserve or margin requirement purposes. Then, on the
following day, they transferred back to the subsidiaries’ accounts just enough
cash to pay bills that showed up the day before. This was a short-term strategy designed to
maximize the return on cash that would otherwise remain idle on subsidiaries’
bank accounts, given that subsidiaries were not allowed to make investment
decisions. This required close
coordination between the banks and Corporate Treasury. So, at the close of
business on any given day, our bank account was expected to be in overdraft,
due to the timing of the transfers. That,
on that particular day, a large cash balance remained in our account at the
close of business sparked a flurry of activity and drove our office into crisis
mode. It turned out that the “sweep” did
not take place the night prior and no one from Corporate realized it. Obviously, they were not pleased about this
preventable opportunity cost. Once the
assignment landed in Chuck’s hand, he was like a man possessed. In the middle
of the flurry he stood, manning the phone between Corporate and the bank. The energy he put into resolving this
mini-crisis revealed a side of him that neither Stefan nor Enrique had seen
before or even expected. Basically, we
stood on the sidelines, while he took ownership of the problem and saw its
resolution through. If there had been
any dose of skepticism in my bosses’ minds as to Chuck’s commitment and
willingness to go the extra mile, it had surely dissipated by then. In fact, they were impressed with his
performance. That was the way he
acquired his “lettres de noblesse” in
The Connecticut operations moved
forward with some structural changes. The
publisher, Rick D., finally made good on his plan to hire a chief financial
officer. Until then, he assumed the
functions of president and chief financial officer. As such, he shouldered the burden of representing
his side of the business and speaking to its state of affairs in monthly
conference calls with Petey, his boss.
To prepare for this ritual, he had been relying on Annie T., finance
director who was in charge of budgets and financial analysis. Annie prepared,
in collaboration with our unit, the “President’s Letter”, a management
discussion and analysis (MD&A) report, which provided a measure of achievement
vis-à-vis the goals established at the outset and explained significant
variances from the budget and prior year.
As good a job as Annie did and as good a spinner Rick could also be, this
ritual was not his cup of tea; at times he looked as uncomfortable as a man whose
legs were wrapped up in his underwear. He
was more versed in the marketing & public relations side of the
business. So, he wanted to be out of
that bind. He made the decision to hire
a CFO, Davy H., a lanky six-foot-one Ivy Leaguer and product of the financial
sector. Nature compensated his physical predicament with a powerful voice,
which made one wonder how such a powerful timber could emanate from his thin
frame. He was one tough customer—haughty,
impatient, arrogant, a “straight arrow” who would find the SOB epithet somewhat
flattering and indulge in that kind of attitude just for the fun of it. Annie could
not help feeling slighted by management’s decision to go outward to fill this
new position with someone whose only advantage was that of a white male with a
super ego. She would not mind playing
second fiddle to someone from whom she would learn; however, from what she
could see, there was not much in Davy’s credentials that would make her genuflect. The reality was that she was relegated to the
nitty-gritty aspects of finance, while Davy was given the upper crust. Her superiors argued that such
complementarity could only benefit the organization and tried to reassure her
of her instrumentality to the company. She
was never sold on that point, no matter how hard it was impressed on her. For her, the reality was that Davy did not
come in with a publishing background. She felt that, once she fully trained him,
she would be shown the door. As for us
in New York, we did not know what to make of his coming on board. We had no inkling as to what this turn of
event meant in the long term. We had a
chance to be apprised of his singular personality when, on his introductory
trip to our offices, his first line of inquiry was into the headcount
allocation to his company. He wanted to
know what the 13.3 headcount consisted of, who they were, what exactly they did
for his side. On that first encounter,
the image he left us with was that of a brash, obnoxious guy who knew himself as
such and could not care less.
Over the next coming months, Davy
made it a point to be included in the monthly conference calls with Annie,
Enrique and me to discuss the month’s results, variance analysis, and the President’s
letter. He needed to be apprised of the
results so he could present his analysis to Rick. More and more Annie was faced with the
reality that she mattered less and less; she was reduced to a side-kick, doing
the legwork and providing Davy with what he needed for his one-man show. All this seemed so sudden: it felt to her that her job had changed
overnight. Her reporting line
dramatically shifted. The days of
one-on-one with Rick were gone; all information to Rick would have to be vetted
through Davy. The point had been
formally made to her by the man himself in one of their meetings. Davy stressed this protocol should firmly be adhered
to so that he was kept in the loop and abreast of all developments. She came to be aware of how maniacally
attached to protocol Davy was, how power-hungry he was, and how abrasive a
personality he had. In a sense, she
blamed herself for having been complacent, for basking in the illusion that the
first-rate job she was often complimented on would pave the way to a more
substantive post. She thought she had
amassed sufficient goodwill to secure herself a spot in upper management, even
at a junior level. Now Davy was brought
in from the outside to join the executive club with a relatively thin resume,
with the only sizable thing he could claim being the size of his ego. She felt that she reached an impasse and
confided in us that it was time for her to seek greener pastures. We were going to miss a colleague with whom
we shared some very good times, especially during budget season, a good sport who
could appreciate a good joke… In the
end, she landed a financial analyst position with a well-established competitor.
Growth Strategy: Acquisitions
On the selling block was a
liability corporation (LLC) company with a niche in corporate-sponsored public
service specials. The LLC, located in
Connecticut, had made a name for itself since partnering with PBS on an
award-winning sports documentary, which aired to critical acclaim. The documentary was produced and directed by
a renowned historian, with a superb track record of stellar productions in
collaboration with PBS. For this
high-profile documentary, the LLC provided the accompanying materials (posters,
pamphlets, etc.). Anyone
interested? Of course, that was the kind
of opportunity the headquarters were seeking to shore up the Connecticut
operations: a small company with a niche
or a novel business approach, strong cash flows, and good management. As the designated company strategist, Den was
the master of ceremonies, in charge of ushering in the LLC into the corporate
structure. As it was involved in the education
field, it made sense to consolidate it with the Connecticut entity; yet there would be no operational merger between the
two offices: each would be operating as a separate company on the financial
systems. Enrique was called upon to assist on due diligence issues. He had to validate the LLC’s short-term
liabilities, examine its vendor file. He
also had to review its receivables; of interest was the aging of the
receivables, with particular focus on the 90+ days. It was an attractive prospect, enhanced by
the fact that the LLC’s president, Kenny L., was willing to stay on to ensure
continuity, and navigate the corporate venues in quest of funding for his
celebrated education projects. The flow
of corporate public relations funds was essential to the LLC. Kenny’s fast talk (speak easiness) with a
slightly hoarse tone of voice conferred gravitas to his conversations. This characteristic and his congenial
affability were an asset to reckon with when it came to extracting corporate
sponsorship dollars. All in all, it was
a good buy: good cash flow position,
high receivable turnover, an experienced marketing unit, established goodwill,
leadership continuity. All the while, Den was devising the acquisition reserve
scheme to handle transition-related costs. The deal went through to everyone’s
excitement. I had a chance to accompany
Enrique on a visit with the LLC team during the transition; we had a working
session where we discussed the particulars of their accounting systems and
procedures, and the modalities of the migration to our financial systems. The staff were most cooperative. We had the opportunity to experience
first-hand Kenny’s charisma and conviviality.
He too was excited about the prospects—which made the whole affair a
On the other side of the company,
something was brewing. Stefan convened a
meeting with his accounting managers and Enrique, his assistant-controller,
with only one item on the agenda. The
parent company asked for a plan to cut costs in the organization. He called the meeting to brainstorm on the
matter. I still remember the concerned
look on his face when he posed the question:
“Did Park Avenue give you any
guidelines?” Enrique inquired.
“No, they left it up to us,” Stefan
“I would expect them to give you a
range of options,” Enrique retorted.
“We can cut down on supplies,”
suggested the young and ambitious lead accountant for Luke’s section.
“What about supper money?” Luke
“Great ideas!” Stefan applauded.
“In the grand scheme of things,
what is the significance of these cuts?” Enrique argued. “I would have thought that you would have
taken a good look at our expense categories and see where meaningful cuts can
be made,” he continued.
To that last point I added:
be thinking about headcount? I would
assume they expect cuts in that area.”
We spent the next forty-five battering
around a whole range of options. Stefan
insisted that the issue, as he understood it, had nothing to do with headcount
reduction. He adjourned the meeting and indicated
that he was going to draft some policy points and reconvene in a week or so to
discuss the particulars. Everyone sensed
towards what direction he was leaning. As
we vacated the conference room, Enrique and I walked silently in the direction
of his office. We had a silent way of
communicating. I could tell he had
something in mind; that in this battle of ideas, Luke & Co. had the better
of him. When we got to his office, he
closed the door, dropped his pad on his desk, and, in disbelief, raised his
hands to his head:
“What’s wrong with this guy? Coming off with ridiculous things like supplies,
supper money…! What world is he living
in? Look whose ideas these were
too? A pair of amateurs…”
think Stefan put the request in any context.
Why did Park Ave all a sudden come up with this? I think it’s an indirect way to tell him to
cut personnel costs or at least to come up with a headcount outlook for the
next, say, 24 months.”
“I hate to
be on the losing side of an argument.
But I’ll defer any day to a better point. Such amateurism is not just
about him but it’s a reflection on the whole team, and me personally. That, I resent. ”
fairness to Stefan, I don’t believe he doesn’t know what to do, or that he
doesn’t get it,” I interjected. “I’m
willing to play the devil’s advocate on this. He simply thinks there’s a better
way, a less taxing way.”
“Not a chance!
Excuse my French: that’s BS! You think these guys are going to buy into those
moronic ideas. Nothing short of headcount
reduction will satisfy them.”
Stefan is considering this option as well and doesn’t feel it proper to discuss
it with us; these are sensitive matters, you know. This could be a conversation between him and
Trust me on
this: he truly believes what he’s
saying. I know the guy. I can bet you he is dead serious about it and
not thinking of anything else. At least,
he could put together a headcount scenario: attrition versus filling open
positions? Can any positions be safely be phased out without major disruptions?
Was any of that in his forecast? Push
comes to shove, there are ways to achieve savings in that area—if he’d asked
me. Those savings would be implementable,
concrete. This is major league: a game
for men with balls. If you can’t play
it, you’re out. If you don’t have the gall
to make tough decisions, you don’t have a future in this business environment.”
that investment bankers and IPO underwriters made clear to Park Avenue that the
company’s cost structure was expected to be in line with the industry. All
sorts of ratios involving headcount are being looked at: headcount to revenue, net income, earnings
per share. As we see every day, nothing
makes Wall Street cheer louder than a company’s announcement of massive layoffs: its stock price hit the roof almost instantly. I’m sure it would be a good story the
headquarters would tell their prospective investors; this would make for a
successful IPO, guaranteed. ”
As announced, Stefan reconvened us in one week’s time to
apprise us of his new policy points. He put forth an elaborate set of
No longer could we go to the
stockroom and help ourselves with our supplies needs or verbally direct the
clerk, Greggy, to fill them. From that
point on, we would have to fill out a requisition form and submit it to the
office manager, Ritchie. As Stefan
decided to cut this line of the budget by some 20%, Ritchie would have to
evaluate any requests and put tight controls in place to measure their
frequency, and ensure that the inventory is replenished not routinely but based
on a systematic approach—in a way to hold employees accountable for their
supplies usage and foster restraint. Working
lunches at the company’s expense were also ditched. Birthdays used to be pooled and celebrated
at the end of the month; company funds would no longer be available for that
purpose. Limo service was available
starting at 7:00 p.m.; such largesse was deemed unsustainable and had to be
curtailed: it should start no sooner
than 9:00 p.m. Overtime for non-exempt
employees was also put on the chopping block; it used to only require the
immediate supervisor’s authorization—no longer so: the supervisor would, going forward, secure
pre-authorization by submitting a request supported by copious justification to
After completing his expose, Stefan
thanked us all for a “robust and candid” debate. He was satisfied with his plan, as he put it:
or not, these are perks that could go a long way in terms of savings. I urge you to be mindful of these new
guidelines. Even though they won’t be
implemented before the headquarters’ blessings, you can unofficially and
prudently start taking action. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Enrique and I sat across from each
other at the meeting. At one point he
sought my eyes as if to say, “What did I tell you?” He was right:
the way Stefan went at it suggested that he didn’t even consider Plan
B. Any dissensions at that point were moot.
“If he can pull this off, hats off to him! He will have to have strong persuasive powers
to ride against the tide and against the time.”
Enrique opined. “To me, it’s a
death sentence. Time will tell,” he
Indeed, Stefan stuck to his plan, aiming at rallying the
headquarters think-tank to his kinder and gentler proposal. In so doing, he put himself on a collision
course with the novel modus operandi of
the business world, with the “lean and mean” mentality that was getting
traction at that time—lean in that managers had to trim fat, eliminate
unnecessary or redundant tasks and unproductive processes, and make operations
more agile and flexible enough to adapt to the demands of a changing marketplace;
mean in that it involved heart-wrenching or cold-blooded decisions susceptible
to affect people’s lives notwithstanding their job performance, but rather based
on industry averages. As I said above, there were—and still are– no
better tools on Wall Street than a sledge hammer, no better news than cuts
involving layoffs, artfully scripted under the fancy label of “one-time
restructuring charges.” Such prospects bred
a tide of optimism on Wall Street as analysts foresaw higher productivity,
higher output per man-hour (one person forced to do the job of two). It was true back then, and remains true
today. The appetite for that type of
news, more often than not, translated into new highs for stock prices. That Stefan did not understand this “en vogue”
business notion bordered on malpractice, especially at a time when “going
public” was on the offing. Actually, he was too decent a man to go that route,
to use the axe and deprive a head of household of his or her livelihood over
industry averages that might have no relevance to these particular
circumstances… At the risk of sounding naïve, he held
steadfast onto his plan and was convinced that it would appease the headquarters.
Time to Move on
If anything, this episode was a
harbinger of changes to come. Some saw
it as a writing on the wall. Even those who seemingly went along with Stefan
felt a need to reassess their positions on the corporate chess board. Resolute not to wind up with the short end of
the stick, some decided to be proactive.
How resolute they were was manifest in their next move. Luke, the
accounting manager for our peer unit, landed a position with a sister company,
a renowned trade school devoted to the teaching of secretarial skills. His
successor was an ambitious young man who had joined the company as a
staff accountant and moved quickly up the ladder thanks to his hard-nosed
approach and high energy style. He was the one who proposed cutting down on
supplies at Stefan’s infamous meeting. For a moment, Enrique toyed with the
idea of extending his reign over the two units as the assistant controller for
both. However, he quickly dismissed it, not
because it would be too big a morsel to bite, but rather due to a combination
of events: the world of account analyses
and reconciliations no longer exerted its appeal on him, and he was
disenchanted with the direction in which the company was moving. Moreover, Sammy’s abrupt decision to retire
did not sit well with him: Was the
former CFO prescient of the dilemma the company would be faced with down the
road? Did he chose to part ways beforehand-or was he adroitly forced out? Enrique would probably never know the answer
to this twin question. A bit disgusted,
he was feeling further out of his element when Annie left. Orphaned by this
twin departure, he lost the feeling of kinship with the company and his
motivation. With Sammy, he lost an
advocate, a mentor, his entry onto the fast lane of the corporate highway. With Annie, he lost a trusted colleague with
whom he was on the same wavelengths, a comrade, a good sport with whom he could
share any jokes, and who would reward him with her trademark hearty
laughter. He confided in me that he had
grown disengaged from the repetitious accounting and finance schedule.
“I don’t know. But I’m getting tired of this routine. Above all, I’m losing patience with some
characters. I wish I had your saintly
patience and wisdom. Well, onward!”
His last word in that conversation
was ominous. After four years with the
company, Enrique figured it was time to move on. He landed a new job. Not only did he leave the company, he left
the industry and accounting altogether to join a premier financial services
company in a systems-related position. He
and I had another one-on-one.
“You were serious about the whole
thing,” I engaged him.
“Yeah! Time to move on. You know, I lost interest and grew tired of
this nonsense. But you’ll be fine. I’ll
have to endure this for another two weeks.
Other than that, everything will be fine.”
We swung by his office, and engaged
in mundane as well as not-so-trivial banter.
On a personal level, he would be able to spend more time with his nephew;
he spoke fondly of his fascination with the news and precocious interest in anything
political. He would make time to goof
off with him: both of them were
wrestling buffs, and slugged it out for fun—his being half the size of his
nephew somewhat put him at a disadvantage.
The next few days, we worked on transition issues. Jen, who was systems administrator, needed to
learn a few more programs, among which the all-important allocation models. As for me, I was going to be fully engaged in
the monthly close and work closely with Jen on that particular matter. As the days went by, Jen and I had another
important matter of cooperation we had to handle—send Enrique off under the
best auspices, with toast and roast on the menu.
One day, I was summoned to Stefan’s
office. As I walked in, I found Enrique
sitting across from Stefan. Invited to
sit, I pulled the chair next to Enrique.
Skipping all small talk, Stefan cited Enrique’s departure as a test of
resilience for the structure that he had put in place and that, so far, has
proven to be successful.
“On Enrique’s advice, I am pleased
to inform you that you have been appointed assistant controller for the
Education segment. To ensure continuity,
we decided to make it effective on the day following Enrique’s final day in the
office. You have been his trusted
lieutenant from the get-go. As he put
it, a lot of the operational successes this company enjoys are attributable to
the collaboration the two of you had over the years. I trust that you’ll continue on that path.”
Upon hearing those words, I turned to
Enrique to acknowledge my gratitude. He
winked his approval as if to say, “Don’t mention!”
Stefan, then, tendered me the promotion letter, signed by him and Den
C. The letter mentioned a two-tier
increase: one for merit and the other
for promotion. This was a nice sum but
still short of Enrique’s salary. I
frowned a little bit. Stefan seized on
the opportunity to clarify.
“We had to act fast, without having
to go to a full-blown process through Headquarters,” he explained. “Who knows how long that would take? We got you the max we can afford without
going to HQ.” I responded by conveying
how grateful I was more for the recognition this promotion meant to me than the
“I’m fully aware of the challenges
ahead and will do everything I can to face up to them. I want to thank you both for your confidence
and recognition,” I went on to say.
Later in the course of the conversation, I was apprised of the lobbying
effort Enrique pushed through for me to succeed him as assistant controller for
our side of the business. He wrote up a
very thoughtful recommendation on my behalf, in which he stressed the need for
continuity in this important area of operations. Stefan pushed through the paperwork with
lightning speed. He did not find any
resistance from Den or Petey.
Thus the Enrique R. tenure came to
a close. Oh, yes. We did send him off with pomp and terms of
My elevation to that post was not
without controversy. Some key
stakeholders of the organization took issue with the fact that they were not
informed ahead of time; at least they expected to be extended the courtesy of contributing
their advice to the decision. One such
stakeholder, Davy, felt slighted by another act that further made him seem
irrelevant. His vision was that the position
should have at least a dotted reporting line to him. Enrique had always felt his intent and deftly
resisted it. His departure should have
been the opportunity for Davy to step
in, have a say in the decision to fill the vacancy, and to put his imprint on
the position. By making my promotion a fait accompli, the New York branch
further rattled its relationship with him.
The president of the Connecticut operations, Rick (Davy’s boss) did not
harbor similar sentiment. In fact, he
sent me a congratulatory email. As for
Davy, he was not going to let this affront go unchecked. He might not have been the sharpest
analytical mind in the company; however, he surely knew how to navigate the
political waters, and on that score his influence was on the rise. The relationship between him and Stefan
became increasingly difficult. One could
sense his frustration. Understandably,
as the CFO of the CT branch, he had a point in wanting to have control over the
accounting and finance operations: he
was the one footing the bill, when it came to my salary and my staff’s through
the allocation that was charged to his unit.
Frustratingly, this aspect of the business continued to elude him. He was always skeptical of the benefit of
this key operational function. That he
received such untoward treatment at the hands of the NY folks definitely made
him think about severing the ties…
However, he didn’t have the structure or the expertise in place in CT to
move these functions in-house. He had to
concede this tactical setback to the NY Finance office. If anything, it gave me the impetus to think
more strategically about his options.
But, for sure, he was not going to play dead and swallow the
“You Begrudge Me”
My promotion opened up the accounting
manager position. My sense was that
Patti would be promoted to fill it, considering her excellent accounting
credentials—having been an experienced CPA, on contract with the NY AICPA for
grading the exam for years. Also, a
pattern had emerged such that every one of my promotions was followed by
hers—from temp to permanent, from senior accountant to accounting
supervisor. In her mind and mine as
well, her promotion to accounting manager was to follow. At least on one occasion, Patti inquired
about the position in a way that left no doubt that she was vying for it. In casual conversations with Stefan, I had
raised the issue rather tangentially. While he had always been non-committal on
the subject, I figured that it was a matter of time. A
couple of months went by and her fifteen-month evaluation was coming up. Yet, I received no request for a write-up in
her behalf. I approached Stefan and
straightforwardly asked him whether her promotion was given consideration. There was no plan to fill the position, I was
told. I argued that I needed to pass
down some of my responsibilities, and that Patti was the ideal candidate, given
her experience and her knowledge of our modus operandi.
it, Etzer,” he countered, “Why do you think Patti never made it to the next
level, despite her credentials and the fact that she’s good at what she does? Her personality has been, and still is, a
hindrance. Do you know anything about
her beside the fact she is a good worker?”
conceded before pressing again. “We know
Patti is not the friendliest person around.
We know she is not likely to engage in conversation of any sort or cozy
up with anybody.” I paused, and added, “I’d hate to see a good and dependable
staff member being denied a promotion on that basis. She’s one of our critical employees; her
departure would wreak havoc in our ranks.”
“She is not
likely to go anywhere. I bet you she
blank asked me about the promotion.
Maybe she has something in mind in case she’s turned down. Regardless, this might just be the right
thing to do.”
know about that.”
I was taken aback by his sharp
reply, which seemed so uncharacteristic of him.
Sensing that I was “frozen,” he
reckoned that he might have gone a bit too far.
it would be a tough sell.”
This last sentence made me
think… The small brouhaha that my
promotion stirred probably caused him to be cautious. He was not willing to try something that
would further antagonize Davy’s group.
Or he was sure that Davy would use his political capital to block the
promotion, the more of it that Patti does not have an army of supporters at her
disposal to vouch for her or do battle for her.
As bad as it was then, he did not want to run the risk of seeing his
judgment called into question. Furthermore,
the cost cutting plan that he submitted to the headquarters turned into a
fiasco: it never saw the light of
day. His judgment was indeed questioned
and his credibility damaged in the process.
No way was he going to put forth a promotion request. He must have judged that any such move would
be dead on arrival and further undermine whatever was left of his credibility.
Patti’s evaluation came up. We went through the ritual, looked at
particular aspects of her job. As always
she received high marks for job knowledge and technical areas of
responsibility. Interpersonal skills dogged her once more. Overall, she was well above average. I gave my usual spill, consisting mostly of
accolades—how terrific a worker she was, that the department was fortunate to
have her… We had an agreement with her
to reimburse her for professional membership fees and dues. She tendered her voucher, which I signed off on
and promised to route to Stefan for further approval. She thanked me for this and my kind
words. Then she raised the subject of
the open accounting manager position.
I had on the matter lead me to believe that the position won’t be filled. Technically, it’s being phased out.” I
“You know I
expected that promotion. I work hard
enough to at least deserve consideration for it. Give me one reason why I’m not qualified for
your credentials are superb. But that
has nothing to do with credentials or lack thereof. It is an executive decision not to fill the
As I was saying those words, I saw
blood flowing to her cheeks. I could sense her anger reach its climax. In a matter of seconds later, she burst into
begrudge me. I’ve always known it. I knew I couldn’t expect anything from
you. I got this far thanks to
Enrique. You had nothing to do with
it. I know you’d do everything to block
Irate, she rose from her seat and
walked out. For all the years I had
worked with her, I had never seen her in such a state. I could only smile at the irony of the
situation. I shook my head, sighed and
said to myself, “If only she knew…”
On his way out Stefan stopped by my
office to inquire about the outcome of the evaluation.
“Let me put
it this way; I just got my derrière
kicked big time,” I said with an amusing smile.
“She lashed out at me. She
thought it was all my doing that she didn’t get the promotion. She was literally irate. Thanks, pal.” I continued jokingly.
Stefan was not the least amused. He looked at me with empathy.
of her!… So unusual,” he lamented.
right! I got broad shoulders.”
you tell her?”
assured. I didn’t tell her that I pleaded her case but that senior management was
opposed to it. She didn’t know I was
just a messenger nor did she care, for that matter. She let me have it. And I took it on the chin for the team.”
words, he smiled, shook his head, and called it a day.
A New Direction
Since Sammy left the company, Den had
been the interim CFO. This was the apex
of a career at the company that took him from the trenches as accounts payable
representative and junior staff accountant.
He had progressed through the ranks to reach an altitude that would have
been denied to most people with similar circumstances. Den was every bit of an anomaly–an Asian
standing six feet and weighing 250 pounds with a thick accent, a Bachelor’s
degree from a second or third-tier school–which he earned while working
full-time, and no professional certification.
None of this predestined him to be at the financial helm of the
subsidiary of a firm that, a few years earlier, had completed what was dubbed the
deal of the century and perhaps, by historical standards, the largest buyout ever. That he was anointed with these supreme
powers and commanded universal respect from peers and superiors was in and of
itself an exploit and a tribute to his extraordinary intelligence. His name resonated with gravitas in the headquarters’
senior executives’ penthouse in posh Park Avenue as well as top-tier audit firm
D&T’s midtown suite. One felt
illuminated after a meeting with him. He
had a way of turning a worried frown into a smile, for he was so knowledgeable of
the ways and means of the business. More
than anything, perhaps, his way of transmitting knowledge was such that one
never felt ill-at-ease; his good-natured and simply boyish grin, his
down-to-earth demeanor was conducive to a climate, in which the recipient of
his teaching felt a sense of comfort rather than awkwardness or inadequacy. Personally, I never missed any opportunity to
sit with him and learn, and marvel at his ingenious ways. I still remember one occasion when we had to
come up with a reserve methodology for one of our product lines. From the historical data he was presented
with, he devised a financial model and a provision rate based on what he termed
a “double dribble pattern.” How
clever! And at the end of the year, when
we trued up the reserve, actual losses were amazingly close to the
Den’s tenure at the financial
tiller ended some twelve months after his investiture. It was the time when Fannie C. was hired to
succeed Sammy. A svelte, short-haired
blondish woman, who had a career in the banking industry, joined the company to
occupy the top financial spot. That she
had no publishing background was surprising to many. Her hiring raised eyebrows. At a time when banks and financial
institutions were going through the merger craze and all manners of
restructuration, reorganization, re-engineering, spin-off, it was quite telling
that a product of that milieu would head the CFO office of a publishing company. Banks were not viewed as stalwarts of
frugality, as the lavish lifestyle at their highest echelon could testify. The headquarters’ decision to bring on
someone from that line of business was a bit paradoxical, considering their
cost cutting focus. Decisions of such
magnitude are not made haphazardly or left to happenstance. Was a need for fresh blood necessary to break
away from Den’s total main-mise over
the operational systems and procedures? On
that count, her hiring was interpreted by many as the indictment of the “old”
Fannie C. came in with definite
ideas about the direction the company should take. It did not take long for a sense of malaise
to set in between Den and her. One day,
while Stefan and I were in his office, Fannie sent for him for
consultation. That he made no effort to
wrap up our conversation was indicative of how venomous the relationship
between them had become in a matter of months.
In fact, it took less than eight months for Den and Petey to get the
axe. Between the two of them, they must have contributed a cumulative 35 years
to the company. As a matter of fact,
their association commenced well before the headquarters had acquired this
business segment from a flamboyant British owner of a publishing conglomerate. All that came to an end in a flicker. Reportedly, they received a hefty severance
package. They stayed around on their
last day to greet well-wishers. Den took
matters in strides, grinning and joking.
Another woman, the director of finance of a sister company, replaced him
as VP-Finance. As for Petey’s
replacement, the headquarters turned to a loyal friend of their chairman’s,
Pepe M., a successful executive from a Fortune 100 company. The native South-American reached the top
rung of America’s corporate ladder by way of a chemicals and construction
materials conglomerate, where he had worked for three decades. He amassed a small fortune and was hoping to
comfortably retire. Barely a month into
retirement came Chairman Willie R.’s call.
Pepe reluctantly junked his plans and answered his pal’s call. Willie needed a confidant, a trusted ally at
the helm at a time of profound change that, no doubt, would impact the future
of the organization. Pepe was inaugurated as the company’s new president.
By the time the parent company
launched its initial public offering (IPO), it had put in place a new team in
our company, composed of loyalists attuned to its philosophy or indoctrinated
in its belief system. One of the tenets
of the strategy was that the team should be of “first-rate” caliber, able to
read the markets and respond to the demands and exigencies of a public company
environment. The reorganization of the
education and direct marketing segments, which made up some 33% of the business
portfolio, was paramount. There were reasons for concern. The headquarters’ balance sheet was highly
leveraged as their acquisition craze reposed largely on debt financing. While these acquisitions boosted their
revenue base, their consolidated bottom line was still in the red as interest
expense was a major item on the income statement. And some of that flowed down to the
subsidiaries on top of stiff management fees.
A way to profitability was to retire some of the debt. Should the IPO be successful, the cash raised
would allow the retirement of a big chunk of it.
Eventually, the company went public;
its initial public offering (IPO) was well received in the investment
community. The headquarters raised a
significant amount of cash. This
achievement was celebrated with much fanfare.
Sadly enough, I was the only
remnant of the “old regime” controller’s office to witness the event. The only one?
But what about Stefan?
To Tell or Not To Tell
I voluntarily distorted the
chronology of events to end the tale with Stefan. His dismissal did precede Den’s and Petey’s
by a few months. As I sat down in my office, I could not help thinking about our
past, about his interests in my boys. He
gave my oldest, then fifteen, his first job during an Easter break. He encouraged me to bring him in for a data
entry job to update our perpetual inventory system.
come. He’ll learn how it feels to work
in a corporate environment. And in the
process, he’ll be making some bucks.
We’ll pay him $10 dollars an hour.
Kids need that. In addition to
putting money in their pockets, this helps their sense of worth. That’s the
reason I bring my boys to work here during their breaks. You charter for them a course for success.”
His boys… In his mind he was breeding the next
generation of corporate executives and aspired to be a living example for them. At this juncture of his career, he was afraid
that this screeching stop shattered his worth in the eyes of his boys.
toughest thing for me is: How do I break
the news to the boys? I’ve never been
out of work my entire life. What do I
tell them?” For a moment, a pool was
forming in his eye sockets. He regained
his composure in time to hold the tears back.
“I don’t know. I really don’t
you. How to tell them, choosing the
right words, I guess, won’t be easy,” I empathized with him.
“The question is not even ‘How’,”
“What do you mean?” I inquired.
know if I’m going to tell them. Understand… this is unchartered territory for
me. And timing couldn’t be worse, with the
oldest going to college in the fall.”
“Can you really
keep them in the dark? And for how
long?” I asked.
know… really don’t know.”
Upon these words, he summoned his courage and stood up.
luck! You’ve been good to me. You and Enrique opened doors for me. I’m grateful for that.” I thanked him.
been great yourself! You’ll continue to
do well. But, be careful with some
people.” I knew exactly whom he was
We shook hands. Stefan walked out of my office. I likened his way home to a journey
across the desert that he would wish interminable. He was sacked because he did not deliver the
heads that the headquarters had asked of him.
He misread the circulars that they had issued regarding the company’s
new direction. What was expected of him
was the stomach to make tough decisions along the line of staff reduction,
position phase-out—things that Wall Street was enamored with. Where did he go wrong in his calculation? Well, he forgot that the firm that sat atop
our pyramid, our parent’s parent company, was reputed in the penthouses of Wall
Street for its cold-hearted decisions, its implacable raids and hostile
takeovers. He forgot that the firm was headed
by a fearsome trio who earned the nom de
guerre of “Barbarians” in the
mergers and acquisitions quarters; that these virtuosos in the art of
leveraging reigned with terror in the corporate arena, held a Damocles’ sword
over the heads of CEO’s of Fortune-500 companies, and set no limits to their
temerity and their thirst for control.
These were the forces Stefan was up against. When the Barbarians showed up at the gates
and demanded heads, Stefan offered them, instead, measly widgets–convinced
that he could sell them on a kinder course of action, on a humane alternative. He was
too decent a guy, too loyal a boss to risk the livelihood of his staff over a numbers
game. A sense of his humane side
manifested itself once, when he pulled an employee on the side after he
received a garnishment request from the IRS; he urged him to reach a settlement
with the agency, because he did not want to do it. For daring to defy the sacrosanct precept of
cost cutting through layoffs, he paid the capital price, with his own head.
A couple of weeks later, my phone rang.
speaking,” I answered.
Stefan was on the other line.
hear from you. Can you hold a second?”
I rose from my seat, walked toward the door and shut it.
things going, Stefan?”
bit better. I was checking in to see how
you’re doing and how things have been since I left.”
there… As you know, there’s plenty of work. Hectic at times, of course. Other than that, it’s going. My guess is things will settle down for a
while. Well, we’ll see.”
that they’ll bring someone from central office to fill the position.”
that too. We’ll see what comes next. Well,
under the circumstances, I’m taking it one day at a time.”
you’ll be fine.”
myself to be the last vestige, sort of a relic of the old Controller’s office. Yet this kind of makes me uneasy, don’t you agree? How deep they’re going with that
restructuration thing is the question.”
afford to do anything stupid. Not at this point, anyway. I
still think you should be okay.”
your vote of confidence. Now, how about
you? How’s your family? And the boys, how did they take the news?”
they know nothing about it.”
“I kid you
not. I couldn’t bear telling them.”
do they say when they see you at home?’
I don’t stay home.”
“Really! Where do you go?”
of mine owns a small business. I’ve been going there every day. I spend the
time in his shop. He needs help with the
books, anyway; I had been promising him to give him a hand with his accounting
and not been able to make good on the promise. Also, from there I’ve been trying to reach out
to the corporate world, working on my resume. Hopefully, I’ll get something
soon. That would help, you know.”
tough. Can’t believe it’s been two weeks
already. How much longer can you keep it
from them? How about your wife? Does she know?”
does. But the kids, it’s a different
story. It’s hard. I need a little more time. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week I’ll find a
way to tell them. I don’t know… Anyway, I wanted to check in and see how
you’re doing. Take care.”
Stefan. Keep in touch.”
I visualized Stefan keeping up with
his daily routine, as if nothing happened—setting his clock to wake him up, clad
in his double-breasted blue suit buttoned over his Oxford white shirt enhanced
by a red tie adorned with subtle motifs, having breakfast with his boys,
kissing his wife good-bye, clutching his briefcase, and headed off to
God-knows-where. En route he might run
across a few acquaintances on the LIRR, with whom he would exchange mundane
niceties. He felt compelled to carry on this charade to maintain a semblance of
normalcy and preserve a myth carefully woven within his family—the successful
father, the know-it-all father, provider of all things big and small. This firing shattered his image, threw him
off the pedestal that his family erected for him, and reduced him to his
simplest expression. It was a blow to his psyche—a blow that threw him in the
land of make-believe with a heightened sense of personal devaluation, regardless
of his past professional successes. He
could not help being overcome by a feeling of nothingness, of worthlessness. Stefan’s predicament was a stark reminder of
the frailty and inanity of our human condition, and the many forms of
expression it could take. His perception of himself, his sense of worth was
tied to his job. He had invested so much
in his job that his universe revolved around it and much of his identity was imbedded
into it. Losing his job was tantamount
to losing part of his identity, the essence of who he was in the eyes of his
dearest ones. What an absurd state of affairs that made a job the centerpiece
of his life, the prism through which he appraised his worth, irrespective of
any intrinsic human qualities he was endowed with! How absurd was this human condition that compelled
him to seek refuge in a masquerade, to hide out in a far-fetched scenario that
ultimately, yet unintentionally, duped the ones in his life he cared the most about: his boys.
How harsh was this human condition that subjected him to life’s vagaries,
caprices, and topsy-turvies to the point of driving him to an existential
dead-end. How this was resolved is not known to me. We kept in contact through the years, rather
infrequently. I felt it awkward during
those briefs moments to broach such a delicate issue and left it at that.
But there was a silver lining in
this whole experience. Chuck ended up
being a success story with the company.
He was elevated to the manager of Accounts Payable position, after
having been initially passed over for the promotion. When at some point a rival company made him
an offer to join it in the same capacity, the company counter-offered; thus a
bidding war ensued between the two companies.
In the end, he stayed put with substantial consideration. Chuck’s was
one of the best hiring decisions I have ever made. I was not there to witness
these events, as my position had been phased out. This, in itself, is a tale for another time.
© Copyright Etzer Cantave 2013
At the time, I was in graduate school at Roosevelt University in Chicago. A full-time student with a stringent class
schedule, replete with research papers, class presentations, and volume
reading, I took up cab driving as my means of support. Getting my MBA was my priority. Any job that did not involve a boss breathing
down my neck or interfere with my academic schedule qualified as a great one. Hacking
my way through the streets and expressways of the Windy
while providing me altogether with a rich experience.
A cab is a cosmopolitan place, where the rich and famous
cross paths with ordinary mortals; where decent and well-meaning passengers
trade places with obnoxious and pretentious parvenus. Some passengers would care to engage in
conversation with you, inquiring about your background, while others would
harbor an aristocratic air, looking down on you as if you were unworthy of
attention, invisible at the bottom of the social barrel, and referring to you
in the derogatory term of “cabby.” Some
would, out of heart-felt concern, ask about your goals and be pleasantly
surprised that you were pursuing graduate studies. Others would chastise you for being late for some
important meeting, because you did not drive fast enough. Some would arrogantly display their symbols
of success; boastfully refer to the hefty bonuses they stood to get for successful
due diligence work on recent mergers and acquisitions. Others with modest means would keep their
eyes riveted on the fare meter, each incremental ticking of which felt like a
dagger into their stomach—in one instance, a passenger deemed the pressure too intense
and asked to be dropped off one block before destination. Some would, from some myth portraying cab
driving as a lucrative business, inquire about your profit margin only to
realize that, as a rookie, you could barely break-even—as you have not
developed the acumen conferred by years of experience, nor cultivated special
relationships with dispatchers, which would guarantee problem-free cabs. Others came onboard with the deep-seated preconception
that cab drivers were crooks who tampered with meters, and let that point
across bluntly. Obviously, they did not
realize that it was more beneficial for the cab driver to drop off a passenger
as quickly as possible, that the few bucks he would be gaining were outweighed
by his opportunity cost. Most riders
understood that tipping was an important part of the business; some did it
whole-heartedly, others grudgingly. One
guy I took to destination to a “forbidden” part of the city was so grateful that
he offered me apologetically, in lieu of a tip, a weed cigarette. In one other instance, I blew a chance for a hefty
tip because I was unable to accede to a customer’s special request. That executive from
who was in
for a convention, made his wish known unequivocally: “I want to see hookers.” He was quite incredulous, a bit upset when I
confessed my ignorance—feigned, in his view–of their whereabouts. Suffice to
say that passengers were from all walks of life.
Drivers as well came from all walks of life, ranging from the
veteran, who had not held another job since his discharge from military service,
to the part-timer who saw in the profession a means to supplement his income;
to the displaced industrial worker whose job was phased out and who was looking
for a second lifeline; to the immigrant doctor preparing for his “matching”
exam–which would allow him entry into a residency program; to the immigrant
lawyer who gave up all personal ambitions and, instead, dedicated himself to
sending his kids to Ivy League schools.
Some intended cab driving to be a transitional occupation between jobs, but
ended up taking it up full-time. Others took it up to complete their schoolwork. One such individual was so enamored with the
freedom he enjoyed that he did not return to corporate
receiving his Master’s. He particularly
relished the ability to monitor his investment portfolio on a full-time basis. I met him in the line-up at the O’Hare cab
pool, in the midst of my required reading for an evening class, awaiting the famous
“Front Row!” calls from the dispatcher to pick up fares from incoming flights.
Work habits among drivers varied widely. One career driver boasted about working on an “executive”
schedule. Judging by the high-pitch tone
of his voice, if he were talking out of view behind a curtain, one would think
of a six-foot two, two-hundred-plus pound man.
None of that! He barely stood
five feet and weighed no more than one hundred thirty pounds—the tiny kind with
big presence and strong convictions! “Executives go home at five, so do
I.” According to him, before eight a.m.
and after five p.m. pickups were fraught with trouble. He backed its claim with “true” stories. Always
dapper, clad oft-times in a leather blazer, he only leased his cab for twelve
hours—half a day. As a rookie, I knew I
had to toil through late nights to make ends meet, so a twelve-hour lease would
not work. Yet, to pay homage to the
skinny veteran’s acumen, I would acknowledge that anything bad that ever
happened to me did after five p.m. First
day on the job, doing my last pickup, I was rear-ended by another cab that
coveted the same fare. What an
omen! A friend in the business
recommended an accident lawyer who secured me a sum just shy of one thousand
Cab driving was quite an experience.
I saw up close the noble as well as the infamous side of human nature. I got cheated by fare beaters, who scampered
through back alleys after I dropped them off.
On the other hand, a lawyer from
deemed my shaking my head after a stop derogatory. The most unforgettable experience occurred a
couple of weeks before my graduation on a Christmas’ Eve, one of the coldest
days in Chicago’s history. The forecast
called for a record-breaking low of minus 260 F and a high of no
more than minus 110. Usually,
cold days had a potential for big payoffs.
I figured that day would live up to that expectation, if only I could
manage to find a vehicle in good condition to lease. Apparently, none was available from the pool. Undaunted, I settled for one of the few that
were parked in a remote corner of the garage.
I soon realized why it was left in that corner: to get that old rag to pick up speed, I had
to push on the gas pedal down to the floor and gradually release it. I had issues with the cab throughout the day;
but I rationalized that, as long as my fares consisted of trips within city
limits, I could safely call it a day by 5 p.m.
However, at 4:30 a fare to the west suburbs put me in a dilemma. It meant trekking the old cab along the Eisenhower
Expressway at the rate of heavy pumping on the gas pedal. I pondered whether it was worth the hernia I feared
I would wind up with from the pumping and the risk of being stranded in some
unfamiliar territory miles away from home.
Yet tempted by the opportunity of a $35 fare and closing business with a
bang, I took the gamble.
The way out was relatively uneventful.
I made the drop-off, pocketed $40 bucks, and circled back onto the main
road with a plan to go straight home.
All of a sudden, my headlights and dashboard lights went out. The accelerator was unresponsive. The heater was off. It was clear:
The old cab collapsed on me… some sixty miles away from home… and at the
worst possible time. Darkness had
already set in. Traffic was reduced to a
handful of cars sporadically dashing by.
The temperature was inexorably sinking to its predicted low. The car continued to advance, but was
gradually losing speed. I reckoned,
rather I hoped that, Chicagoland being flat, I should be able to roll on and
reach a place where I could place a phone call to the cab company; that is, as
long as I did not come across a stop sign or a red light. However,
surely enough, about a quarter of mile away, a green traffic light stood like a
gatekeeper. I pressed on the gas pedal
once more, to no avail. I would have to brake soon, unless by miracle the green
light ahead froze in time. Alas! I watched in despair the green light turn to
yellow, then to red. I had to brake. The car stopped. No power! No heat! A deserted boulevard! No
help in site! The barometer from a
nearby bank read minus 180, but the whizzing wind made it feel twice
as cold. My feet and hands were already
numb and heavy from the cold. Unable to
budge, I watched the lights turn back to green. I was besieged by macabre thoughts about my wife
and my young kids waiting through the night and worrying. They were still asleep when I left earlier
that day. If only I had a chance to hug
them before I left… What a terrible
death to die! I visualized the
headlines: “Cabby Frozen to Death on Route…” I thought about my obituary, about what it
would say… So close to graduation. Only days away from the promise of a better
life. No, I was determined to hold on.
For my boys and my wife. I
thought about the skinny veteran with strong convictions. He was right:
I had no business being out there past five. The blistering cold was marching on,
permeating all the tissues of my body. A
lone pick-up truck stopped at the red light.
A young man in the passenger seat rolled down his window.
“Need a boost?” he shouted.
I could only nod.
“Give us five to ten minutes.
We’re dropping off our mom at work at the hospital. We’ll get back,” he went on.
Sure, I thought, two white boys coming to a black cabby’s rescue! I was doomed.
The ten minutes seemed interminable.
No car headed in my direction. I
knew it! Yet I was holding onto that
straw of a chance, scrutinizing the westbound traffic. Suddenly a couple of headlights emerged from
the darkness. They had to be from the
pickup truck; but my hope vanished when they crossed the intersection and
proceeded. I was resigned to my fate, as
I could feel no part of my body. Soon a pickup truck stopped parallel to my
cab. Two young men came out. They flashed a smile I found reassuring.
“Pop the hood open!” one shouted.
My frozen hand could not cooperate.
It felt like an inert mass with
no grip. Sensing my problem, he opened my
door and pulled the hood cable himself, while the other brother brought out a
jumpstart cable and attached it to the cab battery poles. They signaled me to crank. For the life of me, I could not feel my hand,
let alone turn the key. The younger brother jumped in, moved me to the
side, handed me his gloves, and tried to crank.
Nothing happened! He paused for a
few moments, blew in his cupped hands:
give it a bit more time” he reassured me.
As a way to allay my despair, he tried to engage in small talk, asked me
about the cab business. I was so cold
that my speech slurred into incoherence.
It took three tries for the engine to start. I could see the relief in the faces of my two
young Samaritans. Overwhelmed by
gratitude, I was ready to pay them whatever they would charge. Surprisingly, they refused to take any
money. Upon my insistence, so as not to
hurt my feelings, they only took $5. On
top of that, they gave this salutary advice:
“Don’t stop along the way.
Don’t turn the engine off and wait a while before turning on the heat!” Thereupon I bade farewell to the two angels
who saved my life and brought me back to my family.
On my long way home, I thought about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
perceptive remark about human nature being fundamentally good. I related the brothers’ action to the bravery
of those white firefighters who, at their own peril, fended off the raging
flames of a burning building to save the life of a trapped black kid. Likewise, I equated their noble sentiment to the
magnanimity of that slave, who jumped into the river to save his master’s
drowning son, while his back was still dripping blood from a recent whipping. People such as these are made of the finest cells
of the human specimen.
My experience had not always been that dreadful. Once, I had a hearty laugh out of a
fare. That day, I picked up a woman in
“¿Habla Español?” She inquired.
“Un poquito.” (A little), I responded.
Her destination was City Hall.
“Sí, Señora, ¿Cómo
no?” (Sure, Ma’am), I proceeded, braggingly.
She was visiting from
and had to run an errand to City Hall. I
picked her up at the corner of Wabash and
is three blocks east of
Dearborn Streets running in between. From
what I recall, State Street at that time was closed to traffic, except for CTA
(Chicago Transit Authority) buses. The
most direct way was to go westward from where I was; however, it was not the
quickest way due to some road construction.
I figured the best route was to go further east on Roosevelt, north on
and south on
could not fathom the detour. Now picture
yours truly in my broken Spanish, trying to explain my convoluted scenario to
my incredulous passenger.
“No es lejos de alli!” (It’s not far from here), she
insisted. I assured her that I took the
most efficient route, given the flow of traffic and the better green light
sequence. Sitting on the edge of her
seat, peeking at the meter, she definitely thought I was trying to defraud
her. When we arrived at destination, the
meter read some $3.50. She thrust the
money into my palm, exited the cab, walked up to the passenger window and
“¡Usted, Ladrón!” (You, thief!)
“¡Yo Ladrón!” (Me
thief!) I retorted, stupefied.
“¡Si, si, si, Usted,
Ladrón!” She stressed, with disdain and indignation.
Thereupon she assuredly walked
away with an attitude bordering on insolence.
Incensed, I tried to reach for a Spanish curse to counter her affront
before she disappeared from view. None came readily to me, but I was determined
not let her get away with a sense of victory.
In my desperation, the only word that came to mind was “Maricón”. Oh, No!
One side of my brain pleaded with me not to violate the Taxi Commission’s
code of ethics. The other side was equally
forceful about not getting the effrontery go unpunished. The sight of her derrière,
bouncing left and right as lasciviously as tauntingly, was unbearably offensive,
and won over my naughty side.
“¡Usted, Maricón!” I lashed out at the top of my lungs, confident I had the last
Oops! Upon hearing it, she made
a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn, walked back toward me, shaking her head from
shoulder to shoulder. That time, her
indignation gave way to a wry smile. Obviously,
she sensed her victory and came for the coup
de grace. When she reached the
passenger door, she bent down in full view, her face still harboring the sly
smile and glowing with cockiness, wagged her index finger, then pointed it at my
no, no! Usted, Maricón!”
She punctuated it with a wink and walked away more assuredly than ever,
savoring her triumph.
I was speechless. Impressed
with her guts, I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.
By the way, “Maricón”
is a pejorative word, exclusively used for men in the Hispanic culture. It is slang for “Sissy.”
Copyright 2008 Etzer Cantave
It did come down to Ohio’s 18 electoral
votes to push President Obama over the hump of 270 electoral votes and seal the
deal for his second term. How sweet! A grateful state delivered a stunning blow
to Governor Romney and sent a powerful message to his clique of plutocrats that
money does not buy the Office of President of the United States of America. Ohioans proved that, no matter how insidious the
combination of money, voter suppression, the circle of untruths could be, these
tactics could not shake the gratitude of a people whose livelihood was
positively impacted by the Stimulus and auto bailout, two initiatives of Obama’s much decried
by his opponents. Last-minute
outright lies and other acts of desperation, and manipulations of Secretaries-of-State could not deter the people of the Buckeye State. If anything, these shenanigans energized them. This sense of urgency was echoed in other
states such as Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Wisconsin—states on
which Romney heavily counted but which dashed his hopes of acceding to the most
powerful job in the world. That these states followed suit to Ohio and denied Romney access to the White signified an emphatic rejection of a skewed political message and a
flawed strategy that elevated big money as the panacea to elective office. The lesson from Ohio and the other battle
ground states was clear: Big Money
does not vote; people do. The title of this article may sound ambitious; it is rather a modest attempt at understanding Mitt Romney’s defeat.
After their crushing defeat in 2008
by then-Senator Barack Obama, the expectation among many observers of the political
scene was that the Republicans would go through some therapeutic introspection
to determine what had gone wrong, and charter a new way forward. Had they genuinely done so, they would have discovered
the errors of their ways, i.e. that they ran an uninspiring campaign bereft of a
cogent strategy and predicated on a hunch that the specter of a President Barack
Obama was enough of a “threat” to woo the electorate in their favor. Unfortunately, they looked elsewhere for the
root cause of their failed attempt. Led by
a radical fringe blinded by its self-righteousness, they could not bring
themselves to the realization that they were outsmarted by a candidate whose resume included an genial campaign in the Democratic primaries in 2008 leading to the general elections which he marshaled through with great efficiency and
skill. Lost on them was the fact that Obama
had crafted a strategy that changed the dynamics of political races in America
thanks to a judicious mix of fundraising, demographic appeal, technological
leverage, savvy data mining, inspiring message, and personable demeanors. But the Republicans were unrepentant: they
blamed their loss not on their inability to read, or their reluctance to
embrace, the changing landscape of America but on an alleged fraud… perpetrated
by record fundraising and massive voter registration. They reduced the root cause of their
loss in 2008 to two factors: Obama’s
prodigious fundraising which, by the way, they deemed most suspicious, and the
activism of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy organization that registered millions of first-time voters—did I
say fraudulently? In their view, Obama’s accession to the presidency in 2008 was an illegitimate act brought about by the $750 million he raised, and that
John McCain could not match, given that private donations were capped at
$2,500. Conspiracy theories were plentiful
to discredit these funds; the Republican National Committee (RNC) alleged “possibly
illegal foreign donors” (Washington Post, Dec 5, 2008) and even attempted a lawsuit
with the Federal Electoral Commission against Obama’s possible middle-eastern
money connections. Furthermore, the
Republicans were convinced that the 2008 elections were rigged by illegal schemes
and massive voter frauds concocted by ACORN, which succeeded in mobilizing an
unprecedented number of poor or disenfranchised voters whose suffrage
overwhelmingly went Democratic. So, from
their “introspection” emerged two overarching goals to win back the White House: Curb, or at least match, Democratic voter
enthusiasm and surpass Obama’s fundraising machine.
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th
President of the United States of America was a bitter pill for the Grand Old Party (GOP). From the start, fringe elements of the Party
dismissed this historic event as an anomaly.
When Chief Justice Roberts botched the oath of office by mingling the
words of the Constitution (unintentionally), some groups were ready to use this
gaffe to contest the legitimacy of the new president on constitutional
grounds. The repeat of the ceremony in
the White House defused this plan. The
opposition to Obama was not constricted to fringe elements. Reportedly, the leaders of Republican
congressional caucus made a pact over dinner in the wake of Obama’s
inauguration to derail his agenda. Already
some factions of the GOP were lining up in lockstep to make life difficult for
the new administration. Their behavior
in the months that followed showed how quickly they
dusted off their loss and readied themselves for battle. First and foremost, they aimed their fire at ACORN. Under the
auspices of some vigilante “reporters”, the right ring media vilified the organization by way of a wave of negative reports aired
with great fanfare and supported by infamously doctored videos. The wide audience that the assault against
ACORN received in conservative circles led Congress to defund the organization
in September 2009. This was a major tour de force engineered by the Republicans. For, they
were a minority in the House of Representatives; yet they managed to cow the Democratic House into submission: with a vote of 345-75 all federal funding to ACORN
was suspended. This vote caused a chain
of reactions in the sponsorship community, whose defunding administered the coup de grace to ACORN and the social
causes it espoused for the empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised. But they hungered for
more. Something else had to be done on
this side of the equation to galvanize their forces. Enter the Tea Party! Labeled at first a grass-roots movement that
supposedly sprang to action thanks to ordinary citizens’ concerns, the Tea Party
focused its activism on fiscal responsibility, budget cuts, and reduction of government
spending. The movement’s sudden burst onto the scene, only
weeks after Barack Obama’s inaugural, was all the more puzzling that these
deficit hawks were silent when George W. Bush ran monstrous deficits resulting
from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his drug benefit program. Actually, the Tea Party’s newly found
activism was not all that spontaneous after all: from the onset,
powerful conservative interests rode the movement’s coat tails, high-jacked its momentum,
co-opted its preoccupations, crafted its agenda, and steered it totally to the
right. For one, Americans for Prosperity
(AFP), an organization funded by oil magnates David and Charles Koch, ran a
crusade against Obama through the Tea Party as early as April 15, 2009. Backed by AFP’s logistical support, the Tea
Party adherents turned out in droves against the Stimulus package, then against the Healthcare
proposal at rallies and town halls remarkable by their fanatic overtone,
accented by vitriolic outbursts against the President in a buoyancy rarely seen in Republican circles. The Tea Party, the GOP’s Enfant Terrible, brought back to the
Party the enthusiasm that was so glaringly lacking at previous gatherings–an asset the GOP wished to turn over into a healthy turnout in future elections.
With the ouster of ACORN and the rise of the Tea Party, the Republicans
scored a twin success in that, on the one hand, they shut down an important
conduit to the Democratic voter turnout and, in the other hand, their angry base’s deep-seated dislike of the President propelled it to action.
Yet, all that would not amount to significant leverage in future
electoral campaigns, if their ability to raise fabulous sums of money remained
restrained by existing legislation. Fortunately
for them, they didn’t have to engineer schemes to circumvent said-legislation. The U.S. Supreme Court spared
them this inconvenience when in January 2010 they issued their landmark
decision on the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). The High Court reversed a ruling by the Federal
Court of the District of Columbia, which denied the group Citizens United’s
request of an injunction against the FEC’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act
(BCRA). By reversing the lower Court’s
decision, the conservative Supreme Court of John Roberts lifted the limitations
on “big money” imposed by Section 203 of the BCRA, which prevented corporations
and labor unions from funding political advertisements from their general
treasuries. In a five-four decision, the
Court argued that the injection of money in campaigns by moral persons such
as corporations and other entities was an exercise of free speech guaranteed by
the First Amendment, and that, as such, this exercise could not be impeded. The High Court’s ruling, in such peremptory
terms, gave free rein to “big money.”
For the GOP, this was manna from Heaven. They could count on their coterie of rich
donors’ large infusions of cash into their campaigns to neutralize,
better yet surpass, Obama’s efficient fundraising machine.
time of President Obama’s first anniversary in the White House, it was clear
that the march through the wilderness that Liberal Democrats had gleefully predicted
for the GOP in the wake of John McCain’s resounding loss to Obama had not
materialized. On the contrary, the Party
demonstrated extraordinary survival skills. The “threat” of an “arch-liberal,” proponent
of big government, a “socialist,” an imposter of dubious origins in the White
House unified their factions under the banner of the Tea Party, rallied centrist
or center-right voices to the stridence of a far-right hysterically vowing to “take
(their) country back.” Such heightened
militancy together with astute maneuvering and caustic rhetoric by the Republicans caused the Democrats to recoil. And
during that window of paralysis, Congressional Republicans seized the
initiative and engaged in all manners of parliamentary tactics to block the President’s
agenda and key nominations to cabinet positions, agencies, and judgeships. Their rapid resurgence and
newly found power brightened their campaign
prospects to a degree that bordered on arrogance and cockiness—as
epitomized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stunning statement, “The
single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be
one-term president.” This sense of optimism and
inevitability would be tested in November 2010 two years before the
Indeed, the mid-term electionsof November 2010 lived up to the Republicans’ expectations.
They confirmed the undeniable ascent of the Tea Party on the American
political scene. Campaigning on an agenda rife
with a Tea Party flavor, the Republicans administered, in the word of President
Obama, a “shellacking” to the Democrats:
they won the majority in the House and improved their minority position
in the Senate. Their success swept through the political
spectrum. For, not only had these
elections succeeded in changing the make-up of Congress, they also changed the
gubernatorial and state legislature landscapes across the battleground states—Virginia,
Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Florida. This reality opened up an avenue for newly
elected governors, state legislatures, and secretaries of state to embark on a
new brand of activism. These structures
of local governments would act in unison to scuttle the Democratic agenda,
finish the job that started with the demise of ACORN, and alter the course of
elections in America. In a
divide-and-conquer strategy, these actors staked out their fields of action: the governors targeted the trade unions and
other Democratic constituencies, while secretaries of state and legislatures eyed
a sector of the electorate sympathetic to Obama—chiefly African Americans and
Latinos, young voters, women. Under the
guise of cost cutting and job creation initiatives, the governors introduced pension
reform and right-to-work legislations (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, among others),
whereby laborers could opt out of union membership and dues. In fact, these acts were geared to financially
cripple the unions, emasculate their electoral power play, and ultimately limit
their ability to drive the “get-out-to-vote” effort that proved so instrumental
in Obama’s success in 2008. Likewise, state
legislatures and secretaries of state enacted laws aimed supposedly at curbing
electoral fraud (remember the beef against ACORN)–new voter registration law,
voter ID requirements, and other restrictive measures affecting absentee
ballots, early voting, voting days and hours.
Yet again, these measures were devised to suppress, through intimidation
and disenfranchisement, the minority vote in contravention with the letter and
spirit of the Voting Act of 1964. These
actors could hardly conceal their intent, as exemplified by Pennsylvania House
Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican, who stated that the goal of the
Voter ID Law was to “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Moreover, in their zeal to transform the
nation and impose their radical views, the legislatures in the Republican
states got carried away by pressing forward on a crusade to promote the
sanctity of life, and introducing amendments drawing on their extreme
positions—the personhood amendment in Mississippi and the ultrasound
legislation in Virginia were examples of infringement upon women’s rights by a
Republican extreme right bent on reshaping the world in the mold of their
passions and intolerance, and paving the way to the reversal of Roe v. Wade and
making abortion unconstitutional.
Such local efforts found an echo in Congress, where
Republican gamesmanship was in full gear. The Republicans read their victory in
the November 2010 mid-term elections as a referendum on President Obama, a
repudiation of his policies, and a gratification of their obstructionist
stance. In the Senate, filibustering–a
dilatory parliamentary tactic designed to prevent the passage of legislation,
short of the 60 required votes, by using endless motions–reached unprecedented
proportions. In the House, where they
became the new majority, the Republican legislators blocked such
Administration’s initiatives as the Jobs Bill and the Infrastructure Bill, at a
time when the nation’s economy was plagued with high joblessness and they
themselves had been clamoring the necessity to focus on job creation. While
the recession President Obama inherited technically ended as early as the third
quarter of 2009 when the economy grew for two successive quarters, unemployment
had persistently hovered above 8%. Understandably,
given the abyss to which the economy had plunged, a 2% annual growth rate would not be enough to keep up with massive state and local government as well as industry
layoffs and, at the same time, accommodate new entrants (college graduates) into
the labor force. The economic growth was much too modest to
significantly reduce unemployment. The
passage of the Jobs and Infrastructure Bills would have provided the stimulus the
economy needed to grow at a faster rate, in the absence of a robust engagement by the private sector. But this would go counter to Republican
politics, whose single-minded objective was to refrain from anything that would
end up helping Barack Obama. They had a vested interest in a languid
economy plagued by an 8%+ unemployment rate—a bonanza for campaign slogans and
bumper stickers. History was on their
side: no President ever won re-election
when the unemployment rate was above 8%.
The Republicans mapped out their road
to success with great care. Yet, they figured that their success would
only be marginal without a propaganda machine.
They needed to leverage the power and far-reaching arm of broadcast
media to ensure that their constituencies had unfettered access to sources of
information that hyped their world view.
They had to keep their base in a cocoon-like universe, away from the
cesspools of the “Liberal media” for fear of contamination. They needed a news media of their own that
could feed their followers’ paranoia vis-à-vis “mainstream media”, which they deemed
in cahoots with the left of the political spectrum and sold on Obama’s
policies. They needed a trusted, “fair
and balanced” voice that paralleled the Left Ring Press. Enter FOX News! This network had done wonders to advance the
cause of Republican politics and probably been the main reason why the
Republican brand had not faded away after the 2008 debacle. FOX was their voice. Without Fox-News, the coalescence of the
Republican Party around the Tea Party’s conservative agenda in stout opposition
to Obama would not have been possible. Under Fox-News’ nefarious orchestration,
the Tea Party’s intransigence swept through the GOP and stymied any attempts at
compromising; moderate and
conservative voices of the GOP united in an increasingly scathing anti-Obama
rhetoric that has not abated since the 2008 Democratic Primaries. By going all-out on a relentless attack on a
sitting president in the United States of America, Fox has made itself into an anomaly
in the annals of broadcast media; it has cast itself apart in an ecosystem
where its line-up of anchors and guests indefatigably spread a round-the-clock
anti-Obama narrative destined to a viewership already pre-disposed against the
President. In this light, this news
media outlet’s motto (Fair and Balanced) proved to be a caricature of the
journalistic credo, a betrayal of the objectivity tenet championed by Edward
Murrow. Fox was not alone in this
endeavor: it was aided by some powerful
voices on radio, most notably Rush Limbaugh, whose virulent rants never ceased
targeting the President.
Strengthened by the power of
unlimited fundraising, of unrelenting obstructionism in Washington driven by Tea
Party-backed lawmakers, of an enthusiastic base revved up by a visceral dislike
of the President, of activist governors, state legislatures and administrators
bent on suppressing the vote of Democratically-inclined constituencies, of a
media outlet dedicated to defeating the President, the Republicans had reason to
celebrate. To top it all off, new polls
taken in the beginning of summer 2012 indicated that Obama’s support among
white men had slipped by some 4%. It all
came at a time when the President was wrestling with a stubborn 8% unemployment
rate, yet had the audacity to run on a platform of higher taxes and lower
defense expenditures—all losing propositions for any candidates for the past
three decades. Such a tableau set the
stage, in the minds of the Republicans, for an upset in November 2012. Yet, they faced a conundrum: they were not enamored with their
nominee. Governor Romney’s brand of
conservatism did not meet their test.
Despite his claim to the contrary, he did not strike them as a credible
challenger, a candidate firmly grounded in conservative principles. That he convincingly overpowered his
adversaries towards the end of the process did not sway conservative
This group, in particular, has always lamented that the Party in recent
decades had strayed from its core values by nominating candidates with mild
conservative credentials such as George H. Bush (Sr.), Bob Dole, John McCain–all
moderates who were trounced by their Democratic opponents in presidential races. These past candidates could never energize
the conservative base because either they were middle-of-the-road politicians
willing to form alliances with the other side at the expense of their social values,
or because they were not fiscally conservative enough. In 2012, the call was for a “true”
conservative to face President Obama.
This quest opened up a race within a race among the candidates during the Primaries. In the process of promoting themselves as the “perfect” candidate, they pushed themselves irremediably to the right, making
claims and counter-claims catering to the far-right appetites of their
Party. It turned out that the candidates
who could tout their conservative credentials (Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick
Santorum) did not have the economic gravitas of Mitt Romney, dubbed derisively
as a “Massachusetts moderate” adept at flip-flopping on every social issue of
importance to the base–to which Romney took exception, proclaiming
his “severely conservative” background and backing it up with outlandish
declarations, notably on immigration.
Yet, the Republicans could not shake their reticence towards Romney, for
they kept being reminded that he wavered in so many instances: he failed the abortion litmus test, having
been on all sides of the issue; he made damning statements about the “killing”
effect of coal during his gubernatorial bid; on guns, he was never solidly
committed to the issue. In the
primaries, while Santorum and Rick Perry touted their gun-toting abilities or
played up their hunting skills with great fanfare, Romney had to admit that he
wasn’t a “great hunter” and stitched with great pain a story about hunting elk
or pheasant—perhaps a step up from his “rodent” or “small varmint” hunting experience
he related during his 2008 campaign, but quite unconvincing. So, three major constituencies of the
Republican Party were not sold on Romney’s “severe” conservatism: the crusaders of the abortion issue; the
Appalachian Belt America so dependent on coal extraction; the gun enthusiasts,
a fraction of whom had been feverishly arming themselves since Obama took
office out of deep distrust of the federal government and for fear that it would
defer to the United Nations (UN)—for these folks, the Republicans represented a
stalwart against a “big brother” government, whereas Obama would take away
their guns and surrender to the UN. To
that crowd Romney was a thorn on the side.
Up until the last minute, the
Republicans longed for a surgeon to get rid of this thorn. When Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s
governor, and their last hope, Chris Christie, removed themselves from the list,
they resigned themselves to the reality that the Governor of Massachusetts,
after all, won the nomination even though he labored through the long and
protracted Primaries, and should not just be dissed. Yet the trust deficit that plagued his
relations with the electorate was too great to be ignored. He had to have a co-signer to close the
deal. The base needed a guarantor who
could vouch for him (big gamble for any taker, given the flip-flopping thing!)
or, at the very least, a watchdog who would make sure he did the conservatively
correct thing. Hence was born the idea of
flanking Mitt Romney with a politician of stellar conservative credentials and
impeccable Tea Party grades, and whose categorical positions on life issues and
Medicare earned him rave reviews by the conservatives. Enter Paul Ryan! The Party tapped the controversial Representative
from Wisconsin, the avatar of neo-conservatism, to chaperone the former
Massachusetts governor. Ryan was the rising star of the Party–smart, charismatic,
and restless on budget slashing measures mostly directed at social
programs. The move was bold, indeed, and
not inconsequential for Ryan whose legislative record, radical ideological stance
and actions as Chairman of the Budget Committee in the House came under scrutiny. Interestingly, in its desperation to reoccupy
the White House, the Republican leadership in the House decided to sacrifice
their child prodigy. The move was all
the more puzzling that it could potentially make of him a casualty of
presidential politics, as no vice-presidential candidate on a losing ticket has been elected
president at least in the last two generations.
Ryan might end up being a perennial conservative candidate a la Barry
Goldwater, whom the White House had continually eluded. But these future considerations were for
another day. A distant day… Now was the time for jubilation—more so for
the Republican base, which greeted the news of the pick with great excitement. In effect, when the tandem showed up in Ohio
for their first joint campaign appearance, the crowd was ecstatic. Quite different from a year ago! Or from a week ago! The apathy, which was so palpable during the
primaries—judging by the record low turnout–and had been unabated since, morphed
overnight into unprecedented buzz. From that point forward, all the murmur and
frown over Romney’s deficient conservatism dissipated. Throngs of supporters packed the venues of
campaign stops. Rallies featuring the candidates side by side
had the allure of rock concerts. Stump
speeches, replete with “red meat”, kept the crowd agog. So strong was the antipathy to the President
that a dose of “Obamacare” together with a sprinkle of “birtherism” adroitly
inserted into a stump speech would work its magic onto the crowd and send it into
a delirium reminiscent of the mood that animated town halls during the
healthcare debate in the summer of 2009.
Paul Ryan’s pick as Romney’s
running mate coincided with the rally of the Independents to their camp. From the onset, pundits predicted a race to
the finish that would be decided by the Independents, for both parties were so firmly
entrenched in their respective base that, in a 48-48 neck-and-neck race, they
would have to look outward for the edge.
So, both Obama and Romney actively courted the Independents. These “neutral observers” of the political
scene, supposedly, held in contempt the familiar mudslinging and “trash and
burn” politics, gratuitous attacks, and dishonest claims. Instead, they favored a healthy debate of
ideas, a measured and balanced exchange that toned down divisive rhetoric and led
to a pragmatic approach to governance.
One would think that they would be Obama’s natural allies. However, as Election Day drew near, that
group sided with Romney and proved again to be worthy of the epithet of “closet
Republicans” who would, at the end of the day, come home to roost. Moreover, the
Independents, often lauded by the pundits for their thoughtfulness and savvy,
were willing to break with an age-old tradition in American politics that kept
the Rockefellers, the Duponts, Morgans away from the White House. The American people have consistently been
leery of entrusting the destiny of the Nation to business magnates, and the
wealthiest among us. In their wisdom,
they have always thought that the wealthiest among us would institute a
plutocracy, whereby their elite peers would hold sway over their administration;
well-heeled and well-connected stakeholders’ voices would drown out those of
ordinary folk, thus polarizing the nation and deepening the divide between the
haves and have-nots, in contrast with its motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many
One”). They have always feared that business magnates would not level the
playing field and dignify the toils and travails of the working class with
their utmost concern, but rather would bend to the ultimatum of rapacious
influence peddlers or impose a one-way traffic in the corridors of power in
favor of wealthy contributors and unscrupulous profiteers. The Independents were ready to hand over the
tiller of the Nation to Mitt Romney, a member of the plutocratic class, and
flip this revered tradition—a tradition safeguarded, as it were, by such eminent
Republicans as President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt who passed stiff
regulations to hold in check the power of big business, and promote a climate of
fairness in the economy.
Such was the “état d’ame” (the state of the heart) of the Republicans at the
approach of their Convention in Tampa, Florida in the summer of 2012. It was a summer of high expectations, in the
wake of the transformation that turned their apathetic mass of yester-years
into an enthusiastic corps of energized supporters. This transformation, which went through a
laborious four-year maturation process, could not have come to fruition at a
better time. Indeed, four years had
lapsed since the eyesore of St Paul, Minnesota, where the Party revealed how
out-of-touch and out of tact it was. Four years to wipe out these bad
memories, these rueful visuals… Yet, from
St Paul to Tampa, some things did not change. From one convention to the other,
the attendance still struck by its monolithic make-up, looking more like an
exclusive club of middle-aged white men. At a time when the country opened up to
its changing demographic tapestry, the Republicans would not accept the notion
that their pathway to the highest office of the land ran through minorities. Their platform doubled down on the intolerance
displayed during the primaries, contained no overture toward the constituencies
that made 2008 a banner year for the Democrats, and made no attempt to curb the
extremism that permeated the social discourse of some prominent members of the
Party. In order to appeal to, or
appease, the far-right wing of the Party, they chose to antagonize a segment of
the population (the Hispanics) whose ascendency in the political arena was a
fact to reckon with, and to depart from the “compassionate conservatism”
championed by former President George W. Bush.
The anti-immigration outbidding in which the candidates engaged during
the primaries was symptomatic of the GOP’s reluctance to integrate large swaths
of new entrants into the fabric of their Party. After all, these were members of the 47% whom Romney
admitted he did not care about. What they settled for were a few prime-time
spots reserved for high-perched minorities–which, in their infinite wisdom, should
palliate the lack of representation of minorities so embarrassingly evident on
the Convention floor. They waged a war
on issues that were dear to women and supported controversial measures of
activist governors and state legislators that infringed upon women’s economic,
social, and personal rights.
The Republicans decided to placate
their base at the expense of other constituencies. They were of the mindset that America was a center-right
country, and that their anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-abortion views were
representative of those of a silent majority—a majority supposedly cowed into
silence by the oppressive power of a federal administration spellbound by Barack
Obama and his altogether ultra-liberal, socialist and “foreign” policies, which
they reduced to a handful of sound bites.
For instance, they got much mileage on “You did not build that!” phrase of Obama’s taken out of context,
distorted, and paraded as the President’s credo for big and intrusive
government, while he was making the case that the “incredible” American
infrastructure provided a platform for business to thrive. Equally disingenuous was the patently false
claim according to which Obama “gutted
welfare reform.” These examples epitomized
an attitude that turned truth and facts into casualties of campaign rhetoric. Camp Romney could not care less! A top adviser of his chided reporters’
criticisms in this regard and vowed not let his campaign be constrained (or
dictated) by fact checkers. For, their
aim was to rouse their base by all means.
In their calculation, if their base turned up in droves to vote, why
would they ever want to compromise with other constituencies whose ideology of big
government, welfare, illegal immigration with a pathway to citizenship,
abortion and gay rights, was antithetic to their value system? Why would they
settle with the 47% who felt entitled to rights and privileges and would not
take responsibility for their actions? Certainly not at a time when they stood
to realize a net gain of 4% of the white man vote, when the so-called
independents rallied to their camp, and also at a time when Rasmussen and Fox polls predicted a
comfortable win for their candidate.
The GOP might have had reasons to jubilate over some notable tactical
successes. However, their stay-the-course
strategy was not lost on a masterful strategist named Barack Obama. Who can
better turn opponents’ strengths into liabilities? What politician—let alone a
presidential candidate–would have the audacity to run on a platform of higher
taxes while the economy was reeling under an 8% unemployment rate, of reduced
defense spending? Both moves would spell
suicide for anyone. But Barack Obama is
no ordinary politician. He is
one-of-a-kind, gifted, strategist in American politics. Those who doubted his abilities in this
regard did so at their own peril. His
victims will live long to tell the story of a freshman senator from Illinois
who routed a rival of touted pedigree, backed by a political ace husband, and
moved on to defeat a war hero, a veteran politician whose time seemed to have
come. Romney would soon learn how much of an uphill
battle he faced in challenging Barack Obama.
For, the President understood the tilt to the right that has shaped
Republican politics, and set out to expose it in such a way that they could not
walk back from it, but were forced to embrace it. In so doing, he drove a wedge between mainstream
Americans and the Republican Right. He
dared them in June 2011 when he repealed Don’t
Ask Don’t Tell–the compromise act President Bill Clinton signed into law
to allow gays to serve in the military. He
teased their intransigence over the sanctity of matrimony in a public statement
in May 2012 in favor of marriage equality, which in effect numbers the days of
the Defense of the Marriage Act (DOMA). He
challenged them in June 2012 when he signed his version of the Dream Act–an
executive order to stop the deportation of young undocumented immigrants and
make it possible for them to legalize their status. He irked them in August
2012 when he stood by the mandate, under the Affordable Act (Obamacare), that employers
(including religious organization affiliates) provide contraception coverage to
their employees. While this change of
tactics was deftly crafted to bait the Republicans and nudge them further to
the right, it allowed him to mend fences with Liberal Democrats whose support
had been waning since the early days of his administration for allegedly caving
in to the Republicans’ intransigence. He
baited the Republicans; and, sure enough, they fell in the trap. Extremists in
the Party could not resist the temptation to interject their controversial
social views in the discourse. The
standard bearers of such views, Representative Todd Haykins of Missouri (Paul
Ryan’s co-sponsor of anti-abortion legislation in the House) and Senator Murdock
of Indiana, among others, made disparaging remarks in support of their
unconditional stance on pro-life issues, which the Party was forced to disavow…
half-heartedly. Obama was out to prove
how far away from mainstream their views were.
But they were so obstinate and felt so righteous in those views that
they could not or would not muffle them or
ignore Obama’s teasing. But, in the end, what mattered to the
Republicans was not as much how the public at large perceived them, but how
these developments would galvanize their base and the donors. On both counts, the GOP scored big. Romney’s
campaign chest was awash with cash–money, indeed, flowed into his coffers to
the point where he surpassed Obama in the months of June, July and August. In addition, his campaign saw an excitement
that reached its paroxysm by the time his first debate between President Obama took
The Republicans felt confident they
had produced a perfect storm that would burst open the gate of the White House.
Putting final tactical touches to a
campaign that saw a sea change, judging by the effervescence that marked its
final days, they left nothing to happenstance.
All the bases were covered—from state legislators and secretaries-of-state
circumventing court injunctions blocking the enforcement of these law to a pool
of lawyers standing ready to challenge the results in places like Ohio,
Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, or Colorado, should Obama’s victory in these
places be by a slim margin. The flow of
money into the campaign conjured up a sweet reminder of the way Romney
obliterated Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the primaries. Images of vexations and impotence of these
two rivals in the face of such overwhelming force by a merciless Romney called
for a repeat. They were prepared to unleash a Blitzkrieg the magnitude of which
had never been seen before to close the show in grand fashion, with shock and
But Obama is no Gingrich. He is no Santorum. He is a student of History, endowed with a
prodigious sense of perspective and incomparable foresight. No matter how much Romney would saturate the
airwaves, this could hardly be a formula for victory. Never mind how much venom and mud the
Republican smear machine, supped up by Super-Pac money, would sputter; how much
the spin masters would distort facts and distorting records, he knew that air campaigns have never been
able to vanquish a resolute enemy. In
1942, Hitler unleashed a brutal air assault, a Blitzkrieg, upon London with the
aim of subduing the indomitable Churchill.
These overwhelming and relentless bombardments blanketed the English
capital for days, yet they could never break the spirit of the Londonians. A frustrated Fuhrer vowed to pulverize the city
and reduce it to rubble, but London never surrendered and fought back. Israel learns that, while air assaults can
have a punitive end, they could not guarantee victory against Hezbollah or
Hamas. The USA learned as well that, as
spectacular as the “shock and awe” campaign during the first Iraq War was, the
air assaults that pilloried that nation for days could not have assured Operation
Desert Storm of total victory. This is
where the infantry comes into play. As
Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, Barack took a page from military
strategy and applied to his campaign. He understood that, regardless of how
awesome air campaigns can be, their successes may turn out in the end to be
Pyrrhic victories, if not backed up by well-coordinated ground operations. Boots on the ground! He understood this metaphor and made it a
part of his overall strategy. His ground game is nothing short of
spectacular. Nothing of such depth and
magnitude has ever been seen in American politics! There is no substitute for a well-articulated
ground game. Obama’s was utterly
sophisticated; it advanced at a superior pace, in a well-trained, disciplined
fashion, canvassing the territory. For a
sense of the magnitude of the operation, Obama had more than 800 field offices
across the nation, compared to about 300 for Romney; for instance, in three
important swing states, Obama commanded an impressive lead over Romney in terms
of their ground game: Obama had 131
offices in Ohio compared to Romney 40, 106 in Florida versus 40, and 60 in
Virginia versus 30. The difference is
not just numerical; The Obama is known for better targeting of voters. As Sasha Issenberg (“The Victory Lab”) noted,
in 2008 Obama’s data-based voter targeting was brought to unprecedented levels;
but in 2012, he perfected this technique by integrating field techniques with
digital operations. This was data mining
in proportions unheard of in American politics.
How do you beat that! While his
opponents bask in tactical successes or Pyrrhic victories, Obama outclassed
them by his forward thinking, and strategic endeavors.
In the end the camp that could tout
a better strategy was victorious.
Despite the faux-pas of the first debate, there was never panic in Obama’s
camp. Their internal polling showed a
continuous resilience by the swing state voters, particularly Ohio, where
Romney spent significant time and funds, yet could never wrest it out of
Obama’s columns. All the while, Fox News
and its pollsters went on record to predict Romney’s victory, dismissing all
other polls. The Republicans were again
in denial. Twice they suffered defeat at
the hand of Barack Obama. In the
aftermath of their second loss, they lamented the fact that 23% of their base
did not turn out at the polls. Mitt
Romney attributed his defeat to gifts President Obama distributed to his
followers. Others argued that Super
Storm Sandy stalled Romney’s momentum and cost him the election. This was one more conspiracy theory for them;
only this time it was Mother Nature. So
be it! Nature must have empathized with
the American people and spared them a colossal gaffe, and did so in dramatic
fashion. After all that fuss over big
government, the Feds remain the savior of last resort. After all the ridicule the Republicans had strewn
on the Feds—inept, inefficient, profligate—they remain the deep pocket everyone
turns to in times of need. If there is
any evidence for why we need a federal government, it is during this episode of
Mother Nature’s furry that ravaged the east coast. One is grateful in such circumstances that
the government can spring to action, rapidly deploy assets to service the needs
of trapped citizens. The sight of an
embattled, subdued Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, the darling of
conservative Republicans and the Tea Party, alongside President Obama, their
nemesis, has all the hallmarks of an odd couple. Aside from the contrasting physical
appearances, evident in all shapes and forms, there was on one side a
Republican governor known for his pugnacity, his acerbic verbiage, but sobered
by the magnitude of the devastation plaguing his state, and on the other side President
Barack Obama standing tall, gracious, and… looking presidential. But this was justice. Justice to the notion that Government has a
role to play in the country’s internal affairs, in its citizens’ welfare! Super
Storm Sandy was a potent reminder that it would take more than a businessman to
run the United States of America, regardless of what the Independents thought
in the end.
After all, the Republicans’ biggest mistakein 2012 may have been that they did not factor in the formidable assets Barack Obama brought to bear in the battle for the White House in support of a message that resonated with large swaths of the electorate. They failed to understand that Obama’s message
touched the 47% that Romney derided, gave a voice to the many who felt
slighted by deliberate attempts to temper with their voting rights, reached out
to those who were neglected or written-off by the Republican Party–a Party most enraptured with the intransigence of the Tea Party and subservient to the diktat of its conservative base; a Party that, naively or cynically (whatever the case may be), thought it could top it all off with
overwhelming air power thanks to the largesse of its multi-million donors. No wonder that the initial reaction to their defeat was a cry from the heart and… disbelief–from the candidate
himself who until late into the evening did not concede, to Fox-News and
consorts notably Karl Rove who challenged their analysts’ call about Ohio. No wonder that, in the aftermath of their loss, they scrambled for an explanation: 23% of their base who did not turn out, Obama’s gifts to the
47%, Super Storm Sandy. Whatever it was, the Republicans showed they were still in denial. Such a cry from the heart will be hard to
overcome. In all likelihood, a long march in the wilderness
awaits them. They will only see the
White House… from afar.
For supporters of Barack Obama, the past seven months have been quite a roller-coaster. They bounced from the height of elation to the depth of disappointment, from victory laps to the ignominy of capitulation, from the peak of euphoria to the pits of rage. It is hard for them to fathom that the man who freed the American psyche from the Osama bin Laden syndrome was the same one who buckles time and again when faced with the whims and diktat of Republican lawmakers, whose stated aim is his personal demise and his failure as chief executive of the nation. Unfazed by their overt opposition, the President (“No Drama Obama”) nonetheless tries his hardest to be the “adult in the room”, seek bi-partisanship, and stave off their indulgence in brinksmanship. Is it naïveté or die-hard optimism that leads him to think he can win them over?
In my piece “America Will Be Just Fine” written shortly after President Obama’s election, I presented him as an eclectic, a Hegelian, and a pragmatist, who would not cling to dogma or rigid doctrine to govern. I predicted that, as an eclectic, he would demonstrate a bee-like industriousness, whereby he would glean the best from various sources, transform it into a new brand, and use it in his program of government. I surmised that, as a disciple of Hegel–the German philosopher who introduced his famous triad (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis), Obama would base his dialectic or reasoning method on synthesis, i.e., on reconciling the thesis (the argument for) and the antithesis (the argument against)—in other words, my assessment of his position on issues was that no side has monopoly over truth, but that in reality truth is arrived at from the clash of ideas, through compromise between conflicting sides. I also argued that he would lead as a pragmatist prone to strike alliances with opponents, should their ideas prove to sustain the test of feasibility, balance, or reasonableness. All in all, I predicted that Obama would govern in the middle. In the center. Away from party dogma. Now, half-way through his presidency, the prevailing sense is that he has lived up to this profile. While suffering setbacks in his pursuit of common ground, he does not relent. In so doing, he eyes the support of the Independents–the sector of the electorate whose centrist views he shares, and who traditionally holds the key to close elections. Such tactical choices are perplexing to those who have subscribed to Obama’s change message and rooted for his success; they fear that the President has veered too much to the center and mince no word to let him know of their concerns. If they were to send an open letter to their President to convey their displeasure with his tactics, I suspect they would go at it as follows.
Mr. President, the thrust of your campaign for the White House was to change Washington’s culture, to wrest it from the grip of special-interests groups, and to promote bi-partisanship. In this endeavor, you have been seeking an interlocutor with whom you could dialogue, another pragmatist who would be willing to meet you half-way and bridge the divide. You have tried sublime as well as trivial gestures in behalf of bi-partisanship. A tangible case of sublime gesture was the olive branch you tendered to former Bush officials at the dawn of your presidency. Specifically, you went out of your way to preempt the attributions of your attorney-general and thwart any volition on his part to prosecute these officials; you went ahead and absolved them of their misdeeds in the run-up to the Iraq War, their manipulation of intelligence, their encroachment of Constitutional guarantees and violation of the Geneva Conventions insofar as the practice of rendition and torture. You feared that their prosecution could be viewed as polarizing. Instead, you opted for forgiveness (this very Christian act, indeed!), hoping that it would be seen as a goodwill gesture that would secure the Republicans’ cooperation on your domestic agenda. Mr. President, you must admit that this act of forgiveness came out of left field; no one from your Party saw it coming. Did President George W. Bush make a plea to you in favor of his cronies in the letter he left you on the day of your inauguration? Hmm!!! Based on his loyalty towards his team, such a request from Bush would hardly be surprising… No need to answer, we understand. From one President to another, there are State secrets that cannot be divulged, especially if they involve a rogue vice-president, the wild-card Dick Cheney… We understand. In any event, the immunity that you had secured on behalf of Cheney and his acolytes did not win you their gratitude, earn their trust, or translate into Republican support for your recovery program. This has left some from your camp seething.
Mr. President, you also tried less grandiose gestures, from Super-Bowl party at the White House to golf game with the Speaker; at the end of the day you could never win their support. You went it alone on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, dubbed Stimulus; they deserted you on the auto industry revival plan; they balked at your financial regulatory reform. You watered down your initial healthcare reform bill, scratched out Public Option, incorporated Republican sweeteners in the final bill… for the sake of compromise, specifically to win bi-partisan support in Congress for the bill. Yet, not one single Republican voted for the Health Care Reform & Accountability Act of 2010. Consistent with your eclectic instincts, you altered your proposal also to placate the Independents. You court them because, supposedly, their pragmatic approach bears no allegiance to Party politics, because they symbolize the middle ground, and, above all, because they prove to be a force to reckon with. You did all that at the risk of sacrificing ideals that are sacred to Liberal Democrats. Mr. President, do you really believe that your courtship of the Independents is worth alienating those in your Party who remain faithful to the liberal cause, considering the Independents deserted the Democrats in the mid-term elections? The Independents gave as much as a ten-point advantage to the Republicans, despite the obstructionist role the latter played during the 111th Congress. This was quite unexpected, as conventional wisdom holds that the Independents abhor grid-lock and obstructionism. Their behavior during the mid-term showed otherwise. In fact, they rewarded the GOP. Does it occur to you that they might just be closet Republicans, and actually that they follow no grand theory of governance
or a particular philosophical line of thought?
Mr. President, as you know, it takes two to tango. You are desperately looking for a partner. You have got to resign yourself to the fact that there is none to be found. You have adversaries for whom nothing is out of bounds, who have used every trick in the playbook to keep you off balance and off message. One common theme of the Republicans’ wall-to-wall assault is your personal defeat and the failure of your Administration. As a person, they seek to dehumanize you, to make you feel that you are not one of them. In their view, you are a fraud–a Black, Kenyan, Socialist, Radical, Muslim, Alien, Antichrist, (pick the order!), who usurped the rights bestowed on natural born Americans and, out of some nefarious plot, found your way to the Nation’s tiller with a secret plot to dismantle the American way of life. And they want their “country back.” Sadly enough, no voice of reason rose from their hierarchy to dismiss such demented talks as worthy of the trash can. To the contrary, they cater to those toxic effusions, hoping to score political points, and forcing you to engage in the futile exercise of proving or disproving the absurd.
Mr. President, since the mid-term elections there has been a recrudescence of the Republican assault against you—this time, better orchestrated, more sharply focused, but equally vicious. From politics to policy, from the birthers’ challenge of your citizenship to the raucous resistance of the Tea Party (the “enfant terrible” of the 112th Congress), to the threat of government shutdown during the period of Continuing Resolution, or to the continuous blocking of nominations to key administrative posts, or lately to the squabbling over the debt ceiling, the assault is relentless. From radio personality Rush Limbaugh to Senator Mitch McConnell, to businessman Donald Trump, there is unity of message. From a cross-section of the American power structure—the media, the political establishment, the business community, the message cannot be any clearer and is articulated in a way that unveils a visceral aversion not just to your policies but also to you personally: You must fail. To this bold statement they make no caveat. Seemingly, they would not mind seeing the country fail as long as YOU fail. Yet, you still illusion yourself that you have a partner in this venture. This is the culture—or rather, the cult—you are up against.
Mr. President, it is about respect.
Around the world, you enjoy adulation and respect. You repaired the damage caused by the rowdy policies of the previous administration, and restored our foreign policy to its pre-9/11 standards. At the same time, you show steely resolve vis-a-vis friends and foes alike. You put everyone on notice —from friendly governments to enemy regimes, from Somali pirates to Al Qaeda-Taliban fighters and hierarchy along the Afghan-Pakistani border–that whenever misdeeds and harm are committed at the expense of the American people, you will bring the awe and might of the formidable American military to bear. They all heed the warning and take you seriously. The word for that is: Respect. However, on the domestic scene, you are not the same man. The Republicans do not feel the courage of your convictions. They do not feel the firmness and power of your grip. At their hands, you are like a domesticated pet, predictable, and ready to roll over. And after you do, you walk proudly to the microphone, praising your so-called “partners” on a wonderful work of bi-partisanship, instead of castigating them for brinksmanship. Why, then, don’t you show the same resolve in the domestic arena? Why is it that, when the Republicans dare you and stare you down, you blink? It was most outrageous last December to witness the fact that you let the Republicans get away with murder. They threatened to vote against extending unemployment benefits for another year to provide relief to the army of unemployed, while at the same time, they went all out to prolong the Bush tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. Coming from folks who garnish churches’ pews every Sunday, this passion exhibited on pleading the case of the well-to-do at the expense of the little guy was antithetical to the pillars of Christ’s doctrine—his embrace of the poor. Such hypocrisy lets one wonder whether the Jesus these guys pray to is the one who said (paraphrasing), “Whatever you do for the smallest amongst us you do it for me,” or the Jesus who said to one of his followers: “If you want to follow me, get rid of all your wealth.” Their stance did not make sense from an economic viewpoint either, as there is no evidence that those billions would translate into jobs in the United States. In India and China, for sure, but not here! Their hypocrisy and wicked policies were not lost on the American people, as evidenced by all polls. The stage was set for a showdown between the wisdom of ordinary Americans, the venality of our politicians, and the greed of big business lobbyists. It was a clear victory for ordinary folk, with you on their side: there was no rhyme or reason why the unfunded Bush tax cuts should have been extended, thus causing the deficits to worsen. This, again, showed the extent of the Republicans’ hypocrisy, as they made the fight against deficits their new battle cry. A bit of populism would not hurt. Surely, they would accuse you of promoting class warfare. What would be new? You should in no way recoil from your position and become defensive? After all, Alan Greenspan, the Republican former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was (and still is) against extending the tax cuts. So, Mr. President, by agreeing last December to their terms against your principles, you set a dangerous precedent, which the Republicans capitalized on. They read the agreement NOT as an exemplary case of bi-partisanship BUT as a blue-print for capitulation. In effect, emboldened by their success, they tried again during the Continuing Resolution, when they threatened to shut down government. Once more, they showed how less they cared, as long as in the process you would look bad. So is the state of their politics.
Mr. President, when it comes to policy, it has been obvious for some time that the Republicans have not much to show for. All they have is a credo: No taxes! Less Government! You mus
t engage them on that front. You must relentlessly call them out on the fact that they cater to the high power of big business whose unfettered freedom they advocate, whose hefty contributions they rely on for their reelection campaigns. They complain about the supposedly high corporate tax rates at a time when corporations are raking in astronomical profits and sitting on trillions of idle dollars. Yet the Republicans want them to have more through tax cuts. Their model is (actually was) Ireland. Not too long ago, they championed Ireland as a free-market haven with stellar economic outlook, fueled by its excessively low corporate rate. Ireland was the model the new supply-siders showcased as the future of the free market economy, where government is relegated to the sideline, public spending cut to the bone, and a corporate rate as low as 12.5%. Once again the conservatives succumbed to the fallacy that tax incentives or tax cuts would spur economic growth and bring employment to optimal levels. For reasons the Republicans do not comprehend, the multiplier effect does not work as well on the supply side as it does on the demand side. A dollar ploughed into the economy, say in an infrastructure renovation project, triggers a chain of reactions upward and downward in terms of demand for goods through the multiplier effect, and translates into hiring. A dollar cut from corporate tax expenses goes straight to the bottom line and does not necessarily translate into hiring or into higher wages for workers. The reason for that is multi-fold: corporations enjoy the higher profits; technological advances spur higher productivity, which makes it counter-intuitive for businesses to engage in any wholesale hiring; especially in an environment that calls for workforce and product line downsizing. Low corporate tax rates coupled with draconian cuts in public spending are a recipe for disaster. There was one miscalculation on the part of the supply-siders: Ireland, the crown jewel of the new conservative economics, has defaulted on its debt and their bonds are relegated to junk status. The Republicans like to point to Greece as the looming disaster that awaits us. In reality, our case is closer to Ireland’s.
Mr. President, take your case to the American people. The policies that supply-side economists have implemented in Ireland are the very ones these Republicans want to impose on the nation, in the name of conservative orthodoxy. The Ireland medicine to cure the economic ills of the country would be catastrophic. The result would be a magnified version of a bankrupt Ireland. The American people’s proverbial common sense tells them that there is something fundamentally unsettling about the Republican position. They just cannot articulate it. But you can. Do it with passion, with analogies they relate to. Let them see you as the roadblock against the GOP’s one-sided, simplistic, and failed economic policies of the past. For, in the fall of 2008, the US was on the edge of the precipice as a result of reckless handling of the economy, inept governance, and skewed priorities …We dodged the bullet thanks to the Stimulus. It is unfortunate that the stimulus package was modest (5% of the gross domestic product–GDP). For, countries that undertook bold interventions, such as China whose public spending was about 15% of its GDP, enjoy unparalleled growth at 9%, while we are trudging along with a measly 1.5%, susceptible to any little bump on the recovery road. As if they did not do enough, the same culprits are coming back for more… equipped with the same policies, backed by the same special-interests groups, inspired by the same credo, with the only difference that, this time, they cloak themselves under the mantle of deficit-busters. Let it be remembered that these recidivists were the deficit mongers of the past decade, who passed unfunded tax cut legislations and drug benefits, waged two wars without funding, and turned billions of budget surpluses they had inherited from the Clinton Administration into record deficits. Mr. President, you have to call them out in vigorous terms. You cannot let these hypocrites have their way. You cannot let the country follow Ireland’s path.
Mr. President, the month-long showdown on the debt ceiling exemplified once more the Republicans’ brash attitude, their disregard for fairness, equity, and common sense when these values do not square with the interests of big business. America witnessed their opposition to closing tax loopholes and slashing subsidies to Big Oil and other big business concerns as part of the scenario to curb government spending and close the deficit. At first, this new showdown looked like a scene replayed to satiety, where the outcome was known in advance–i.e., you were going to buckle once again. But when you drew a line in the sand, threatening to veto any bill that would not contain revenue increases, your supporters cheered. The point you made was clear and consonant with the desiderata of the American people—not a one-sided approach to the problem (spending cuts only that would hurt only the poor and elderly), but a balanced approach that would take into account tax increases and spread the pain across the board. We applauded your unequivocal stand. For, at issue was the United States’ default on its debt—an unprecedented event in the annals of the country’s history. This alone should be sufficient to deter the gamesmanship and puerility of the Republicans’ posturing. At stake was the prestige of the United States, along with the irreversible consequence of a financial meltdown that would exceed by far the darkest hours of the fall 2008 crisis. Facing such nonsensical behavior, we expected the man who took out bin Laden to stand tall and respond in kind. Mr. President, why did you rule out exercising your executive privileges under the Fourteenth Amendment, which in case of grave danger to the nation and inaction by Congress allows you to invoke presidential powers and take appropriate action. That Republican lawmakers made light of this event and dragged the process till the eleventh hour bordered on irresponsibility. This should not have stood. A Lyndon Johnson or a Harry Truman would not have allowed such tantrums on the part of Congress to stand. Likewise, the man who freed America from the specter of Osama bin Laden, at the very least, should have never taken off the table his Fourteenth Amendment prerogatives. It is a matter of respect. The fact that you did emboldened them. And once again… we all know the rest all too well: you blinked again. The Republicans had their way once more: It was all cuts and no revenues–no balanced approach! And once again you walked up to the lectern and praised the spirit of bi-partisanship, consoling yourself that no one got what they wanted.
But, guess what, Mr. President, it was not a
ll good news. This last defeat added insult to injury. On your watch, for the first time in its history the credit worthiness of the greatest economy on earth has been downgraded from AAA to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s, one of the rating agencies. Your presidency is forever tainted by this ignominy. Fast-forward and picture the relation of this event in history books. Do not illusion yourself, Mr. President: in this setback you have no partner; you share this infamous distinction with no one—not with John Boehner, not with Mitch McConnell. By the way, they will be laughing all the way to the Republican Convention, congratulating each other over the fact that they got you where they wanted—in the pits. Be prepared for insidious presidential slogans against you. Be ready for renewed cries of nostalgic folk wanting their country back! How many times are you going to let yourself duped by these Republicans?
Mr. President, allow this boxing analogy. The bout is half-way through and your belt is at stake. Yet, the contender has not felt the sting of your jab and the power of your punch. And, looking in your eyes, he does not feel the heart of the champion… or the steely resolve of the man who had the better of bin Laden. How then could you be surprised that he shows you no respect?
On the Sunday evening of May 1, 2011, the American people
breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama stood behind the White
House lectern and reported the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader
responsible for the September 11, 2011 acts of terror that took some
three-thousand American lives. Thus ended a
seven-year pursuit, fraught with frustrations and disappointments, and
accountable for thousands of deaths in combat and billions of dollars. A testimony to the staying power of the
American mighty military, the audacious May 1 operation inside Pakistan was also an outright
success for its Commander-in-Chief, who approved the operation, decided on its
timing, and watched it unfold to completion.
One would have thought that such
a seminal event would ever be present on the political scene, and occupy the
forefront of American consciousness. How
comes it that, only a couple of months after it occurred, this milestone in the war against
terrorism is eclipsed from the national conversation, relegated to
near-oblivion? How comes it that the
President does not pivot from it to achieve badly needed successes on the domestic
The elimination of Osama bin Laden is the high point of
Obama’s presidency. Indisputably, the success was his. While there could be a philosophical or a
policy debate on whether the Stimulus, for instance, worked (which did, in my
view), there is no dispute that the Special Forces acted on his watch and got
rid of America’s public enemy number one.
That is, unless one is a hard-core Republican… In that case, the Democratic President only
receives partial credit. This clear victory of Obama’s was discounted by
Republican pundits who claimed co-paternity for President George W. Bush. This brings to mind Count Ciano’s famous
thought, which President John F. Kennedy made proverbial, “Success has many
parents but failure is an orphan.” At no
time in recent memory has this proverbial thought been more fitting than on this
occasion. Whoever entertained the
hopes that this milestone would rub off on the President’s domestic agenda
clearly underestimated the strength, efficiency, and versatility of the
Republican spin doctors. In effect, in
no time the latter gathered their forces and launched a campaign to redeem the
so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” performed on Guantanamo detainees
during Bush’s tenure, which they put at the source of the intelligence that led
to the Al Qaeda leader. Inasmuch as the
Republican strategy rests on Obama’s failure as Chief Executive of the nation,
it is understandable that every inch of the political scene shall be contested,
and every possible success denied him.
The homage to the former Republican President was not the
monopoly of Grand Ole Party (GOP) faithfuls, conservative devotees, or right-ring
lunatics. Media personalities joined in
the chorus as well. Most unexpected was
the voice of the venerable David Gergen, reputed for even-handed analyses and judicious
opinions on CNN. In an interview on this
news outlet right before Obama announced bin Laden’s killing, Gergen punctuated
his final remarks with an emphatic “Thank
you, President Obama, and Thank you, President Bush.” I do not take issue with his accolade of the
former president per se. But that he
uttered his gratitude to both Obama and Bush in the same breath was unfair and,
in my view, aberrant. I am certainly not
about to attribute to the distinguished commentator any of the negative
sentiment that has filtered through the political discourse, aiming at
delegitimizing Obama and undermining his presidency. However,
his statement gave me pause. Likewise, CNN’s
John King in the moments preceding the president’s address gave an oblique recognition
to George Bush’s policies when he said, “Bin
Laden is dead, and Barack Obama happens to be the president”– a suggestion
that Obama was just an opportunist who was at the right place at the right
time. Coming from a cable outlet that touts
its non-alignment, such assertions tell the extent to which the malaise
vis-à-vis our 44th President has metastasized. By contrast, they testify to the immense political
capital George W. Bush still enjoys. The question, then, begs to be asked: What more does Obama have to do to be
relevant in the eyes of many or even have the benefit of the doubt?
In fairness to George W. Bush, he deserves credit for distancing
himself from the brouhaha, leaving the dirty work to the unrepentant Dick
Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, & Co. The former
President is to be commended for staying out of the limelight. He could have accepted Obama’s invitation to
accompany him to New York’s Ground Zero and lay a wreath in memory of those who
perished on September 11, 2001. Understandably,
he chose not to. Unlike the Republican
revisionist clique, hard at work rewriting history, Bush understood. He understood that bin Laden hit the Homeland
on his watch, and that he failed to deliver on his solemn promise to the
American people to bring the Al Qaeda leader to justice—summary justice, Wild
West style (“Dead or Alive”.) While his lieutenants
counted on the American people’s amnesia regarding their Administration’s
failures, he understood that when the six-foot-four bin Laden was within
striking distance, sighted and virtually trapped in Torah Bora in the waning
days of the 2001 Afghanistan campaign, they let him slip away—a gaffe that will
go down in history as a stunning case of tactical malpractice, as an act of
stupidity of the highest order. Bush
took it to heart. But his impenitent factotums
did not. At a time when one would
expect them to put their tails between their legs and walk away unnoticed, there they are, back with a vengeance,
reinventing themselves as the ultimate stewards of America’s security and
engaging in crass competition for credit for the success of the operation. They wish the American people would forget that
they shifted their focus, assets, and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, which
they considered then, by some delusion, the focal point of the “war on
terror”. Compounding this fiasco, they
entered into a dubious cooperation with Pakistan, under which the Taliban-Al
Qaeda axis grew unchecked along the Afghan-Pakistani border, while they poured
billions into Pakistan’s coffers and let General Pervez Musharraf and his
duplicitous security forces (ISI) call the shots under the guise of national
sovereignty. Bush understood–but his henchmen
would let believe otherwise–that he allowed bin Laden’s myth to grow and fuel
fanatical activism within fringe Islamic groups, to the detriment of America’s
Dismissive of the cost the misguided tactics imposed on the
Nation in terms of lives, treasure, and international prestige, the Republican
spin machine goes on to herald George Bush as the real architect of bin Laden’s
demise. They do concede one thing to
Obama: he was “gutsy”, they said. So absurd!
Such an epithet does not do justice to the cerebral President and
downplays the thought process that has guided most of his decisions since his
ascension to the presidency. In fact, it
is an insult to his intellectual capacity.
His strong confidence in his deductive ability should not be equated to
“guts”, which gives primacy to impulses over rational inference, and refers to an
instinctual drive fueled by adventurism and bravado, irrespective of risks
decision-making model is all about rational inference. As exemplified by the raid, his model suggests
a mix of patiently gathered facts (intelligence), unbiased analysis of the
facts (intelligence), insightful reading of human behavior, mitigation of risk,
and utilization of optimal resources. In
his interview with “60 Minutes” in the days following the operation, he said
there was no absolute certainty—a “55/45 chance”–that bin Laden was in the
compound. That he decided to go in, over
the objection of some trusted advisers, was not a reckless or “gutsy” act. It was a lucid decision, driven by rational
inference, supported by painstaking preparation and shored up by a rare sense
of timing. Yes, timing—Obama’s other
great asset. Whoever has followed his trajectory
can testify to his sense of opportunity and timing, his ability to discern the
equilibrium point where facts, opportunity, and optimal resources intersect to yield
the best possible course of action. As details emerged about the conception and
execution of the raid, Obama’s decision-making process came to light. No doubt
this operation will be studied in academia as a case study in executive decision-making. Obama’s process is the polar opposite of that
of a George Bush, who embarked the Nation on a bloody war in Iraq on the basis
of faulty intelligence and an ill-conceived plan. The jury is still out on whether he actually
tampered with the intelligence or bent it to suit his flawed premise that
Saddam Hussein was stockpiling or developing weapons of mass destruction.
President Obama earned the right to celebrate this milestone. He could have touted it with fanfare,
celebratory fist-pumping or sarcastic scorn.
He chose none of that. His
“report to the American people” was humble.
With a touch of pride. Yet, humble.
And magnanimous. Magnanimous even
vis-à-vis his worst enemy. It was
telling that bin Laden’s burial was done in accordance with the Islamic Faith
and Arabic traditions. By so doing, he
appealed to our noblest sentiments, transcended the pettiness of parochialism
to reach in for the greater humanism within us. Realizing that much of the anti-Americanism
that has spread across the Middle-East was driven by symbols and perceptions inspired
by our actions, he figured that symbolism of a different sort could mitigate the
damage. For, intangible as they may be,
the costs incurred due to those symbols are nonetheless high. There are no metrics to gauge, for instance,
how much our image has suffered from the desecration of the Koran, from our
troops’ allowing the vandalization of the Bagdad Ancient library, from the dehumanization
of the Abhu Graib prisoners in Iraq, from the waterboarding of the Guantanamo
detainees, from the practice of rendition by the CIA. Yet, as immeasurable as they may be in
tangible terms, these acts have a potent symbolic value and weigh heavily on
the perceptions towards the US. By showing
sensitivity in this instance, Obama sought in a small way to offset the impact
of these intangibles, and set a new standard for future occupants of the Oval
Office. For, in world relations that are
becoming increasingly complex, the President of the United States of America ought
to be culturally literate. Obama is
perhaps the first President to integrate these intangibles in the national
security model—a model that counterbalances the “carrot” approach in American
foreign policy, which seeks allegiance through financial incentives. Let’s note that this approach has been
emphatically rebuked in the mountains and valleys of the Middle East and the
Persian Gulf, where a $25 M bounty on bin Laden’s head failed to turn him in. There, the piety of the locals, coupled with
strong tribal affiliations and a different value system, has proven to be
impervious to the appeal of the dollar.
Additionally, as Obama’s acts are often marked by a
dualistic aspect, the decision to dispose of bin Laden’s remains at sea was to ensure
that the myth does not endure, to deny sympathizers, followers, and potential
recruits of a worship and pilgrimage place.
Again, this is a testimony to the thoughtfulness and minutia that went
along with the planning of the raid. Obviously, that painstaking preparation was lost on the cynics of the Cheney & Co. school of thought, who
reduced the elimination of bin Laden to some low-grade information obtained
five or six years ago, precisely at the time when Bush himself dropped the
pursuit of bin Laden from his high priority list; at the time when he confessed
not knowing about the latter’s whereabouts.
The far-fetched scenario links the killing of the Al Qaeda leader to his
courier, whose name was revealed under harsh interrogation. Though such information had since been
declared unsubstantiated, they continue to herald it as the crux of the intelligence. The question is: if that intelligence was as actionable as
they claim it to be, why did it take five years to use it against bin Laden? The strategic significance of Al Qaeda’s
decapitation is preempted by the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques”—a
euphemism for torture. Their technique of choice is waterboarding, which
subjects a prisoner to episodes of simulated drowning in order to obtain
information from them. The religious-right ultra-conservative former Senator and
presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave an unequivocal endorsement of torture
in a May 17, 2011 radio interview: “I mean, you break somebody, and after they
are broken, they become cooperative. And
that’s when we got this information.”! Such insanity is revealing of the moral
decrepitude some would-be leaders stooped to, and of their hypocrisy vis-à-vis the
religious standards they so often boast.
At the height of their sadistic craze, the waterboarders subjected one
guy, Khalid Sheik Muhammad—the architect of September 11, to 183 sessions of
waterboarding. Ironically or rather predictably, the waterboarders still could
not “break” that guy.
Yet the Party of waterboarding
drives the conversation and might even be scoring points. Yet again, always deft at turning defeat into
opportunity, the Republicans are putting the Democrats on the defensive. They make no apology for breaching our
values, for breaking our laws, for going against international norms and
conventions, even against the tenets of their Christian faith. Despite reports challenging the effectiveness
of waterboarding, they steadfastly champion this technique as the ideal means
for extracting information from prisoners.
Mr. President, you
cannot afford to let the waterboarders drive the conversation, set the agenda, and
define you and your politics. You earned
your stripes. You shattered bin Laden’s
mythical aura. You are the one who brought
down the symbol towards whose demise we have sacrificed thousands of young lives,
the man who haunted the American psyche for years–the man who achieved what
Hitler and his U-boats, the Japanese and their kamikazes, the Soviets and their
nuclear arsenal could not have done: forcing
us to retreat inward and give in to a wave of inner insecurities. After 9/11, for the first time in their
history, Americans felt vulnerable within their own borders despite the
guaranteed protection of the most powerful military the world has ever known. That was bin Laden’s ultimate victory: he made us live our insecurities daily to the
point where any innocuous malfunction makes us think first of an act of
terrorism. As it were, he awakened in us
a terroristic reflex, which went on unabated as long as he was alive. You provided the catharsis America’s
subconscious needed to overcome these insecurities. Mr. President, you eviscerated Al Qaeda. Of course, this organization will not cease
being lethal overnight, but it will never be the same… thanks to you.
Mr. President, conventional wisdom holds that Democrats are
weak on National Security. You have
crippled this narrative, and burnished your credentials and those of the
Democratic Party. You have defeated the Republicans, the Party
of Waterboarders on their territory, in their sacred fiefdom—National Security.
You have accomplished what the most
hawkish elements of the Bush Administration could only dream of. If anything, the event of early May 2011
should put this narrative to rest for good.
Certainly, the demagoguery on the other side will persist regarding the
so-called softness of the Democrats on foreign policy and military
matters. Your opponents will try to blur
the lines, co-opt the true meaning of the demise Osama bin Laden, or even
insinuate that it is an isolated act of a government lucky to be in office and
beneficiary of the hard labor of its predecessor. You must not let them succeed in this
desperate attempt. This success is
yours! But you cannot take for granted that it will speak for itself, or that
the American people will remember it and give you credit for it. One lesson you may learn from George W. Bush
was that he kept 9/11 at the forefront of the American consciousness. It is
not the time to be modest. You may be worried
that the big “A” epithet—Arrogant—be affixed to you, if you boast this
achievement. Frankly, this should be the
least of your worries!
Lastly, Mr. President, there is political leverage to be
gained from the May 1, 2011 act that you authored and the execution of which
you successfully directed. You cannot
stand by and watch its impact fizzle, or let it be relegated to the annals of
history. You must make this success the cornerstone of your re-election strategy;
use it to contextualize your political message.
As domestic politics is heating up over issues of seminal importance to
the nation and posturing by his opponents is testing his leadership, you must
stand up and stand out as the one credentialed to successfully tackle such
issues. After all, you are the man who
took bin Laden out. As elusive and
frustrating this pursuit was, you nonetheless never lost your focus. You were committed to the cause of relieving
the American people from the nemesis Osama bin Laden represented. You were determined not to let one man
frustrate the might of our powerful military and hold the American psyche
hostage. In the end your commitment paid
off. You must not let this achievement
go by the wayside, or be co-opted by opportunists from the other side. You must adroitly pivot from it to achieve
other successes on the domestic. The
American people are now faced with a nemesis of a different kind that has bred
new insecurities in cities and communities across the nation. These new insecurities are shaking the
American people’s belief in their proverbial capacity to overcome
adversity. This nemesis is as powerful,
as elusive, as damaging, as frustrating as the threat of terrorism posed by bin
Laden. Seven years after 9/11, America
was struck in the fall of 2008 by an event of cataclysmic proportions, which
brought it to the brink of annihilation as the world economic superpower. The severity of that shock, caused by a
decade of economic neglect and flagrant lack of oversight coupled with reckless
fiscal policies, was such that the structures of our economic edifice were
badly damaged. The damages reverberated throughout all the sectors down to poor and
middle-class kitchen tables across the nation. This new nemesis—the state of the economy—is
your new challenge. You must draw for
the American people a parallel between the insecurities of post-9/11 America and the uncertainties of post-2008
Financial Collapse America. Do it in
terms they relate to. You have the
power, the credentials to triumph over this new nemesis. It will take patience, focus, decisions that
rely on rational inference—the type of decision-making that led to the May 1,
2011 successful operation. You need to convey it to the American people with passion. The same passion you displayed during your presidential campaign.
After all, you are the man.
The one who took bin Laden out.
No small feat, indeed! Washington
should be reminded of it. And America
should be grateful for it.
Two years after the historic elections that brought Barack Obama to the White House and conferred control of Congress to the Democratic Party, the American electorate is called upon to decide on the future make-up of our legislative body. It is a contentious race marked in particular by the rise to the political forefront of a new phenomenon, the Tea Party. Catching onto the fervor and anger that animate this movement, The Republicans vowed to make this race a referendum on the Obama Presidency. This is an age-old tactic used against incumbents to force them to run on an indefensible and unpopular record. As recently as two years ago, the Democrats used it with much success against George W. Bush and his Congressional allies. This time around, the Grand Old Party (GOP) is trying to administer the same medicine to Obama and his Party and hopes to triumph at the polls this November. What is it about the President’s record that makes the Republicans believe they can succeed? And why are the Democrats running away from his record? What is it about Obama’s politics that electrifies the Republicans against him and cools his relations with the Democratic Left?
The four months that preceded President Obama’s inauguration were rocked by a financial crisis, the impact of which was so sudden and profound that it sent all sectors of the economy into a frenetic downward spiral. America’s economic and financial hegemony was called into question. Some twenty years after the fall of Communism, the dissolution of the capitalistic system appeared ineluctable. The fate of Capitalism and the world’s largest economy rested on the shoulders of a young president, a former junior Senator from Illinois who only served a half-term in Congress. No presidency has had, upon its inaugural, to face such monumental challenges. But as his successful campaign for the White House suggests, Obama had no shortage of ingenuity, decisiveness and calculated risk-taking in his arsenal. Right off the bat, his Administration sent signals that a do-nothing Congress was not an option. He engaged the 111th Congress early on by relentlessly pushing through his high-stake legislative agenda. Quite a contrast with Congresses of the past two decades, when major legislations were scarce–welfare reform, immigration reform, and tax cuts being a few of note. These past Congresses were famous for passing trivial pieces of legislation such as a “National Corvette Day” bill on June 26, 2008 introduced by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill).
It all started in September 2008. All too often, people seem to forget the chain of events that preceded the fatidic date of January 20, 2009. To put things in perspective, let’s briefly recap the salient features of that period. Specifically, the banking and financial system was in tatters; stock markets from all over the world plunged; Lehman Brothers went under, leaving Washington scurrying to the rescue of other mega financial institutions. The mortgage-backed securities that reigned supreme until a few months prior plummeted and dragged the fortunes of our financial institutions to the ground. The Federal Reserve Bank and the US Treasury intervened to save eight major ones from imminent bankruptcy. Major disruptions occurred in the industrial sector of the economy, asphyxiated by the sudden credit drought. Cash-starved companies scrambled to finance their working capital needs, even to make payroll. Massive layoffs took place overnight. The auto industry, a staple of American know-how and industriousness, was in a shambles. GM and Chrysler were bankrupt and needed strong cash infusion to survive and salvage the economy of cities and towns that depended on the auto industry. Washington finally acknowledged the recession that started almost a year earlier.
President Obama’s First Twenty Months
How quickly do we forget! From Candidate Obama to President Obama, in the span of three months, the economic situation deteriorated so that, in January 2009, the nation lost some 600,000 jobs. Massive layoffs of teachers, police officers, and firefighters were forecast by state and local governments; GDP for the quarter that ended on 12/31/09 fell to a dismal -6.3%, the lowest since the first quarter of 1982. That was the tableau staring at Obama: a situation that called for not a band aid but for a scalpel to surgically remove the tumor that drove the American economy to the brink of catastrophe. Decisive action was necessary to ward off the looming depression, stem the flow of layoffs, and prop up demand. A month into his presidency, Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) or “Stimulus” to infuse $787 billion into the economy and stabilize it. In addition, Obama moved swiftly with a rescue package for GM and Chrysler and the installation of a new management team for GM. With the economic effect of the multiplier, the demise of GM and Chrysler would have trickled down to other sectors of the automobile secondary markets, dealerships. While the Republicans criticize the Stimulus and blame the 10% unemployment rate on Obama’s policies, most economists agree that the Stimulus has had a positive impact on the economy and argue that unemployment could have doubled, had teachers, police officers, firefighters, and construction workers been laid off. This is what was at stake. No responsible government should stay idle in the face of such catastrophic events and leave it to the invisible hand of the markets to cure the ills that they are responsible for in the first place. Even George W. Bush got this right, despite the unbridled brand of economics he was practicing. To his credit, he initiated the bailout.
Obama’s measures restored America to its status of preeminent economic power. In fact, while many economists predicted that the recession would last until 2011, by all economic measures it ended in June 2009. Real gross domestic product (GDP), the ultimate measure of a country’s economic activity, has been growing quarter after quarter since, rebounding remarkably from the -6.3% Obama inherited. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real GDP grew 3.7% in the first quarter of this year and 1.7% in the second quarter America remained indisputably and by far the largest economy and the envy of the world, though some would like to make believe otherwise. The auto industry was saved from extinction. GM repaid its entire $8 million loan portfolio plus interest and is profitable. The banking industry has fully recovered; the banks have paid back $170 billion of the $245 billion loaned by the Fed, including dividends and interest. By the end of next year, they are on pace to repay the loan in its entirety, and buy back their securities from the US Treasury. Such exploits, achieved against all odds and even against experts’ predictions, should be heralded and trumpeted all over America. The U.S. was the first country to come out of the recession and, once again, led the world on the path of economic recovery. However, except for China and Germany, the world’s economy had not significantly recovered from lingering recessionary pressures. Greece’s default, along with the woes of Spain, Portugal, and Italy served as a painful reminder of the frailty and instability of world economic realities, and in a way slowed the pace of our recovery.
Healthcare reform is another milestone in American politics. For decades, the reform of the health delivery system in the United States had vexed many Administrations—the latest being Bill Clinton’s. The rise in insurance premiums, the growing number of uninsureds, the use of pre-existing condition as criterion for denying coverage, the increasing healthcare share of the GDP and impact on the Federal deficit called for the overhaul of our healthcare system. To that end, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, later amended as Healthcare and Education Reconciliation act of 2010 is note-worthy, as it makes insurance more effective and affordable, extends coverage and eliminates insurance companies’ discriminatory practices based on pre-existing condition, guards against their abuses that have led to high personal bankruptcy rates. Not well known about this legislation is its education rider. In effect, this act has an education component which provides for cheaper student loan packages, by cutting commercial banks out of the lending business and empowering the Department of Education to undertake those loans. It also increases Pell grants for less fortunate students.
The economic crisis exposed the flaws inherent in our system of governance, the inadequacies of our financial rules and regulations. That is why financial reform had to go in lockstep with other measures. The promulgation of the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 is an important step ensuring the reform of the financial sector and safeguarding against the corporate greed and risky practices that brought the economy to its knees. In the previous decade in particular, the financial sector evaded all regulations. Though the SEC was chartered to regulate the industry, it had no teeth to enforce existing regulations, to rein in the speculative tendencies of Wall Street analysts, to stem the flow of new instruments supposedly designed to hedge against risks (“derivatives”). The excessive use of financial leverage, which glorified debt as a success formula for growth and earnings-per-share, made it possible for companies to rely solely on borrowing as a financing mechanism. Commercial banks strayed away from safe margin requirements and ventured into areas of risky loans. Credit cards companies used creative finance fee schemes to gouge their customers. The institution of a Bureau of Consumer Protection within the Federal Reserve is a welcome move to call out such practices and remedy the torts caused to individuals and families.
Another legislative success of Obama’s is the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. Acknowledging the importance of small businesses in the structure of our economy, the Act aims at making financial resources available to them in a universe marked by credit drought, and propping them up as growth engine of the economy.
President Obama’s Other Successes
By all standards, Obama has had a successful presidency so far. Aside from his astounding legislative successes, he took decisive actions to assert his position as the Chief of the Executive branch and the Commander-in-Chief. He ended combat operations in Iraq, technically ending the war—as he promised during his campaign for the presidency. He restored the image of American diplomacy abroad by forging a new partnership with our allies, based on mutual respect and equity. One of his first acts as President was the announcement of the dismantlement of the Guantanamo Prison, a symbol of a United States estranged from its famed principles of due process. From Cairo, he tendered the olive palm to the Muslim world and engaged it in the struggle against AL Qaeda, hoping to throw a wedge between the majority of the Muslims and the few radical elements of Islam. From his first trip abroad to Canada, he showed the new engaging side of the American diplomacy. While his presidency was in its infancy, he showed the world how prepared he was to engage the international press corps and his command of facts. Later on, his trips to Europe and Asia unveiled a side of the American presidency these countries had not seen for a decade… He brought America back to the world as a reliable, respectful, confident partner. Notable successes marked his foreign policy; the historic treaty he signed last April with President Medvedev of Russia on the reduction and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons—something that eluded many an American Administration before him—is noteworthy. He redefined our strategic relationship with Pakistan, making that country a more reliable partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He scored more successes against these two organizations—Al-Qaeda, in particular, whose leadership has come under increasing attacks from our military. More Al-Qaeda leaders have been struck By Obama than Bush. Pakistan has never been more cooperative, thanks to his pressure and new standards for accountability. The Middle East is relatively calm. There have been no eruptions or punitive incursions into Gaza, Ramallah, or southern Lebanon–the likes of which we witnessed during last decade and brought along utter destruction to these populations. There is still a standstill in Iran, but through diplomatic pressure, he is rallying more international support to his position toward sanction. North Korea is still at the negotiation table. In Soudan, Congo, and Nigeria, the situation has not escalated. We are not living the heightened state of nervousness that was so predominant in the past decade, when conflict hotbeds sprang from the world over and made the international scene into a keg of powder ready to explode at any moment… If anything, Obama’s approach to foreign policy has calmed spirits down. This approach is more strategic than tactical, attacking the terrorist network from all angles, cutting supply routes, obliterating their safe havens, etc. Other domestic successes have been relegated to oblivion. How can we forget the fanfare that surrounded H1N1, the porcine flu crisis of 2009? H1N1 was christened by the World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations, as a pandemic and took the lives of some 17,000 people worldwide. The airwaves were invaded by media organs poised to make it Obama’s crisis and to draw a parallel with Bush’s Katrina. This was a test for Obama’s preparedness. So swift and deliberate was his response that the crisis never reached the pandemic proportions that were predicted: vaccines were developed, stocks of them made available, vaccinations scheduled. The whole thing died down and dissipated from everyone’s memory, so that in August 2010 WHO declared the crisis over. How quickly do we forget! Obama’s command of the issues was on display when he faced the House Republicans’ questions on healthcare at their retreat. When they invited him on short notice at the heart of the healthcare debate to the lion’s den, there was no telling that the Republicans’ intent was clearly to embarrass him. However, analysts were unanimous in their assessment that Obama schooled John Boehner and consorts in their own backyard. That episode showed how knowledgeable, confident, secure and brave he could be, and that he had what we expect of a President. Never mind that Carl Rove thought he was arrogant!
The Conservative Opposition Axis
Despite these stunning successes, President Obama’s Party stands to lose its majority in Capitol Hill; the Republicans are winning the message battle. Recent polls suggest that the American electorate favors them over the Democrats 55% to 45%. That the GOP managed such a reversal two years after suffering a crushing defeat at the polls is a testimony to its craft. And that the voters suddenly became oblivious of the fact that the Republicans’ unruly policies brought the country to the edge of the abyss is incomprehensible. Most disheartening is the timidity shown by the Democrats to the point of letting the GOP steal their thunder. By the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the Democratic camp was beaming with optimism and exultation: technically, they enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority of sixty votes in the Senate—58 Democrats plus 2 independents who caucus with them—an advantage that would guarantee legislative passage of the White House agenda. Alas, the Democrat’s elation proved to be short-lived. The Republicans, who emerged from the 2008 debacle as a decapitated Party, saw that void quickly filled by right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh. The conservative commentator found himself at the helm of the Republican machine, vociferating insults and his hope that Obama failed. His voice was so powerful that no one in the Republican camp showed the backbone to stand to his outrageous remarks and far-fetched theories. The few who dared call him out on his deleterious rhetoric had to crawl to his feet the next day to make amends and beg for mercy—including the Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. Limbaugh’s voice found an echo in the ranks of the Tea Party movement, mobilized against the rescue of the financial sector, the auto industry, and the economic Stimulus package. The Republicans also benefited from the unequivocal support of the Fox Network to the cause of opposing the Obama Administration. Rupert Murdoch’s network offered the Republicans a rallying platform from which they could reach out to their millions of viewers. That was the first time in the media annals of the U.S. a major media outlet has so openly sided with a political party and against a Washington Administration. To this, the Democrats had no response; they were caught off-guard. If they thought that their electoral success would have stymied Fox’s influence in the national political discourse, they had then badly miscalculated. Never before had a media organ so overtly thrown its weight in the balance of the electoral process, and the shaping of policy. Once again, the Democrats have proven unable to hold a majority in Congress.
The powerful Limbaugh-Tea Party-Fox axis caught the Democrats flat-footed, and empowered the Republican Party to the point that it is in serious contention to reclaim the majority in at least one chamber on Capitol Hill. This axis acts as the head of the Party. With such backing, the Republicans could afford to be the Party of NO–No to the Stimulus, No to healthcare reform, No to the dismantlement of the Guantanamo prison, No to financial reform, No to small business credit, No to student loan reform, No to immigration reform, No to energy reform, No to gays in the military, No to extending unemployment benefits, No to closing the tax loopholes benefiting companies exporting jobs overseas. They have blocked key cabinet level nominations, deferred indefinitely the confirmation of high-level judicial appointees. They have used the “filibuster” weapon routinely to kill legislations. In the past, such obstructionist posture was never considered a virtue in American politics; it would have valued the perpetrators the wrath of the voters. Not this time, however, because their obstructionism is powered by the high voltage of an influential media outlet that makes no apology for openly opposing the White House.
Discontent in Democratic Ranks
President Obama’s constituencies, for their part, put up no credible fight against the mounting assaults of the right wing media and their acolytes. They make no secret of their lack of enthusiasm during this election season, in sharp contrast with the mass support they gave Candidate Obama two years earlier and that ensured his Presidency. They are as perturbed by the President’s stubbornly centrist position as frustrated by his courtship of the Republicans despite their overt strategy to torpedo his initiatives. How did they get to that point? In the eyes of the Democratic Left, Obama committed some “sins” deemed inexpiable. That side of the Party is viscerally “anti-Cheney” and longs for the day when the former Vice-President is tried for crime against humanity for being the cheerleader-in-chief of the unwarranted Iraq war. These democrats were dismayed over the President’s meddling in the province of the Attorney-General and preempting Eric Holder’s possible strike against Dick Cheney. Obama hinted at the very beginning of his Presidency that his Administration should not pursue the indictment of officials of the Bush Administration for falsifying the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. By extending this olive branch to the Republicans, he was hoping that they would see it as a goodwill gesture on his part and win their vote on key legislations. Liberal Democrats would have none of it: indicting Cheney was paramount, as he was the architect of the Iraq folly that cost so much in blood, treasure, and world peace. They equated Obama’s action to naïveté, pandering to the Republicans, and compromising on the very principles upon which he built his campaign—Change, Openness, Transparence. For them, this fool-hardy and reckless act that took the lives of so many human beings (Americans and Iraqis) was worthy of prosecution to ensure that never again the Executive abuses its power, usurps the prerogatives of the other branches of government, and bilks the American people to fulfill its fantasies–Dick Cheney was to be put on trial, pure and simple. That Obama tried to thwart this natural outcome was tantamount to treason. Treason toward the ideals that animated his campaign. Treason toward the principles he vowed to uphold as President. Constitutional Law purists were disturbed by his political posturing on the matter, the more of it that he was a Constitutional Law professor. By short-circuiting the action of his Attorney-General, he himself over-stepped his constitutional boundaries; he interfered with the activity of the Attorney-General’s office who, supposedly, is independent from the White House. It was also at a time when a Court in Spain took an unprecedented step in indicting Cheney in absentia for crime against humanity. Currently, the Spaniards have an arrest warrant against Cheney, if he ever steps foot on their territory. The left was hoping that the Obama Administration would follow suit. This pass to the Right has in effect emboldened Cheney himself who was defiant, and taunted the White House at every opportunity he had, leveling criticism against the President and undermining his Administration’s efforts.
The relations between Obama and his natural allies were further soured by the healthcare debate, when he walked away from the Public Option. The Left was of the opinion that the plenipotentiary healthcare industry, led by insurance companies and pharmaceuticals needed another force to counter their power. That force was a “Public Option”—a non-profit public insurance company that would be able to compete with the insurance industry and offer a viable alternative to ever-rising premiums, selective coverage and discriminatory practices. Only a public option, the Liberal aisle of the Party argued, could hold the healthcare industry in check, break its monopolistic power, force it to lower costs and abandon its nefarious practices. without that, the Liberals go on, it is wishful thinking that the almighty insurance industry will relinquish their profit and voluntarily cut costs. Obama buckled down under pressure from the united front presented by the Republicans. To salvage the bill, he renounced the public option to the chagrin of Liberal Democrats. Aside from the Republicans, Obama had to contend with some restive elements of his own Party: the “Blue Dogs”, conservative Democrats from Republican and Independent districts who tend to vote alongside the Republicans and boast their independence from party line. In the Senate, these Blue Dogs held significant sway because they were key to the magic 60 votes necessary for safe passage of any legislation. Sixty Democratic votes, the so-called filibuster-proof majority, could defeat any Republican attempt to derail the legislative process even when every single one of their members would vote against a bill introduced by the Democrats. So, the Blue Dogs had considerable political capital, which they used to hold the Party hostage. Time and again, they aligned with the Republican Minority against the passage of key Democratic legislations. Obama and Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, courted the “Blue Dogs” especially when it became clear that they would not win the support of a single Republican to pass the healthcare overhaul bill. At that juncture, the Left cried out for Reconciliation—a legislative process that requires a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate as opposed to the 60, subject to a ratifying vote by the House of Representatives. Again Obama discarded the voice of the Left and insisted on passing the bill with 60 votes. One of the Blue Dogs, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who was instrumental to the passage of the legislation, held out until he obtained special Medicaid concessions for his constituents. This was denounced by people from all political persuasions as a “backroom” deal, as a symbol of what Washington stood for. Such a controversial move tarnished Obama’s image of change promoter. Ironically, the courtship of the Blue dogs proved to be unnecessary: the fragile majority of 60 was broken by the surprise election of the Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts to occupy Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate. This humiliating defeat of the Democrats almost threw healthcare reform out the window. To save the bill, the Democrats were forced to resort to Reconciliation, after having so vehemently opposed it. The bill passed and signed into law by the President in March 2010. However, it was a watered-down, emasculated bill that was more an insurance reform than true healthcare reform. This left a sour taste in the mouth of the Democrats to the left, such as Howard Dean.
The Left’s disillusion with Obama was exacerbated by his decision to allow oil drilling in some coastal areas of the countries. In their estimation, he caved in one more time to the criticism of the “Drill, Baby, Drill” choir headed by the Sara Palins, Dick Cheneys of the world. This was a clear breach of the understanding he had with his supporters not to go that route. The mantra of his energy policy was to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, move away from drilling, and develop new sources of energy. Liberal Democrats find it difficult to grant him attenuating circumstances as regards “Don’t ask don’t tell”, still in effect in the Military. If anything, they are confused by the mixed signals he has sent lately regarding the fate of the policy of admitting gays to the Military.
The Republican Alternative
Obama’s public stand against the desiderata of the Left did not sit well with the latter, who threatens to sit out the election. If such threats were to materialize, what would it mean for the Obama agenda? What is the alternative proposed by the Republicans? What do they stand for?
One clear thing is the penury of Republican ideas. Their panacea to the woes afflicting our economy is none other than… Tax Cuts. Against the number one economic issue marking the slow recovery of the American economy—an unemployment rate of almost 10%–they are again proposing the Almighty Tax Cuts to the top 2% of the population. In their thinking, such tax benefits should trickle down to the common mortals in the form of jobs and personal income growth. Recent history of the decade just past proves this to be a fallacy. Two rounds of tax cuts enacted by George W. Bush did virtually nothing in net job creation and were marked by a decline in net personal income. Yet again, the GOP is asking for a chance to do it over. The tax cut formula has not worked before and will not work this time either. These tax benefits incentivize the recipients of big piles of cash to invest in blue chip stocks on Wall Street. Large and mature corporations such as blue chips do not create jobs; on the contrary, they shed jobs. Blue chips typically operate in saturated and highly competitive markets, where growth in their core operations is limited due to the shrinking of market share. Their formula for growth relies on mergers and acquisitions. Once their cash flows or their balance sheets improve, they seek out takeover targets. And as soon the takeover is finalized, they look for synergies. Simply put, in the synergistic model 1 plus 1 equals 3–which may sound aberrant; in fact, it means that, if carefully calibrated, a takeover can be so transformative that 2 people should be able to do a job originally done by 3. Usually, when put to the test, workers react along the lines of such expectation. This can be explained by a variety of factors: psychological pressure (fear of being next), personal drive, learning curve effect (productivity gain resulting from experience), and technological advances. When this mix works, companies achieve the same or higher level of output even with less headcount. So, the synergistic effect of mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, takeovers is loss of jobs. Statistics bears this theory out. Nothing excites Wall Street more than the prospect of headcount reduction or layoffs. Note that every time a publicly traded company announces layoffs, its stock price follows with an upswing move. They may use such terms as restructuring, reengineering, rightsizing. In Wall Street parlance, it all equates to layoffs, early retirement—which will cause stock prices to go up. As an October 3, 2010 article of the Wall Street Journal “Propelling the Profit Comeback: Retooling, Downsizing” indicated, all those profits have been achieved thanks to layoffs and downsizing.
The Republicans are rehashing the policies that basically killed jobs in the past decade. From July 1999 to July 2009, virtually on George W. Bush’s watch, the annual job growth rate declined from 2% to .01%. Net job creation amounted to a paltry 121,000 out of a labor force of 109 million, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still according to the BLS, from 2000 to 2008 (the Bush years), 369,000 new private jobs were created. Compare this to the 1.7 million created from 1992 to 2000 during the Clinton era. In terms of jobs lost during the Bush years, the manufacturing industry topped all sectors with a whopping 3 million (Source: Reuters, State of the Union 2008: By the Numbers). This article shows some revealing statistics that make one wonder, “What are the American people thinking?” This was happening while mergers and acquisitions were at their heyday, and Bush “demanded a refund on behalf of the taxpayers” and filled the pockets and coffers of rich Americans and Blue Chips. All this happened at the height of an Administration reputed for its pro-business stance, its penchant for an unregulated economic environment, for its laissez-faire attitude that brought the country to the edge of the precipice. If jobs were created during the Bush years, they were overseas. Bush’s economic policies eased the way for these companies to ship jobs overseas—manufacturing to China, services to India– and allow them to move from the high costs of doing business here (mainly due to the increasing costs of healthcare) to low-wage, environmentally-deficient, non-unionized overseas labor markets. What it all means for the Republicans—and that is why they are fighting tooth and nail to make these tax cuts permanent and promote even more of them–is the prospect of increased profits, higher dividends for their rich constituencies.
Playing up the populist card, the Republicans accuse the Democrats of promoting class warfare and resort to such buzzwords as “Socialism” or “Socialist medicine” to rally gullible folks to their inflammatory rhetoric. The fact of the matter is, under Obama, corporate profits have risen to historic proportions. Quarter after quarter, corporate profits have risen. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a unit from the Commerce Department, corporations posted an increase in profits of $196 billion in the first six months of this year. In absolute terms, corporate profits are on pace to reach $1.2 trillion by year’s end. Corporate cash flows increased by $61 billion in the second quarter and $33 billion in the first. It is estimated that companies are hoarding some $1.6 trillion in cash (New York Times, October 5, 2010). The argument in the opposing camp is that the anti-business climate instituted by the Obama Administration makes it difficult for companies to invest at this time. How disingenuous! Larry Summers, Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, protested the anti-business label the Right and Wall Street attempt to affix to the President’s image, and affirmed that since 2008, corporate profits have grown 65% (Business Week, June 24, 2010.) But do not expect these companies to engage in any investment spree or hiring anytime soon. They are hiding behind all sorts of pretexts. First, it was the healthcare legislation which was stuck in Congress. Healthcare has passed; yet no action on their part. Secondly, they could not do anything until the financial reform bill was enacted. Financial Reform was passed in the summer; still no action on their part. At this juncture, these companies are sitting on the sidelines, with their list of take-over targets, waiting for the situation to clear. They are not venturing into the economic fray, convinced as they are that the Obama Administration’s current focus on regulation deters their corporate ambitions and that they will receive their tax cut from the Republicans. They see no value in aiding Obama’s economic initiatives. In fact, they are not exactly sitting idle, relying on heavenly manna; they are actively working toward the downfall of the Democratic Congress. The Supreme Court gave them the tools to do so when earlier this year it rendered its infamous decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing unrestricted flow of corporate funds into the electoral process, thus affirming the “First Amendment rights” of corporations and rich individuals. These two groups are throwing the weight of their treasury into the race and supporting en masse Republican fundraising efforts. Rupert Murdoch, Fox News Chairman, for his part injected an unprecedented $1 million into the coffers of the Republican apparatchik.
Small businesses, by contrast, are known to be the engine of the economy. When large corporations shed jobs as a result of mergers and acquisitions, they create a byproduct: a pool of highly skilled workers, and mid-managers some of them forced into early retirement. They use their know-how to serve the outsourcing needs of large corporations or to establish niches in areas where it is not feasibly profitable for large companies to operate. Their small size confers them flexibility to quickly adjust to market needs and operate profitably or, at least, with great growth potential. However, oft-times, due to lack of liquidity, they rely more on the financial sector for their working capital needs. The credit crunch is hurting them. While big banks emerged from their crisis as strong as ever, repaid their loans to the Feds ahead of time, and pocketed sizable profits, they shut down the lending valve. Interestingly, both the banking system and corporations are sitting on liquidity of proverbial proportions and plowing none of it back into the economy. It appears that all these forces are in league with the Republicans to scuttle Obama’s efforts to revive the economy.
Turning the Clock Back vs. Moving Forward
One thing remains certain: unemployment will remain high for at least for another year, regardless of which Party gets control of Congress in January 2011. The real choice is between yesteryear rehashes and tomorrow’s solutions. The economic landscape is quickly changing and calls for new growth paradigms. The problems confronting us are structural. Short-term gimmicks will not address the long-term challenges of a global economy. To use an analogy, the scars are so deep that many reconstructive surgeries will be necessary to bring the face back to normal. To tackle tomorrow’s challenges and ready ourselves for the new economy, now is the time to work on the necessary structures. The jobs of the future will not necessarily be in the traditional sectors. Through proper structures put in place, the U.S. can position itself for competitive advantage in the search for, and commercialization of, new energy technologies. Already, China and Germany, two countries that came out of the recession in a relatively strong position, are heavily investing in new energy areas. A “Drill, Baby, Drill” 112th Congress with a Republican majority is out of step with this reality. A Republican Congress, whose economic plan revolves only around tax cuts, is bound to miss out on tomorrow’s economic opportunities. A Republican Congress with strong ties with the Tea Party movement will likely view government spending as a heresy. In this context, however, government has a role to play in chartering a new course for the nation’s future, in channeling resources towards areas of real growth and economic prosperity, yet mindful of environmental impact. Let us forget not that the history of the internet goes back to government involvement—smart government. The Republicans want to turn the clock back. We need to move forward with healthcare reform and not repeal it. Our infrastructures need to be upgraded; the painful specter of collapsing bridges, the likes of which we witnessed in Minnesota some three years ago, will continue to haunt our memories and possibly recur. Tax cuts, in and of themselves, do not fix bridges, or build roads. In this climate, it is incumbent upon government to make the structural changes susceptible to prepare the United States for the challenges of the new world. This preparation involves significant investments in research–medical, environmental, energy, spatial, technological. The other tenet of the preparation lies in educational reform. Never mind that the Republicans, in their retrograde thinking, want to wrest education out of Washington’s purview to put it within the States’. That would work: fifty separate and for sure unequal standards–Can’t beat that!
Shed No Tears!
No Administration counted so many high-stake legislative achievements in its first twenty months in the White House with so little preparation time: the Stimulus package, health insurance overhaul, tax cuts for incomes under $250 thousand, rescue package of the auto industry, financial reform, small business jobs bill, among others. Yet, Obama faces challenges from all sides of the political spectrum. Various interest groups from his own Party take issue with him. They feel that their agenda was preempted by his focus on the economy and healthcare. Gays and Latinos do not hide their displeasure that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and Immigration had been slighted. The Liberals take exception to the unwarranted concessions he made to the Republicans on healthcare and financial reforms. The fact of the matter is that taking on immigration and gay issues at a time the country was reeling from its economic woes would not be a good way to expend political capital. The most strident criticisms of the President come, of course, from the Opposition axis—Republicans, Tea Party, Fox News. This Axis showed how prolific and effective it can be when it comes to personal attacks on the President’s legitimacy, to giving large audience to the idiotic Birthers movement, or to opposing his agenda. By contrast, in terms of its political and economic arena, the right wing Axis displays a striking penury of ideas. (Remember the flimsy Republican healthcare plan in response to the Democrats’: a few pages.) There are, for all practical purposes, two themes that are dear to the Republicans. They emerge from their positions: the ubiquitous tax cuts and reduction of the size of government. Their contention that tax cuts can resolve the unemployment problem is fallacious. Statistics on the Bush years contradict such assertion. Federal deficits are an important issue to contend with. At the heart of their hypocrisy is their fight to prolong George Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthiest, which will add to the deficits. Most disappointing is the attitude of the incumbent Democrats who chose not to run on the President’s and their own achievements. They are reluctant to stick to a cause, no matter how noble. Reforming healthcare, reducing the ranks of uninsureds, offering the little guy well-deserved protection from the abuses of the all-powerful insurance industry—that is a cause worth fighting for. Holding Wall Street accountable, protecting consumers from the exactions of credit card companies, implementing much needed regulations to insure against executives’ greed and reckless risk-taking—that is a just cause. Extending unemployment benefits for those out of work against the will of the Republicans who at the same time want to extend the tax cuts for the rich—this is the courageous and right thing to do. Giving college students a break by increasing Pell Grants, cutting the banks out of this business, and granting better payment terms – that is the fair thing to do. Taking on powerful special interest groups opposed to a new environment policy, new energy initiatives that brighten our long-term economic prospects, while improving quality of life on the planet—that is the intelligent thing to do. Legislating on shutting down tax loopholes that allow big business to ship jobs overseas and leave large swaths of unemployed in urban labor markets—that is the sensible thing to do. Instead of campaigning on these achievements and noble attempts, the Democrats recoiled in the face of the uninhibited Republican attacks hell-bent on fixing a socialist epithet on such actions. But, these are all noble causes worth fighting for. Worth losing a Congressional seat for. Should they fall, let it be with a bang! At least they will have the courage of their convictions. How unfortunate is it that the Democrats, in their infinite cowardice, distanced themselves from the President and the causes that strike at the very core of Democratic ideals! It is pitiful that, instead of engaging the Republicans on these terrains, they saw it safer to indulge in character assassination—like in Kentucky, where the Democratic candidate revived the silly Aqua Buddha story from his opponent’s college years in an attempt to win votes. This is a page from Karl Rove’s political smear book, for God’s sake! On that score, the Democrats deserve to lose. And no one should shed a tear over their loss. And, who knows! President Obama might even do better without them at the helm. After all, he knows how to succeed against the odds. He shall triumph. Again!
In my personal observation, human beings are of two kinds: those who spare themselves and those who dare themselves. That President Obama was willing to expend so much political capital on such controversial pieces of legislation so early in his term speaks to his dedication to the task of leading the destiny of the nation in difficult times, irrespective of the consequences for himself. As such, he belongs in the category of those who dare themselves. For that alone, he deserves high marks. If we add the list of his successes, controversial as they may be, his Presidency has so far been impressive. Any other President with his record of achievements in such a short tenure would have been elevated to the firmament of American politics. That he, instead, draws the ire, the suspicion, or the unease (euphemism for… hatred) of so many, particularly from the Right makes you go… Hmmm! What is behind all that?
Mon très bon ami, Joël Duré, a attiré mon attention sur un article qui a paru sur Pikliz concernant le départ en août 1969 de nos anciens professeurs du Petit Séminaire Collège St Martial (PSCSM), les Pères du Saint-Esprit. Il sait que je prends cet incident tant à cœur qu’il a suggéré que je lise cet article et opine là-dessus. Duré n’a pas été témoin de cet épisode tragique de l’histoire du Séminaire, car il devait lui-même partir d’Haïti en cette même année, son départ ayant précédé celui des Spiritains de quelques mois. Je lui ai parlé à plusieurs reprises de ce que leur départ représentait pour nous qui étions en Haïti en ce temps-là au cours de nos entretiens à Chicago, où je vis, lors de courtes visites qu’il y a effectuées pour revoir ses parents. De plus, je viens de lire, par le biais de notre ami Guy Occident, un article du Père Urfié publié sur Haïti en Marche, intitulé « L’Expulsion des Spiritains ». Ce témoignage émouvant m’a incité à offrir ma perspective sur cet événement combien bouleversant de notre vie d’étudiants. Mais surtout il m’a donné l’occasion de faire le bilan de l’enseignement reçu au Séminaire, et l’ambiance dans laquelle cet enseignement était fourni.
J’étais à Marbial, une bourgade de Jacmel, prenant mes ébats de vacancier quand un ami m’annonça que « Duvalier fout Pè’yo deyo pou kominis ». De prime abord, je ne l’ai pas cru, m’imaginant qu’il s’agissait d’une de ces plaisanteries de mauvais aloi dont il était fameux. Bien qu’il m’ait affirmé qu’il avait entendu l’annonce « de ses deux oreilles » sur les ondes de sa « radio portative », je n’y’ai pas fait foi pensant qu’il y avait une part d’exagération, que peut-être il s’agissait d’un malentendu, ou, tout au plus, d’un incident mineur. Ce n’était qu’à mon retour à Port-au-Prince, quelques semaines avant la rentrée scolaire, que j’ai pu me rendre compte de l’envergure de la décision du Pouvoir. Dans un premier temps, le gouvernement de Duvalier expulsa les prêtres haïtiens (Adrien, Verdieu, Claude, Poux, Dominique, Smarth) pour soi-disant activités subversives. En témoignage de solidarité, les prêtres étrangers décidèrent de les suivre. Un coup terrible nous fut ainsi assené— à nous qui étions assoiffés de culture et de connaissances. Personnellement, j’ai senti qu’on m’avait coupé de mon passé et ravi mon futur. Un passé dont j’étais si fier et jaloux. Et un futur si prometteur.
Ce passé était fortement imprégné de l’influence des spiritains. Je revois l’enceinte du Séminaire où j’avais évolué depuis la Onzième, grandi sous l’égide de professeurs tels que St Louis, Innocent, Thomas à la section primaire et sous l’œil scrutateur du Père Préfet Esrich qui ne se départait pas de son petit gourdin qu’il tenait dans ses mains croisées derrière le dos. Je revis ce passé émaillé de souvenirs tant heureux que malheureux—s’agissait-il des bagarres ou des scènes pugilistiques aux abords de l’église ou près de la Maison des Pères, ou des matchs de football interclasses sur la cour de recréation durant l’intermède de la mi-journée, ou de mes deux valises d’écolier que j’étais fait voler en jouant aux billes après la sortie de 4 heures moins cinq, ou des courses aux robinets après les séances de sport du professeur Mérimée. Sans oublier ces moments de rigolade, d’insouciance, d’écervellement passés en compagnie de compagnons tels que Jean-Baptiste (J, Désinor, Brisson, Martinez, Cadet, Léon-Emile, José, Brunet, Ambroise, Lionel Paul, Legrand, Guirand, Garçon, Lauture, Allen, Vaval, pour ne citer que ceux-là ! Je me souviens encore de mes stations au piquet sur le carreau de mosaïque devant la Préfecture pour infractions à la discipline par suite desquelles j’écopais d’un des matraquages d’Esrich.
N’était les cours de religion assumés par les PèresVerdieu et Schmidt, autant qu’il m’en souvienne, notre passage au Primaire n’était pas fortement marqué par interactions avec les Pères. Sauf, eh oui, une session d’éducation sexuelle en 7ème avec… Esrich lui-même, où nous avons exploré la transition à l’âge pubère et les transformations physiques qui en découlaient. Nous avons découvert avec ébahissement et délectation les descriptions et fonctions des organes sexuels. A part la classe de religion, tous les cours étaient dispensés par des professeurs laïcs, bien entendu dans le cadre de la philosophie pédagogique des spiritains, à savoir la compréhension par opposition a la mémorisation. En effet, je ne me souviens pas d’une seule instance ou je devais mémoriser des textes entiers pour les débiter en face de mes professeurs.
Au Secondaire, le contact avec les Pères était beaucoup plus direct et soutenu. Ils enseignaient pas mal de nos cours. On se souvient très bien des cours de français, latin et grec dispensés par les Pères Bertho, Claude, Le Gall, Dominique entre autres, de mathématiques par Schneider (Chado) et Schumacher, de chimie par Urfié, de sciences naturelles et espagnol par Gasser, philosophie par Gisler, entre autres. Certes, à leurs côtés évoluaient des professeurs laïcs. Qui ne se souvient de Ti Baptiste,
de sa calligraphie, de ses « Locutions Usuelles », de son sarcasme accompagné d’un sourire moqueur ? Plus d’un était la cible de son humour et de ses railleries-tels un Kerlegrand : « Voilà un homme qui habite à 15 kilomètres de l’Arcahaie et qui se dit ‘arcahaiaque’ », ou l’allemand Helmut Andersen qui dans une de ses classes n’arrêtait pas de chuchoter et à qui il lança :« La ferme, Fritz de malheur ! ». Baptiste, qui était un puriste, se plaignait des séances de torture auxquelles mes élocutions le soumettaient. Il menaça de me dénoncer à l’Académie Française comme « assassin de la langue » tant mon français était « exécrable ». Un des moments les plus prisés et hilarants de ses cours était marqué par « les perles de la semaine ». Ces perles consistaient en fautes de grammaire et créolismes qu’il avait découverts au cours des corrections de devoirs de français. Une de ses trouvailles, qu’il a pris grand plaisir à lire pour la classe, était le récit d’un combat entre un chien et un chat décrit par Beaulieu, d’où il a extrait l’expression « Mimi éclaire ses yeux sur Médor » ; ceci suscita un grand éclat de rire. Nous nous amusions tout aussi bien aux dépens de Tibo, et il l’acceptait volontiers : une des recettes héritées des promotions précédentes était de conjuguer le verbe latin « tibare » (une invention, bien sur) à l’indicatif présent–tibo, tibas, tibat, tibamus, TIBATIS,tibant. Il souriait de notre ingéniosité. De Ti Baptiste nous avons retenu la perfection du style, l’emploi judicieux des mots, l’usage correct de la concordance des temps dont j’essaie ici de me passer de peur de ne paraître guindé. Et je suis sûr qu’il en aurait pas mal à redire ici.
Par contre, personne n’osait se permettre des familiarités avec Lespinasse qui enseignait les mathématiques en 4ème et 3ème. Surnommé Bibi, à cause de son biceps imposant, l’irascible Lespinasse ne tolérait pas de remous dans sa classe. L’ordre et la discipline y régnaient. Ils devaient également se manifester dans les devoirs et examens d’algèbre et de géométrie. J’entends encore sa voix répéter son fameux « Par hypothèse ». A l’entendre, on eût dit que le mot s’épelait « hypothèzzzzzz ». Pour comique que cette habitude ait été, personne ne prenait la chance d’en rire ; on ne pouvait qu’échanger des regards furtifs et contenir nos rires pour la fin de la classe. De mon côté, je prenais note de ses tics et expressions favorites en vue de l’imiter durant la récréation. De Bibi, nous avons retenu l’importance de la démarche logique si nécessaire à la résolution de problèmes, le goût de l’organisation et du travail soigné. Pour ce qui était de l’art oratoire, la palme d’or revenait à Trouillot. Nous étions captivés par ses cours d’histoire d’Haïti, tenus en haleine par sa verve patriotique. Ce qui nous faisait vibrer, c’était le crescendo qui accompagnait son ressassement pathétique des faits historiques qui ont culminé à notre Indépendance. Typiquement, il débuterait avec l’Assemblée Constituante, passerait par le symbolisme du Bois Caiman, pour atteindre le paroxysme de l’émotion quand il vint à parler des exploits militaires et du génie administratif de Toussaint Louverture dont il était un fanatique. Ses prestations étaient immanquablement suivies d’un torrent d’applaudissements, auxquels il essayait de se dérober, feignant l’humilité tout en arborant un petit sourire au coin de ses lèvres : « Vous savez bien que je n’aime pas ça,voyez-vous ? » Trouillot a attisé notre ferveur patriotique et nous a inculqué l’amour de notre histoire. Enfin, que dire de J. Claude dont, soit dit en passant, j’avais aussi la réputation dans notre cercle d’amis d’être l’imitateur ? J. Claude enseignait le latin et le grec. Il était aussi connu pour ses tirades contre le sport, qu’il jugeait une activité inutile. Il ridiculisait « ceux qui courent après le ballon. » Sa mine rébarbative avait l’effet de nous tenir sur nos gardes. Je me rappelle qu’au tout début de l’année scolaire, il s’arrêta au milieu de son cours pour lancer cet avertissement : « J’avertis les élèves qui ont l’habitude de crier comme des animaux que, quand ils crient de la sorte—d’ailleurs j’ai déjà averti le père préfet, je les renverrai immédiatement du collège. Ils imitent tellement bien les animaux qu’il y a de quoi se tromper. Est-ce une métamorphose ?Je ne sais pas. Mais les gens ont eu peur, croyant qu’ils étaient en présence de vrais animaux. » Ce qui nous attirait chez J. Claude, c’était ses tics et sautes d’humeur, que je trouvais si marrants que je n’arrêtais pas d’en rire. Cela m’a valu l’épithète de Niaisus. Une fois, il remarqua que je riais par suite d’un de ces moments hilarants et lança ces propos à mon égard : « Il y en a qui ne peuvent pas ne pas étaler leurs dents. On leur a surement dit que le Séminaire a besoin de gobe-mouches. Je ne sais pas, moi ; le père Claude n’en a pas encore parlé. » < Je ne peux en dire autant des mathématiques, qui n’étaient pas mon fort. Toutefois, la base que nous avions acquise de Schneider (Chado) nous a permis une transition relativement aisée au système de Bibi. J’étais plutôt connu pour mes prouesses imitatives de Schneider au point de recevoir le sobriquet de « Chado ». Son accent était fortement influencé par ses origines alsaciennes. Par exemple, pour résoudre l’expression algébrique -6 + 18 = +12, il dirait : « six negatiff plus diss-houit possitiff égal douce possitiff. » Outre l’aspect ludique auquel se prêtaient les cours de Chado, notre base était assurée pour continuer notre éducation avec Bibi et Schumacher. Je n’ai pas eu le plaisir d’avoir Schumacher en 2nde parce que j’ai été promu en 2ndeA à cause de mes démêlées avec la géométrie. J’aurais plus de mal à m’y adapterqu’au grec vu ma prédisposition pour les belles-lettres—c’était du moins l’argument que Le Gall me présenta pour me convaincre du bien-fondé de la décision de la direction des études. De fait, la voie des mathématiques en 2nde B devait s’avérer ardue pour plus d’un, car Schumacher passait à une vitesse supérieure. Je me rappelle la réponse que Cadet donna à Césaire qui s’enquérait de sa prestation durant un de ces exercices de Schum, où même les plus doués en math (Larco, Boisson, Mathon, Thomas, Bélisaire) n’avaient pas pu obtenir un score plus élevé que 65. Césaire demanda à Cadet : « Nan bagay sa-a, Cadet, venn konbyen ou fè ? » Et Cadet, qui n’était pas toujours d’humeur à accepter une plaisanterie, de répondre sans hésitation : « Venn bouda’w ! » Je rendrai hommage au Père Le Gall, professeur de français, en 4ème et 3ème. Il n’était point un puriste ou un technicien du langage, à l’image d’un Bertho ou d’un Baptiste. Avec lui, il s’agissait d’une tout autre conception. Si, en 4ème, il avait mis l’emphase sur l’imagination par le biais du récit et des images evocatives, par contre en 3ème c’était plutôt l’avènement du raisonnement et de l’esprit critique. Je me rappelle deux de ces sujets, ou nous étions amenés à commenter l’expression « Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse » ou cette pensée d’Anatole France « Les changements les plus souhaités ont leur mélancolie, » Je dois dire que, personnellement, je me trouvais dans mon bain et que cette approche permettait à ma plume de s’épanouir. De plus, Le Gall nous obligeait à lire. Et à lire les œuvres d’auteurs de renom. Cette obligation qu’il nous a imposée, les comptes-rendus écrits quis’ensuivaient et les inévitables devoirs de rédaction du vendredi avaient beaucoup aidé à la maturation de mon style. Et, autant que je sache, je n’ai pas été le seul à bénéficier de cette heureuse transition. Je ne saurais passer sous silence sa contribution à notre journal de classe. En effet, de concert avec une équipe de rédaction dont je ne me rappelle plus qui faisait partie, il a travaillé à la parution de notre journal de classe, qui était un événement en soi. De très beaux articles avaient paru sous la plume d’un Balthazar, d’un Montasse, d’un Léon-Emile. En ce temps-là, je n’en étais pas au point de publier des articles de valeur ; ma plume était en pleine période de gestation. Ces acquis nous avaient préparés pour la technique approfondie de la dissertation littéraire en 2nde avec le Père Le Thiès. Ce dernier n’était pas spiritain ; il nous était venu de Jérémie, où il avait enseigné les belles-lettres pendant plusieurs années. Le Thiès avait la distinction d’être un humoriste. Ses cours étaient dispensés dans une ambiance décontractée, où il utilisait l’humour comme un outil de transmission de connaissances. Je me rappelle un de ses contes au sujet du mot crétin : « Au 17ème siècle, qualifier quelqu’un de crétin était une grave insulte. C’était si sérieux que ça conduisait à un duel. Dès qu’il y a duel, quelqu’un périt–soit le crétin lui-même… » Son talent comique était surtout en évidence quand, à lui seul, il jouait les personnages des pièces de Molière, Le Misanthrope et L’Avare. De Le Thiès, nous avons retenu la fraîcheur de Toutefois, l’influence la plus marquante sur notre vie d’adolescents a été sans conteste exercée par le Père Claude. En 3ème, nous avions le privilège d’avoir de Ti Claude comme professeur de latin et de religion. En latin, outre le renforcement de la technique de traduction des textes, Ti Claude institua un concours, une sorte de bataille rangée entre équipes qui dura plusieurs jours et passa par étapes éliminatoires. Cela nous portait à revoir toute la grammaire, de la déclinaison à la syntaxe et aux locutions latines. Un des moments mémorables de la compétition survint quand l’équipe de Duré affronta celle d’Edvard Jean-Pierre ; Duré posa la question à Jean-Pierre : « Traduisez ‘Pas le moins du monde’. » Après maintes réfections, Jean-Pierre finit par répondre, sans conviction : « Non minus mundi. » La classe éclata de rire et l’équipe de Jean-Pierre fut éliminée. A vrai dire, si j’avais été en finale contre Duré, je n’aurais pas gagné le premier prix parce que moi non plus je ne savais pas la réponse à cette question. Mais cela n’était qu’un aspect de l’esprit innovateur de Ti Claude. C’était durant ses cours de religion que nous avons fait l’expérience la plus enrichissante de notre carrière d’étudiants. Ces cours de religion prenaient plusieurs formes. Car, avant tout, Ti Claude entendait former des hommes. D’abord des « honnêtes hommes » ou « gentilhommes » qui , pour emprunter un terme de Montaigne, possédaient « des clartés de tout » ou qui fissent leur cette phrase de Térence « Homo sum ; nihil humanum mihi alienum. » (Je suis un homme ; rien de ce qui est humain ne saurait m’être étranger.) En effet, il nous incitait à approfondir nos connaissances. « Lisez », disait-il « tout ce qui vous tombent sous la main. » Ses cours de religion reflétaient cette diversité et curiosité intellectuelles. A titre d’exemple, à une de ses classes sur le comportement humain, Ti Claude nous introduisit à la psychanalyse de Freud et aux concepts de « moi social », « subconscient » ou « ça ». Il dédia une autre classe à la théorie des « archétypes » d’Adler et à la notion « fonds commun universel » de Carl Gustav Jung. Une autre s’attacha à la génétique de Mendel, au concept de l’hérédité. Une autre s’adressa au processus de reproduction humaine, où il nous enseigna les concepts de XX et XY chromosomes, les processus d’ovulation et de fécondation. Son objectif primordial était la formation d’individus appelés à vivre en communauté et dont le devoir était de comprendre cette communauté. Mais surtout, Ti Claude visait à la formation d’hommes. D’hommes « à part entière ». D’hommes tant soucieux de leur épanouissement personnel qu’imbus de leur mission sociale. Pour lui, l’éducation ne devait pas être seulement un outil d’adaptation ou de promotion sociale de l’individu à son milieu ; elle se devait d’être un catalyseur de changement, un instrument de conscientisation, de sensibilisation aux problèmes sociaux qui nous entouraient. L’homme ne saurait atteindre la plénitude de son épanouissement personnel, de son humanisme, si en même temps il ne prenait en mains ses responsabilités sociales, s’il faisait la sourde oreilles aux cris des démunis, s’il se désolidarisait de la condition des « laissés pour compte », des « damnés de la terre. » Voilà ce qu’un cours de religion de Ti Claude signifiait. Une foire d’idées. Un forum où l’on pouvait débattre de tout, remettre en question les idées reçues, comme il l’avait fait lui-même. (Il n’était pas particulièrement enthousiasmé par les changements liturgiques que Vatican avaient instaurés ; il nous l’avait fait savoir.) Qui aurait cru que la crainte de Ti Claude durant les premières années du Secondaire eut pu céder le pas à l’aisance dans nos rapports avec lui ? Rapports tels que nous pouvions apprécier son sens de l’humour. A l’un de ses cours où le thème de l’ordre devait être étudié, il commença par poser la question : « Qui est le responsable de l’ordre dans cette classe ? » Nacier et un autre (dont je ne me souviens pas) se levèrent. Et Ti Claude de dire, l’air pensif : « Ah bon ! Vous êtes deux ordres ! » Derrière cet humour subtile et ce jeu de mots judicieux, il y avait néanmoins un message sérieux sur l’importance de la coordination des efforts pour mener à bien l’objectif visé. C’était un moyen pour rappeler à ces « deux ordres » que le désordre pourrait s’établir s’ils ne coordonnaient pas leurs efforts. Sans doute le moment le plus mémorable de notre expérience avec Ti Claude était celui ou nous devions élire notre conseil de classe. Je me souviens que Léon-Emile était en lice pour la présidence contre Martinez (Louis-Charles m’a rappelé qu’il s’agissait de Martinez et non de Montasse, comme je l’avais antérieurement rapporté.) C’était en filigranes une expression d’engagement politique, où les brigueurs des sièges se livraient à une vraie campagne électorale et les votes au scrutin étaient tenus secrets. Il s’agissait d’une course acharnée où, programmes à l’appui, les deux antagonistes se livraient à fond à la bataille électorale. Enfin de compte, Léon-Emile devait finir par l’emporter. Pour Ti Claude, la capacité de choisir était un des attributs fondamentaux de la liberté humaine. Cette leçon a été bien retenue par l’une de nos promotions ainées. Un jour, il lui laissa la liberté de choisir de rester dans sa classe. La majorité des elèves se levèrent et sortirent. Ce geste l’avait frappé au point de le pousser à démissionner de son poste de préfet ; cependant, par la suite, il avait compris qu’il avait accompli sa tâche d’éducateur d’hommes. Cette marque que Ti Claude avait imprimée sur nos jeunes années est indélébile. Notre passage au PSCSM était aussi marqué par les solides amitiés que nous y avons formées. A St Martial, il y avait deux points d’entrée au Secondaire : la 6ème et la Philo. Les pères avaient institué un processus de décantation en 6ème et 5ème, de sorte que si l’on avait survécu la 5ème, on était pratiquement assuré de poursuivre sans interruption avec les mêmes copains jusqu’à la philo. Rares étaient les cas où des compagnons étaient tombés après la 5ème. (Pour ma part, j’avais redoublé la 5ème). La 4ème représentait un tournant dans ce processus de raffermissement des liens d’amitié que nous avions tissés entre nous. Cette classe occupera toujours une place de choix dans ma vie d’étudiant au PSCSM. Jusqu’à la 4ème, il n’y avait pas de véritable unité entre nous. Nous étions un amalgame, des groupements disparates qui se formaient sur la base de nos extractions sociales. Tout cela allait changer en 4ème. Le catalyseur de ce changement était notre retraite à Kenscoff chez les Wawa en vue de notre Confirmation. Ces trois jours à Kenscoff où l’on vivait ensemble, mangeait ensemble, jouait ensemble, priait ensemble comme frères avaient fini par nous rapprocher les uns des autres et nous avaient donné l’occasion de nous apprécier mutuellement. Ce rapprochement était plutôt manifeste durant les moments de divertissement. Je me rappelle la joute équestre entre Duré et Laplanche qui s’étaient fait procurer deux chevaux un après-midi, s’en donnaient à cœur joie, alors qu’ils m’avaient fait attendre mon tour en vain. Mais monter à cheval à poil et lancer à fond les pauvres bêtes au galop pendant une vingtaine de minutes avaient ses retombées : le lendemain, Duré ne pouvait marcher que les jambes écartées ; en revanche, c’était mon tour de m’en donner à cœur joie. Le clou de la retraite était le concours de blagues auquel se livraient Balthazar, Césaire et Léger après le souper. C’était l’évènement le plus attendu de ces soirs frisquets dont seuls nos éclats de rire troublaient le silence et perçaient la brume épaisse. La soirée d’adieu devait sceller ce renouveau de façon irréversible. Elle a commencé avec une séance de jeux et de loisirs auxquels tout un chacun participait à un degré ou un autre pour terminer autour d’un cercle que nous avons formé, les mains entrelacées, tout en entonnant cette chanson d’Enrico Macias : « Enfants de tous pays et de toutes les couleurs, vous avez dans le cœur un vrai bonheur. » Cette retraite a dessillé les yeux á plus d’un. Nous en sommes sortis un corps uni, solidaires les uns des autres, un tout cohérent, insoucieux des tabous ridicules du temps. Revenus au Séminaire, nous étions animés d’un esprit d’inclusion et d’une maturité qui nous permettaient de transcender l’inanité de certaines attitudes. Cette retraite nous a transformés en un corps nouveau, sain, depouillé des stigmates de divisions sur bases superficielles—si bien que, quand Cayard, notre grand gaillard, devait nous fausser compagnie à la fin de l’année, nous étions tous consternés. Il est difficile de faire un bilan de cette classe de 4ème sans faire de personnalités. Comment ne pas parler de Bélisaire qui, après être promu de la 6ème à la 4ème, n’avait cédé la première place que pour le mois d’Octobre ? Et ce, jusqu’à la philo. Comment ne pas souligner les exploits en mathématiques de Larco et Péguy Boisson, la plume superbe de Montasse (dont, à titre de plaisanterie, Césaire disait que l’éloge revenait plutôt à son père), le sérieux de Nacier, le style soigné et succinct de Balthazar, le sarcasme de Fabien, l’humour d’Hudicourt, de Cayard, de Guirand (pince-sans-rire) et de St-Phard, la bonne humeur de Turnier, de Louis-Charles et de Mathon (que je surnommais « manojo de hiero » à cause de sa poigne de fer), le tranchant de Loiseau, le rire fracassant de Thomas, qui un jour lui attira la foudre de J.Claude (« Vous n’êtes pas de la race chevaline, bien que votre tête porte à le croire. ») ? Je ne peux terminer sans dire un mot de l’emmerdeur par excellence, grand taquin devant l’Eternel—celui dont le sourire narquois, le sarcasme dévastateur et les railleries incisives semaient l’émoi dans nos rangs et causaient le cauchemar de plus d’un ; à vrai dire, lui et moi, nous étions partenaires à part entière dans cette entreprise maligne. Par contre, ceci ne nous empêchait guère de nous en prendre l’un à l’autre quand le moment s’avérait propice : lui à propos de ma valise de cuir épais qu’il appelait « djakut », moi à propos de son pantalon « abaco » aux jambes évasées. Evidemment je veux parler de Duré. Il y a tant à dire de ce passé, de noms à citer que je n’en finirais pas. Que dire de nos loisirs ? De ces vendredis après-midi où l’on se donnait rendez-vous pour voir évoluer nos équipes de volley-ball face à nos rivaux de la Rue du Centre—je veux parler de Saint-Louis de Gonzague. On se souvient bien des matchs opposant nos Pape, Dougé, Fritz Pierre à leurs Danache, Argant, Ti Milfort, Piquion, d’où le plus souvent nous étions sortis les vaincus. Qui peut oublier le service acrobatique de Calixte ? Notre classe avait également des joueurs comme Larco, Thomas, Léger. Comment ne pas se rappeler les scènes hystériques de Bibi quand L’un des actes les plus audacieux qu’ait posés la congrégation spiritaine était la célébration d’une messe entièrement en créole, en présence des gens huppés de la capitale, qui, ce dimanche-là, avaient garni les pieux de la chapelle. C’était là une indication que les pères tenaient à témoigner publiquement de leur solidarité avec les classes démunies et que, pour eux, il ne saurait y avoir de dichotomie entre la mission de l’école et celle de l’église de promouvoir le bien-être des défavorisés. La liturgie, les hymnes et l’homélie, tout était en créole dans cette messe concélébrée. Quand le Père Adrien se leva et, de sa voix de baryton, débuta son homélie par ces mots « Jodi-ya se yon gran jou pou nou », il donna une accolade publique à travers l’espace aux déclassés et accorda ses lettres de noblesse au créole au sein de ce bastion de la langue française que représentait le PSCSM. Nous autres de la Seconde avons pris part à la célébration, interprété des chansons tirées de notre répertoire folklorique, telles que « Anita nou lan kan lévé. » Dans l’esprit du Pouvoir, il s’agissait d’une de ces activités subversives qui ont valu à la congrégation le statut de « persona non grata » en Haïti. C’est ce trésor que le nom de Petit Séminaire Collège Saint Martial évoque pour moi. C’est ce défilé de noms, ce cortège d’évènements et images associatives qui me viennent à l’esprit quand je pense à mon passé d’ancien du PSCSM. Ce passé revitalisant et thérapeutique. Dès lors, on comprendra l’effet dévastateur que les évènements de 1969 ont eu sur nous. C’était comme s’ils nous avaient coupé nos racines. En plus qu’ils nous avaient coupé nos liens avec le passé, ils nous avaient aussi dérobé notre futur, nos deux dernières années à Saint Martial sur lesquelles nous avions tant misé. Nous en étions, en fait de notre éducation, à la dernière main. Pour les pères, passer le bac n’était pas un but en soi—c’était un acquis. Leur but coïncidait avec celui du Père Claude : la formation d’hommes avant tout, au-delà du baccalauréat. Nous brûlions de fouiller l’histoire d’Haïti sous l’égide du Père Adrien, un spécialiste de l’histoire de notre pays. Nous étions sûrs que l’esprit critique que nous avions antérieurement développé nous permettrait de saisir les rapports historiques qui ont façonné notre vie de peuple, en particulier l’importance de la question agraire qui fut la pierre d’achoppement de bien de nos gouvernements. Nous attendions avec anticipation la classe de littérature haïtienne avec le jeune Père Dominique dont l’approche nous était connue en 2nde. Nous aurions l’occasion d’approfondir la richesse du mouvement indigéniste, de parcourir les romans de Jacques Roumain (« La Montagne Ensorcelée », « Gouverneurs de la Rosée »,de Jacques Stephen Alexis (« Compère Général Soleil ». Avec lui aussi, nous allions explorer l’effervescence des idées qui ont animé les débats du 18ème siècle français et l’assaut à la tradition qu’ont opéré les enfants terribles du 19ème. Pour ceux qui étaient avides de pénétrer les secrets des asymptotes, hyperboles, division harmonique, logarithmes, équations exponentielles, ils avaient raté le rendez-vous avec Schumacher. Perdue également était notre chance d’explorer la philosophie, les grands courants de pensée et les grandes questions métaphysiques avec Gisler. Nous aurions tant aimé aborder les courants de la pensée moderne de Marx, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus. Cependant, les vues étriquées du pouvoir établi nous avaient ravi cette possibilité. Nombre de nos camarades avaient décidé de ne pas retourner au PSCSM en Rhéto et Philo. J’étais parmi ceux qui y étaient retournés. Si quelqu’un avait contribué à notre décision, il s’agissait peut-être de Trouillot. Je me rappelle une rencontre fortuite que nous avions eue avec lui aux alentours de l’économat avant l’ouverture des classes, alors que nous nous étions présentés pour recevoir notre liste de bouquins ou notre horaire. Nous étions tous soulagés d’apprendre qu’il serait notre professeur d’histoire d’Haïti. Il nous avait donné l’assurance que nos nouveaux professeurs étaient triés sur le volet, certains d’eux détenteursde doctorats de la Sorbonne. Cela avait fini par nous convaincre. & Nous autres qui avons choisi de rester au Séminaire étions vus d’un œil suspicieux. Nous avions maille à partir avec la nouvelle administration qui nous faisait l’objet d’insinuations insensées, nous prêtait des intentions sinistres et, même, nous accusait de tentatives de sabotage. A une des réunions avec l’ensemble de la Rhéto, le Supérieur lança un avertissement péremptoire aux « contestataires et fauteurs de trouble»–dont, dit-il, le dessein était de « saboter l’institution ». Il « n’hésiterai(t)pas », a-t-il dit, « à sauter les têtes de pont. » Et cette déclaration, il la fit, alors que certains membres du corps enseignant étaient alignés à ses côtés. Aussi paradoxal que cela pût paraître, nous n’avions pas trop à reprocher à ces dirigeants, car après tout, ils ne nous connaissaient pas. Nous comprenions qu’ils aient été méfiants. Ce que nous trouvions décevant, alarmant, voire scandalisant, c’était qu’un des professeurs présents, qui nous avait connus dès la sixième et que nous avions tant admiré, n’osait pas nous défendre contre une telle accusation et même ajoutait de la gazoline au feu—trop soucieux qu’il était de préserver ses chances d’avancement au sein du gouvernement. En fait, il devait gravir les échelons les plus élevés de l’administration de la chose publique. Il n’était que bien plus tard que nous étions au courant de l’ampleur de la suspicion qui entourait nos actions même les plus innocentes et nos velléités les plus anodines. La nouvelle administration était convaincue que nous fomentions une rébellion au sein de l’établissement en signe de protestation contre le départ des pères. Et elle était déterminée à contrer notre « incitation à la rébellion » avec vigueur, aux dires d’un autre professeur qui avait pris notre défense lors d’une réunion du conseil des professeurs. A mon avis, les nouveaux dirigeants n’étaient pas imbus du niveau élevé de l’enseignement que nous avions reçu jusque-là. Il était un fait indéniable que des élèves qui avaient dû laisser Séminaire pour ne pas pouvoir s’y adapter avaient brillé ailleurs. La nouvelle équipe qui n’était pas vraiment versée dans l’enseignement ne le comprenait pas. Notre attitude passait pour arrogante, contestataire et déstabilisatrice. Ces dirigeants n’arrivaient pas à comprendre que nous étions restés sur notre faim quant à l’approfondissement de nos connaissances et que les quelques remous qui leur avaient été rapportés s’adressaient plutôt à ce manquement. Franchement, certains de nos cours étaient totalement ennuyeux et si dénués de signification que nous avions décidé de les sécher. Il n’y avait que très peu des nouveaux professeurs qui l’avaient compris, tel un Joseph Désir. A la fin de l’année, en pleine salle de classe, il rendit un hommage public à notre classe de rhéto, dont il eut à dire que, de sa vie d’enseignant, il n’avait jamais eu de classe si bien formée. Cette formation était de premier ordre. Pour preuve, parmi ceux qui n’étaient pas retournés, Hippolyte et Duret s’étaient rendus à St-Louis pour la philo. Il nous fut rapporté qu’à la remise des carnets pour le mois d’octobre, Durant cette période de transition, nos liens d’amitié s’étaient raffermis. Dans cette atmosphère de méfiance et de suspicion à laquelle nous étions soumis, force nous était de faire cause commune, de nous réfugier dans ce qui nous était le plus précieux—la chaleur de l’amitié, le confort de la solidarité pour remémorer, partager nos incertitudes face à l’avenir, tromper nos angoisses pendant les moments de décontraction durant l’intermède de la mi-journée. Nous nous rencontrions le plus souvent dans le hall près de l’économat pour débiter nos récits ou nos blagues. Je me souviens bien de ces compagnons de combat : Léon-Emile (grand brasseur d’idées et visionnaire), Jean-Baptiste (ami de vieille date), Thomas, Laplanche, Bélisaire, Louis-Charles, Legros, Occident, Larco, Péguy Boisson, Vaval, Laviolette, Léger, Fabien, Montasse, Wawa. Tout de même, nous avions étendu notre amitié aux nouveaux venus. Des noms, tels que Lochard, Fleurinord, Robin, Romain résonnent encore dans nos coeurs. Nous avions, avec plaisir, renoué avec Liautaud (« Méchanceté »,qui avait laissé le PSCSM en primaire. Mais aussi, au cours de notre traversée du désert, des compagnons étaient tombés. De fait, l’administration avait tenu sa promesse de couper les « têtes de pont. » Nacier et Balthazar se furent trouvés les victimes de cette chasse aux sorcières. Ils étaient renvoyés du PSCSM pour, soit disant, avoir incité les séminaristes à la protestation contre leur condition de vie. L’astuce des dirigeants ne nous échappait guère : nous savions bien qu’il n’y avait rien de fondé dans leur accusation ; ils voulaient tracer un exemple et ces gars représentaient une cible de choix. Ce coup dur nous donnait une nouvelle raison de nous replier sur nous-mêmes et de nous méfier de nos enseignants. Nous savions qu’ils n’étaient pas nombreux, ceux de ces derniers sur lesquels nous pouvions compter. Un Jacques Saint-Louis, qui enseignait les mathématiques en Rhéto A, s’était signalé par une attitude qui, à nos yeux du moins, faisait contrepoids à la décrépitude morale qui était si manifeste autour de nous. Il jouissait de notre confiance. Nous entretenions de si bonnes relations avec lui que nous pouvions nous permettre certaines libertés à ses dépens…Celle-ci, par exemple : alors qu’un jour nous nous plaignions qu’il ne se fût présenté pour l’une des sessions de rattrapage qu’il nous avait promises, il rétorqua avec véhémence : « Qu’est-ce que vous dites comme ca ? Je suis venu pour vous aider, je suis resté près de vingt minutes à vous attendre et vous n’étiez pas là. Alors, dites-moi donc, charité bien ordonnée commence par vous-mêmes ou bien par moi-même ? » Imaginez nos éclats de rire. Mais c’était sans malice de notre part, car Saint-Louis représentait une présence réconfortante dont nous avions tant besoin durant cette époque turbulente, spécialement pour nous autres qui l’avions eu comme professeur en 9èmeB au primaire. Avant de terminer ce long tribut, je m’en voudrais de ne pas payer mes respects à ceux de nos copains qui sont décédés, particulièrement à Boucard (Ti Bouc, du surnom que J. Claude lui avait collé) et à Laplanche (Latabla, de mon sobriquet à lui). J’aurais tant aimé qu’ils pussent lire ces propos…Paix à eux ! Voilà ! Mon intention n’était pas d’écrire une longue analyse, mais j’étais impuissant à arrêter le flot de souvenirs qui déferlaient avec pétulance sur les rives de ma mémoire à mesure que j’écrivais. Il y a tant à dire de cette experience ! A côté du drame humain qui embrasait nos jeunes destinées, j’ai essayé de juxtaposer des moments empreints de jovialité et même de trivialité, car tout cela participait de notre expérience d’anciens du Petit Séminaire Collège Saint Martial. Nous avons enormément souffert. N’était le glu de l’amitié et la force de la solidarité, nous n’aurions peut-être pas survécu indemnes ces vicissitudes. J’avais promis à Duré d’écrire un jour sur cette tranche de notre vie. En quelle langue ? C’était la question que je me suis posée. Depuis trois décades, à l’exception des trois années que j’ai passées en Haïti durant les années 80, je vis aux Etats-Unis et publie mes textes en anglais. J’ai pris la gageure de revenir au français après une si longue absence, pensant que c’était le meilleur moyen d’atteindre le plus grand nombre d’anciens du Séminaire. J’espère avoir réussi. Merci de votre attention. Etzer Cantave, Illinois, Octobre 2009
span> Ces professeurs laïcs étaient encadrés par les pères. D’ailleurs, maints d’entre eux étaient des anciens du PSCSM. Bibi n’était pas, à l’instar de Baptiste et Trouillot, un ancien du PSCSM, mais il a été formé au creuset de la méthode de Shumacher qui, durant des stages d’été, lui a enseigné ses fascicules de mathématiques. Baptiste, par exemple, ne ratait jamais l’occasion de payer un tribut de gratitude à Bertho qui lui a enseigné les belles-lettres. Nous autres, qui avions le plaisir de suivre ses cours de latin, faisions écho à l’enchantement de Baptiste. En effet, dès la 5ème, nous avions couvert sous la tutelle de Bertho toute la grammaire latine, maîtrisé les subtilités de la syntaxe, appris les secrets de la construction latine de sorte que la traduction des textes, même les plus compliqués, ne posait pas de problème pour nous. Pour moi, qui jusqu’à la Seconde remportais toujours le prix de latin, la source de tels succès remontait aux cours de Bertho.
ses classes et la technique de la dissertation littéraire, surtout l’usage de la transition.
les décisions de l’arbitre n’allaient pas en notre faveur ? On craignait fort qu’il n’en vînt aux mains avec les juges de ligne. On ne saurait oublier les championnats interscolaires de football où le talentueux Castor, les cousins Legros, les frères Vorbes et Vaval nous représentaient au cours des rencontres au Stade Sylvio Cator, alors que des écervelés ridiculisaient le Père Adrien au son de « Ti Piqué » à cause de son postérieur prononcé.
nbsp; A vrai dire, nous avions eus des professeurs chevronnés qui avaient fait leur preuve dans l’enseignement. Je dois avouer que d’autres professeurs moins connus avaient fait une impression très favorable. Un Joseph Désir (littérature haïtienne), Fritz de la Fuente (chimie), Noël (mathématiques), François (histoire d’Haiti-Philo) qui ne bénéficiaient pas de la notoriété des haut-cités, avaient néanmoins réussi à nous captiver par leur méthode et la maîtrise de leur matière. De fait, nous entretenions de si bonnes relations avec Désir qu’il nous accueillait chez lui pour nous aider à couvrir le programme de littérature française, quand le titulaire de cette chaire nous laissait sur notre faim. Par contre, d’autres professeurs, en dépit de leur bonne volonté, ne disposaient pas du temps nécessaire pour s’acquitter de leur tâche du fait de leurs engagements multiples à d’autres établissements scolaires. Un des professeurs de belles-lettres, très réputé dans les cercles de l’enseignement secondaire et universitaire, ne se présenta qu’un jour. Apparemment, sa décision était influencée par le fait que, alors qu’il écrivait son texte au tableau, nous le traduisions en même temps–à la suite de quoi, il nous dit : « Eh bien, messieurs, vous êtes forts. » Sur ce, il est parti, laissant vacantes les chaires de grec et de latin. Le Père Salomon, de la Congrégation des Oblats, devait le remplacer pour la chaire de grec ; nous l’aimions bien, moins pour son instruction que pour sa sympathie. Pierre Gousse, avec qui nous entretenions des relations tantôt bonnes tantôt rocailleuses, devait assumer l’enseignement du latin. Nous avions de bons moments avec Verna, dont l’humour contribuait à rendre une classe comme la physique attrayante. Un peu bègue, il pesait sur les mots d’une manière particulière qui ajoutait à l’hilarité de ses récits. Il nous rapporta un jour le cas d’un incendie à la maison d’une veuve en ces termes : « Au lieu de chercher à emporter des papiers importants, comme les titres de propriété, n’est-ce pas, tout ce qu’elle est sortie avec était un chat. Madame la veuve est entrée à nouveau dans la maison en feu pour en sortir cette fois-ci avec un jacquot (prononcez ‘jaaaaacquot’). »
Hippolyte était sorti 1er de la classe et Duret 2ème. Cette même année au bac, nous autres du Séminaire avions causé un raz-de-marée : Césaire fut le lauréat en Rhéto A, Bélisaire en Rhéto B, Thomas en Rhéto C, Madhère en Philo A et Lionel Day en Philo C.
Par contre, personne n’osait se permettre des familiarités avec Lespinasse qui enseignait les mathématiques en 4ème et 3ème. Surnommé Bibi, à cause de son biceps imposant, l’irascible Lespinasse ne tolérait pas de remous dans sa classe. L’ordre et la discipline y régnaient. Ils devaient également se manifester dans les devoirs et examens d’algèbre et de géométrie. J’entends encore sa voix répéter son fameux « Par hypothèse ». A l’entendre, on eût dit que le mot s’épelait « hypothèzzzzzz ». Pour comique que cette habitude ait été, personne ne prenait la chance d’en rire ; on ne pouvait qu’échanger des regards furtifs et contenir nos rires pour la fin de la classe. De mon côté, je prenais note de ses tics et expressions favorites en vue de l’imiter durant la récréation. De Bibi, nous avons retenu l’importance de la démarche logique si nécessaire à la résolution de problèmes, le goût de l’organisation et du travail soigné.
Pour ce qui était de l’art oratoire, la palme d’or revenait à Trouillot. Nous étions captivés par ses cours d’histoire d’Haïti, tenus en haleine par sa verve patriotique. Ce qui nous faisait vibrer, c’était le crescendo qui accompagnait son ressassement pathétique des faits historiques qui ont culminé à notre Indépendance. Typiquement, il débuterait avec l’Assemblée Constituante, passerait par le symbolisme du Bois Caiman, pour atteindre le paroxysme de l’émotion quand il vint à parler des exploits militaires et du génie administratif de Toussaint Louverture dont il était un fanatique. Ses prestations étaient immanquablement suivies d’un torrent d’applaudissements, auxquels il essayait de se dérober, feignant l’humilité tout en arborant un petit sourire au coin de ses lèvres : « Vous savez bien que je n’aime pas ça,voyez-vous ? » Trouillot a attisé notre ferveur patriotique et nous a inculqué l’amour de notre histoire.
Enfin, que dire de J. Claude dont, soit dit en passant, j’avais aussi la réputation dans notre cercle d’amis d’être l’imitateur ? J. Claude enseignait le latin et le grec. Il était aussi connu pour ses tirades contre le sport, qu’il jugeait une activité inutile. Il ridiculisait « ceux qui courent après le ballon. » Sa mine rébarbative avait l’effet de nous tenir sur nos gardes. Je me rappelle qu’au tout début de l’année scolaire, il s’arrêta au milieu de son cours pour lancer cet avertissement : « J’avertis les élèves qui ont l’habitude de crier comme des animaux que, quand ils crient de la sorte—d’ailleurs j’ai déjà averti le père préfet, je les renverrai immédiatement du collège. Ils imitent tellement bien les animaux qu’il y a de quoi se tromper. Est-ce une métamorphose ?Je ne sais pas. Mais les gens ont eu peur, croyant qu’ils étaient en présence de vrais animaux. » Ce qui nous attirait chez J. Claude, c’était ses tics et sautes d’humeur, que je trouvais si marrants que je n’arrêtais pas d’en rire. Cela m’a valu l’épithète de Niaisus. Une fois, il remarqua que je riais par suite d’un de ces moments hilarants et lança ces propos à mon égard : « Il y en a qui ne peuvent pas ne pas étaler leurs dents. On leur a surement dit que le Séminaire a besoin de gobe-mouches. Je ne sais pas, moi ; le père Claude n’en a pas encore parlé. »
Je ne peux en dire autant des mathématiques, qui n’étaient pas mon fort. Toutefois, la base que nous avions acquise de Schneider (Chado) nous a permis une transition relativement aisée au système de Bibi. J’étais plutôt connu pour mes prouesses imitatives de Schneider au point de recevoir le sobriquet de « Chado ». Son accent était fortement influencé par ses origines alsaciennes. Par exemple, pour résoudre l’expression algébrique -6 + 18 = +12, il dirait : « six negatiff plus diss-houit possitiff égal douce possitiff. » Outre l’aspect ludique auquel se prêtaient les cours de Chado, notre base était assurée pour continuer notre éducation avec Bibi et Schumacher. Je n’ai pas eu le plaisir d’avoir Schumacher en 2nde parce que j’ai été promu en 2ndeA à cause de mes démêlées avec la géométrie. J’aurais plus de mal à m’y adapterqu’au grec vu ma prédisposition pour les belles-lettres—c’était du moins l’argument que Le Gall me présenta pour me convaincre du bien-fondé de la décision de la direction des études. De fait, la voie des mathématiques en 2nde B devait s’avérer ardue pour plus d’un, car Schumacher passait à une vitesse supérieure. Je me rappelle la réponse que Cadet donna à Césaire qui s’enquérait de sa prestation durant un de ces exercices de Schum, où même les plus doués en math (Larco, Boisson, Mathon, Thomas, Bélisaire) n’avaient pas pu obtenir un score plus élevé que 65. Césaire demanda à Cadet : « Nan bagay sa-a, Cadet, venn konbyen ou fè ? » Et Cadet, qui n’était pas toujours d’humeur à accepter une plaisanterie, de répondre sans hésitation : « Venn bouda’w ! »
Je rendrai hommage au Père Le Gall, professeur de français, en 4ème et 3ème. Il n’était point un puriste ou un technicien du langage, à l’image d’un Bertho ou d’un Baptiste. Avec lui, il s’agissait d’une tout autre conception. Si, en 4ème, il avait mis l’emphase sur l’imagination par le biais du récit et des images evocatives, par contre en 3ème c’était plutôt l’avènement du raisonnement et de l’esprit critique. Je me rappelle deux de ces sujets, ou nous étions amenés à commenter l’expression « Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse » ou cette pensée d’Anatole France « Les changements les plus souhaités ont leur mélancolie, » Je dois dire que, personnellement, je me trouvais dans mon bain et que cette approche permettait à ma plume de s’épanouir. De plus, Le Gall nous obligeait à lire. Et à lire les œuvres d’auteurs de renom. Cette obligation qu’il nous a imposée, les comptes-rendus écrits quis’ensuivaient et les inévitables devoirs de rédaction du vendredi avaient beaucoup aidé à la maturation de mon style. Et, autant que je sache, je n’ai pas été le seul à bénéficier de cette heureuse transition. Je ne saurais passer sous silence sa contribution à notre journal de classe. En effet, de concert avec une équipe de rédaction dont je ne me rappelle plus qui faisait partie, il a travaillé à la parution de notre journal de classe, qui était un événement en soi. De très beaux articles avaient paru sous la plume d’un Balthazar, d’un Montasse, d’un Léon-Emile. En ce temps-là, je n’en étais pas au point de publier des articles de valeur ; ma plume était en pleine période de gestation.
Ces acquis nous avaient préparés pour la technique approfondie de la dissertation littéraire en 2nde avec le Père Le Thiès. Ce dernier n’était pas spiritain ; il nous était venu de Jérémie, où il avait enseigné les belles-lettres pendant plusieurs années. Le Thiès avait la distinction d’être un humoriste. Ses cours étaient dispensés dans une ambiance décontractée, où il utilisait l’humour comme un outil de transmission de connaissances. Je me rappelle un de ses contes au sujet du mot crétin : « Au 17ème siècle, qualifier quelqu’un de crétin était une grave insulte. C’était si sérieux que ça conduisait à un duel. Dès qu’il y a duel, quelqu’un périt–soit le crétin lui-même… » Son talent comique était surtout en évidence quand, à lui seul, il jouait les personnages des pièces de Molière, Le Misanthrope et L’Avare. De Le Thiès, nous avons retenu la fraîcheur de
Toutefois, l’influence la plus marquante sur notre vie d’adolescents a été sans conteste exercée par le Père Claude. En 3ème, nous avions le privilège d’avoir de Ti Claude comme professeur de latin et de religion. En latin, outre le renforcement de la technique de traduction des textes, Ti Claude institua un concours, une sorte de bataille rangée entre équipes qui dura plusieurs jours et passa par étapes éliminatoires. Cela nous portait à revoir toute la grammaire, de la déclinaison à la syntaxe et aux locutions latines. Un des moments mémorables de la compétition survint quand l’équipe de Duré affronta celle d’Edvard Jean-Pierre ; Duré posa la question à Jean-Pierre : « Traduisez ‘Pas le moins du monde’. » Après maintes réfections, Jean-Pierre finit par répondre, sans conviction : « Non minus mundi. » La classe éclata de rire et l’équipe de Jean-Pierre fut éliminée. A vrai dire, si j’avais été en finale contre Duré, je n’aurais pas gagné le premier prix parce que moi non plus je ne savais pas la réponse à cette question. Mais cela n’était qu’un aspect de l’esprit innovateur de Ti Claude. C’était durant ses cours de religion que nous avons fait l’expérience la plus enrichissante de notre carrière d’étudiants. Ces cours de religion prenaient plusieurs formes. Car, avant tout, Ti Claude entendait former des hommes. D’abord des « honnêtes hommes » ou « gentilhommes » qui , pour emprunter un terme de Montaigne, possédaient « des clartés de tout » ou qui fissent leur cette phrase de Térence « Homo sum ; nihil humanum mihi alienum. » (Je suis un homme ; rien de ce qui est humain ne saurait m’être étranger.) En effet, il nous incitait à approfondir nos connaissances. « Lisez », disait-il « tout ce qui vous tombent sous la main. » Ses cours de religion reflétaient cette diversité et curiosité intellectuelles. A titre d’exemple, à une de ses classes sur le comportement humain, Ti Claude nous introduisit à la psychanalyse de Freud et aux concepts de « moi social », « subconscient » ou « ça ». Il dédia une autre classe à la théorie des « archétypes » d’Adler et à la notion « fonds commun universel » de Carl Gustav Jung. Une autre s’attacha à la génétique de Mendel, au concept de l’hérédité. Une autre s’adressa au processus de reproduction humaine, où il nous enseigna les concepts de XX et XY chromosomes, les processus d’ovulation et de fécondation. Son objectif primordial était la formation d’individus appelés à vivre en communauté et dont le devoir était de comprendre cette communauté. Mais surtout, Ti Claude visait à la formation d’hommes. D’hommes « à part entière ». D’hommes tant soucieux de leur épanouissement personnel qu’imbus de leur mission sociale. Pour lui, l’éducation ne devait pas être seulement un outil d’adaptation ou de promotion sociale de l’individu à son milieu ; elle se devait d’être un catalyseur de changement, un instrument de conscientisation, de sensibilisation aux problèmes sociaux qui nous entouraient. L’homme ne saurait atteindre la plénitude de son épanouissement personnel, de son humanisme, si en même temps il ne prenait en mains ses responsabilités sociales, s’il faisait la sourde oreilles aux cris des démunis, s’il se désolidarisait de la condition des « laissés pour compte », des « damnés de la terre. » Voilà ce qu’un cours de religion de Ti Claude signifiait. Une foire d’idées. Un forum où l’on pouvait débattre de tout, remettre en question les idées reçues, comme il l’avait fait lui-même. (Il n’était pas particulièrement enthousiasmé par les changements liturgiques que Vatican avaient instaurés ; il nous l’avait fait savoir.) Qui aurait cru que la crainte de Ti Claude durant les premières années du Secondaire eut pu céder le pas à l’aisance dans nos rapports avec lui ? Rapports tels que nous pouvions apprécier son sens de l’humour. A l’un de ses cours où le thème de l’ordre devait être étudié, il commença par poser la question : « Qui est le responsable de l’ordre dans cette classe ? » Nacier et un autre (dont je ne me souviens pas) se levèrent. Et Ti Claude de dire, l’air pensif : « Ah bon ! Vous êtes deux ordres ! » Derrière cet humour subtile et ce jeu de mots judicieux, il y avait néanmoins un message sérieux sur l’importance de la coordination des efforts pour mener à bien l’objectif visé. C’était un moyen pour rappeler à ces « deux ordres » que le désordre pourrait s’établir s’ils ne coordonnaient pas leurs efforts. Sans doute le moment le plus mémorable de notre expérience avec Ti Claude était celui ou nous devions élire notre conseil de classe. Je me souviens que Léon-Emile était en lice pour la présidence contre Martinez (Louis-Charles m’a rappelé qu’il s’agissait de Martinez et non de Montasse, comme je l’avais antérieurement rapporté.) C’était en filigranes une expression d’engagement politique, où les brigueurs des sièges se livraient à une vraie campagne électorale et les votes au scrutin étaient tenus secrets. Il s’agissait d’une course acharnée où, programmes à l’appui, les deux antagonistes se livraient à fond à la bataille électorale. Enfin de compte, Léon-Emile devait finir par l’emporter. Pour Ti Claude, la capacité de choisir était un des attributs fondamentaux de la liberté humaine. Cette leçon a été bien retenue par l’une de nos promotions ainées. Un jour, il lui laissa la liberté de choisir de rester dans sa classe. La majorité des elèves se levèrent et sortirent. Ce geste l’avait frappé au point de le pousser à démissionner de son poste de préfet ; cependant, par la suite, il avait compris qu’il avait accompli sa tâche d’éducateur d’hommes. Cette marque que Ti Claude avait imprimée sur nos jeunes années est indélébile.
Notre passage au PSCSM était aussi marqué par les solides amitiés que nous y avons formées. A St Martial, il y avait deux points d’entrée au Secondaire : la 6ème et la Philo. Les pères avaient institué un processus de décantation en 6ème et 5ème, de sorte que si l’on avait survécu la 5ème, on était pratiquement assuré de poursuivre sans interruption avec les mêmes copains jusqu’à la philo. Rares étaient les cas où des compagnons étaient tombés après la 5ème. (Pour ma part, j’avais redoublé la 5ème). La 4ème représentait un tournant dans ce processus de raffermissement des liens d’amitié que nous avions tissés entre nous. Cette classe occupera toujours une place de choix dans ma vie d’étudiant au PSCSM. Jusqu’à la 4ème, il n’y avait pas de véritable unité entre nous. Nous étions un amalgame, des groupements disparates qui se formaient sur la base de nos extractions sociales. Tout cela allait changer en 4ème. Le catalyseur de ce changement était notre retraite à Kenscoff chez les Wawa en vue de notre Confirmation. Ces trois jours à Kenscoff où l’on vivait ensemble, mangeait ensemble, jouait ensemble, priait ensemble comme frères avaient fini par nous rapprocher les uns des autres et nous avaient donné l’occasion de nous apprécier mutuellement. Ce rapprochement était plutôt manifeste durant les moments de divertissement. Je me rappelle la joute équestre entre Duré et Laplanche qui s’étaient fait procurer deux chevaux un après-midi, s’en donnaient à cœur joie, alors qu’ils m’avaient fait attendre mon tour en vain. Mais monter à cheval à poil et lancer à fond les pauvres bêtes au galop pendant une vingtaine de minutes avaient ses retombées : le lendemain, Duré ne pouvait marcher que les jambes écartées ; en revanche, c’était mon tour de m’en donner à cœur joie. Le clou de la retraite était le concours de blagues auquel se livraient Balthazar, Césaire et Léger après le souper. C’était l’évènement le plus attendu de ces soirs frisquets dont seuls nos éclats de rire troublaient le silence et perçaient la brume épaisse. La soirée d’adieu devait sceller ce renouveau de façon irréversible. Elle a commencé avec une séance de jeux et de loisirs auxquels tout un chacun participait à un degré ou un autre pour terminer autour d’un cercle que nous avons formé, les mains entrelacées, tout en entonnant cette chanson d’Enrico Macias : « Enfants de tous pays et de toutes les couleurs, vous avez dans le cœur un vrai bonheur. » Cette retraite a dessillé les yeux á plus d’un. Nous en sommes sortis un corps uni, solidaires les uns des autres, un tout cohérent, insoucieux des tabous ridicules du temps. Revenus au Séminaire, nous étions animés d’un esprit d’inclusion et d’une maturité qui nous permettaient de transcender l’inanité de certaines attitudes. Cette retraite nous a transformés en un corps nouveau, sain, depouillé des stigmates de divisions sur bases superficielles—si bien que, quand Cayard, notre grand gaillard, devait nous fausser compagnie à la fin de l’année, nous étions tous consternés.
Il est difficile de faire un bilan de cette classe de 4ème sans faire de personnalités. Comment ne pas parler de Bélisaire qui, après être promu de la 6ème à la 4ème, n’avait cédé la première place que pour le mois d’Octobre ? Et ce, jusqu’à la philo. Comment ne pas souligner les exploits en mathématiques de Larco et Péguy Boisson, la plume superbe de Montasse (dont, à titre de plaisanterie, Césaire disait que l’éloge revenait plutôt à son père), le sérieux de Nacier, le style soigné et succinct de Balthazar, le sarcasme de Fabien, l’humour d’Hudicourt, de Cayard, de Guirand (pince-sans-rire) et de St-Phard, la bonne humeur de Turnier, de Louis-Charles et de Mathon (que je surnommais « manojo de hiero » à cause de sa poigne de fer), le tranchant de Loiseau, le rire fracassant de Thomas, qui un jour lui attira la foudre de J.Claude (« Vous n’êtes pas de la race chevaline, bien que votre tête porte à le croire. ») ? Je ne peux terminer sans dire un mot de l’emmerdeur par excellence, grand taquin devant l’Eternel—celui dont le sourire narquois, le sarcasme dévastateur et les railleries incisives semaient l’émoi dans nos rangs et causaient le cauchemar de plus d’un ; à vrai dire, lui et moi, nous étions partenaires à part entière dans cette entreprise maligne. Par contre, ceci ne nous empêchait guère de nous en prendre l’un à l’autre quand le moment s’avérait propice : lui à propos de ma valise de cuir épais qu’il appelait « djakut », moi à propos de son pantalon « abaco » aux jambes évasées. Evidemment je veux parler de Duré. Il y a tant à dire de ce passé, de noms à citer que je n’en finirais pas.
Que dire de nos loisirs ? De ces vendredis après-midi où l’on se donnait rendez-vous pour voir évoluer nos équipes de volley-ball face à nos rivaux de la Rue du Centre—je veux parler de Saint-Louis de Gonzague. On se souvient bien des matchs opposant nos Pape, Dougé, Fritz Pierre à leurs Danache, Argant, Ti Milfort, Piquion, d’où le plus souvent nous étions sortis les vaincus. Qui peut oublier le service acrobatique de Calixte ? Notre classe avait également des joueurs comme Larco, Thomas, Léger. Comment ne pas se rappeler les scènes hystériques de Bibi quand
L’un des actes les plus audacieux qu’ait posés la congrégation spiritaine était la célébration d’une messe entièrement en créole, en présence des gens huppés de la capitale, qui, ce dimanche-là, avaient garni les pieux de la chapelle. C’était là une indication que les pères tenaient à témoigner publiquement de leur solidarité avec les classes démunies et que, pour eux, il ne saurait y avoir de dichotomie entre la mission de l’école et celle de l’église de promouvoir le bien-être des défavorisés. La liturgie, les hymnes et l’homélie, tout était en créole dans cette messe concélébrée. Quand le Père Adrien se leva et, de sa voix de baryton, débuta son homélie par ces mots « Jodi-ya se yon gran jou pou nou », il donna une accolade publique à travers l’espace aux déclassés et accorda ses lettres de noblesse au créole au sein de ce bastion de la langue française que représentait le PSCSM. Nous autres de la Seconde avons pris part à la célébration, interprété des chansons tirées de notre répertoire folklorique, telles que « Anita nou lan kan lévé. » Dans l’esprit du Pouvoir, il s’agissait d’une de ces activités subversives qui ont valu à la congrégation le statut de « persona non grata » en Haïti.
C’est ce trésor que le nom de Petit Séminaire Collège Saint Martial évoque pour moi. C’est ce défilé de noms, ce cortège d’évènements et images associatives qui me viennent à l’esprit quand je pense à mon passé d’ancien du PSCSM. Ce passé revitalisant et thérapeutique. Dès lors, on comprendra l’effet dévastateur que les évènements de 1969 ont eu sur nous. C’était comme s’ils nous avaient coupé nos racines. En plus qu’ils nous avaient coupé nos liens avec le passé, ils nous avaient aussi dérobé notre futur, nos deux dernières années à Saint Martial sur lesquelles nous avions tant misé. Nous en étions, en fait de notre éducation, à la dernière main. Pour les pères, passer le bac n’était pas un but en soi—c’était un acquis. Leur but coïncidait avec celui du Père Claude : la formation d’hommes avant tout, au-delà du baccalauréat. Nous brûlions de fouiller l’histoire d’Haïti sous l’égide du Père Adrien, un spécialiste de l’histoire de notre pays. Nous étions sûrs que l’esprit critique que nous avions antérieurement développé nous permettrait de saisir les rapports historiques qui ont façonné notre vie de peuple, en particulier l’importance de la question agraire qui fut la pierre d’achoppement de bien de nos gouvernements. Nous attendions avec anticipation la classe de littérature haïtienne avec le jeune Père Dominique dont l’approche nous était connue en 2nde. Nous aurions l’occasion d’approfondir la richesse du mouvement indigéniste, de parcourir les romans de Jacques Roumain (« La Montagne Ensorcelée », « Gouverneurs de la Rosée »,de Jacques Stephen Alexis (« Compère Général Soleil ». Avec lui aussi, nous allions explorer l’effervescence des idées qui ont animé les débats du 18ème siècle français et l’assaut à la tradition qu’ont opéré les enfants terribles du 19ème. Pour ceux qui étaient avides de pénétrer les secrets des asymptotes, hyperboles, division harmonique, logarithmes, équations exponentielles, ils avaient raté le rendez-vous avec Schumacher. Perdue également était notre chance d’explorer la philosophie, les grands courants de pensée et les grandes questions métaphysiques avec Gisler. Nous aurions tant aimé aborder les courants de la pensée moderne de Marx, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus. Cependant, les vues étriquées du pouvoir établi nous avaient ravi cette possibilité.
Nombre de nos camarades avaient décidé de ne pas retourner au PSCSM en Rhéto et Philo. J’étais parmi ceux qui y étaient retournés. Si quelqu’un avait contribué à notre décision, il s’agissait peut-être de Trouillot. Je me rappelle une rencontre fortuite que nous avions eue avec lui aux alentours de l’économat avant l’ouverture des classes, alors que nous nous étions présentés pour recevoir notre liste de bouquins ou notre horaire. Nous étions tous soulagés d’apprendre qu’il serait notre professeur d’histoire d’Haïti. Il nous avait donné l’assurance que nos nouveaux professeurs étaient triés sur le volet, certains d’eux détenteursde doctorats de la Sorbonne. Cela avait fini par nous convaincre.
Nous autres qui avons choisi de rester au Séminaire étions vus d’un œil suspicieux. Nous avions maille à partir avec la nouvelle administration qui nous faisait l’objet d’insinuations insensées, nous prêtait des intentions sinistres et, même, nous accusait de tentatives de sabotage. A une des réunions avec l’ensemble de la Rhéto, le Supérieur lança un avertissement péremptoire aux « contestataires et fauteurs de trouble»–dont, dit-il, le dessein était de « saboter l’institution ». Il « n’hésiterai(t)pas », a-t-il dit, « à sauter les têtes de pont. » Et cette déclaration, il la fit, alors que certains membres du corps enseignant étaient alignés à ses côtés. Aussi paradoxal que cela pût paraître, nous n’avions pas trop à reprocher à ces dirigeants, car après tout, ils ne nous connaissaient pas. Nous comprenions qu’ils aient été méfiants. Ce que nous trouvions décevant, alarmant, voire scandalisant, c’était qu’un des professeurs présents, qui nous avait connus dès la sixième et que nous avions tant admiré, n’osait pas nous défendre contre une telle accusation et même ajoutait de la gazoline au feu—trop soucieux qu’il était de préserver ses chances d’avancement au sein du gouvernement. En fait, il devait gravir les échelons les plus élevés de l’administration de la chose publique. Il n’était que bien plus tard que nous étions au courant de l’ampleur de la suspicion qui entourait nos actions même les plus innocentes et nos velléités les plus anodines. La nouvelle administration était convaincue que nous fomentions une rébellion au sein de l’établissement en signe de protestation contre le départ des pères. Et elle était déterminée à contrer notre « incitation à la rébellion » avec vigueur, aux dires d’un autre professeur qui avait pris notre défense lors d’une réunion du conseil des professeurs.
A mon avis, les nouveaux dirigeants n’étaient pas imbus du niveau élevé de l’enseignement que nous avions reçu jusque-là. Il était un fait indéniable que des élèves qui avaient dû laisser Séminaire pour ne pas pouvoir s’y adapter avaient brillé ailleurs. La nouvelle équipe qui n’était pas vraiment versée dans l’enseignement ne le comprenait pas. Notre attitude passait pour arrogante, contestataire et déstabilisatrice. Ces dirigeants n’arrivaient pas à comprendre que nous étions restés sur notre faim quant à l’approfondissement de nos connaissances et que les quelques remous qui leur avaient été rapportés s’adressaient plutôt à ce manquement. Franchement, certains de nos cours étaient totalement ennuyeux et si dénués de signification que nous avions décidé de les sécher. Il n’y avait que très peu des nouveaux professeurs qui l’avaient compris, tel un Joseph Désir. A la fin de l’année, en pleine salle de classe, il rendit un hommage public à notre classe de rhéto, dont il eut à dire que, de sa vie d’enseignant, il n’avait jamais eu de classe si bien formée. Cette formation était de premier ordre. Pour preuve, parmi ceux qui n’étaient pas retournés, Hippolyte et Duret s’étaient rendus à St-Louis pour la philo. Il nous fut rapporté qu’à la remise des carnets pour le mois d’octobre,
Durant cette période de transition, nos liens d’amitié s’étaient raffermis. Dans cette atmosphère de méfiance et de suspicion à laquelle nous étions soumis, force nous était de faire cause commune, de nous réfugier dans ce qui nous était le plus précieux—la chaleur de l’amitié, le confort de la solidarité pour remémorer, partager nos incertitudes face à l’avenir, tromper nos angoisses pendant les moments de décontraction durant l’intermède de la mi-journée. Nous nous rencontrions le plus souvent dans le hall près de l’économat pour débiter nos récits ou nos blagues. Je me souviens bien de ces compagnons de combat : Léon-Emile (grand brasseur d’idées et visionnaire), Jean-Baptiste (ami de vieille date), Thomas, Laplanche, Bélisaire, Louis-Charles, Legros, Occident, Larco, Péguy Boisson, Vaval, Laviolette, Léger, Fabien, Montasse, Wawa. Tout de même, nous avions étendu notre amitié aux nouveaux venus. Des noms, tels que Lochard, Fleurinord, Robin, Romain résonnent encore dans nos coeurs. Nous avions, avec plaisir, renoué avec Liautaud (« Méchanceté »,qui avait laissé le PSCSM en primaire. Mais aussi, au cours de notre traversée du désert, des compagnons étaient tombés. De fait, l’administration avait tenu sa promesse de couper les « têtes de pont. » Nacier et Balthazar se furent trouvés les victimes de cette chasse aux sorcières. Ils étaient renvoyés du PSCSM pour, soit disant, avoir incité les séminaristes à la protestation contre leur condition de vie. L’astuce des dirigeants ne nous échappait guère : nous savions bien qu’il n’y avait rien de fondé dans leur accusation ; ils voulaient tracer un exemple et ces gars représentaient une cible de choix. Ce coup dur nous donnait une nouvelle raison de nous replier sur nous-mêmes et de nous méfier de nos enseignants. Nous savions qu’ils n’étaient pas nombreux, ceux de ces derniers sur lesquels nous pouvions compter. Un Jacques Saint-Louis, qui enseignait les mathématiques en Rhéto A, s’était signalé par une attitude qui, à nos yeux du moins, faisait contrepoids à la décrépitude morale qui était si manifeste autour de nous. Il jouissait de notre confiance. Nous entretenions de si bonnes relations avec lui que nous pouvions nous permettre certaines libertés à ses dépens…Celle-ci, par exemple : alors qu’un jour nous nous plaignions qu’il ne se fût présenté pour l’une des sessions de rattrapage qu’il nous avait promises, il rétorqua avec véhémence : « Qu’est-ce que vous dites comme ca ? Je suis venu pour vous aider, je suis resté près de vingt minutes à vous attendre et vous n’étiez pas là. Alors, dites-moi donc, charité bien ordonnée commence par vous-mêmes ou bien par moi-même ? » Imaginez nos éclats de rire. Mais c’était sans malice de notre part, car Saint-Louis représentait une présence réconfortante dont nous avions tant besoin durant cette époque turbulente, spécialement pour nous autres qui l’avions eu comme professeur en 9èmeB au primaire.
Avant de terminer ce long tribut, je m’en voudrais de ne pas payer mes respects à ceux de nos copains qui sont décédés, particulièrement à Boucard (Ti Bouc, du surnom que J. Claude lui avait collé) et à Laplanche (Latabla, de mon sobriquet à lui). J’aurais tant aimé qu’ils pussent lire ces propos…Paix à eux !
Voilà ! Mon intention n’était pas d’écrire une longue analyse, mais j’étais impuissant à arrêter le flot de souvenirs qui déferlaient avec pétulance sur les rives de ma mémoire à mesure que j’écrivais. Il y a tant à dire de cette experience ! A côté du drame humain qui embrasait nos jeunes destinées, j’ai essayé de juxtaposer des moments empreints de jovialité et même de trivialité, car tout cela participait de notre expérience d’anciens du Petit Séminaire Collège Saint Martial. Nous avons enormément souffert. N’était le glu de l’amitié et la force de la solidarité, nous n’aurions peut-être pas survécu indemnes ces vicissitudes. J’avais promis à Duré d’écrire un jour sur cette tranche de notre vie. En quelle langue ? C’était la question que je me suis posée. Depuis trois décades, à l’exception des trois années que j’ai passées en Haïti durant les années 80, je vis aux Etats-Unis et publie mes textes en anglais. J’ai pris la gageure de revenir au français après une si longue absence, pensant que c’était le meilleur moyen d’atteindre le plus grand nombre d’anciens du Séminaire. J’espère avoir réussi. Merci de votre attention.
Illinois, Octobre 2009
The spectacle of the past few weeks, where scores of protesters take over town hall meetings and suppress any possibility of a dialogue over healthcare reform, is both alarming and bizarre. Alarming in that the atmosphere surrounding these events surpass in hostility the hysteric moments of the 2008 Presidential Campaign that, one feared, could at any moment lead to reprehensible acts of violence. Bizarre in that the people who so passionately vocalize their opposition to reform are the very ones who stand to benefit from it. Why wouldn’t they want healthcare reform?
Undeniably, the election of Barack Obama was greeted in some sectors of the nation with malaise. Conservative circles seized upon the malaise, gave it a shape and lent it their voice. Soon that latent source of discontent was radicalized and adroitly used to fuel the insurrection against everything the President stands for. Nowhere is such strategy more successful than in the on-going healthcare debate, where reform proponents are on the defensive and literally demonized by protesters at town hall meetings, as evidenced by their posters, tee-shirt inscriptions, and angry gestures. These “protesters” range from a toddler holding a poster against the “socialist” policies of
By all measures, healthcare reform should be an easy sell, as it promotes much-needed affordability, availability, patient-centered quality care, and equilibrium of the marketplace. Healthcare is one of the issues with resonance throughout our socio-economic structures, from the state of personal finances to the operations of
the plan and, in so doing, find a natural ally in the Republicans in Congress.
These Republicans, who suffered a crushing defeat last November and, for a while, were in a state of disarray, found their voice and, with it, a way out of irrelevance. The strident political discourse on healthcare offers them a platform from which they are launching their assault on Obama. As in the past, they rely on an old and endeared tactic of theirs—fear mongering. With invaluable help from acolytes on the talk show circuit who prey on the gullibility of a certain sector of their constituency, they set out unabashedly to make the healthcare issue Obama’s Waterloo–to paraphrase a Senator from South Carolina who alluded to the battle that doomed Napoleon’s myth of invincibility. Truth be told, unlike the Democrats who stand divided, the Republicans manage to patch over their differences and present a united front against the White house as they disseminate their untruths about the plan. Healthcare reform gives them the perfect opportunity to the extent that this issue cuts through the ideological rift that divides the two parties.
Obama’s idea of a public option obviously does not sit well with the Republicans in Congress, their constituents, and their special interest groups. Not for the reason one might expect, though. This time around, their argument takes a twist that strikes by its dissonance. For a Party that made a sport out of bashing Government as inept and inefficient, only capable of promoting bureaucracy and wasteful spending, this twist was quite unexpected. It underscores the hypocrisy that of late has become the trademark of Republican behavior. Their long-held view is that private enterprise can always do better than government in the market of ideas and “know-how.” They have never missed an opportunity to caricature government and promote themselves as fierce advocates of the free market system and its corollary, competition–which by its very nature promotes choice for the benefit of the consumer. One would have thought that a public entity in the health insurance marketplace would be greeted with cheers by the Republicans, that it would be easily outperformed, outsmarted by the well-managed, efficient private insurance companies, and that their reaction would be, “Bring ‘em on!” On the contrary, they vehemently oppose the public option. Surprisingly, they contend that a public insurance entity would potentially cripple the private insurers and force them into bankruptcy. What a farce! So much about the ineptitude of the Feds! Informed minds have known that argument was a fallacy, disproved by Medicare, the government agency that provides insurance coverage for the elderly. Medicare has a much lower administrative cost rate than its counterparts in the private sector and could teach them a thing or two about cost containment. Translation, there is a lot of bloated bureaucracy within the private healthcare industry that we have been subsidizing through our premiums.
Could it be that all the brouhaha about the inefficiency of the Feds is just a façade, behind which government detractors hide their true feelings? Could it be that their staunch opposition or distrust of government is symptomatic of something more profound–glimpses of which surfaced from the secessionist threat of the
Surely, the prospect of healthcare reform has had some impact. In an attempt to dissuade the Obama Administration from the public option and sway public opinion in their favor, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals promptly came forward with billions of dollars worth of discounts. Specifically, the hospitals pledged $155 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings over 10 years, followed by the pharmaceutical companies’ $80 billion in cost reduction initiatives. The insurance companies, for their part, have yet to come up with any plans to provide relief to their insured against the ever-rising cost of coverage. According to a survey done by The Kaiser Family Foundation in 2008, insurance premiums increased by 120 % for the period 1999-2007, whereas wages only grew by 29% over the same period. It is obvious that, as insured, we have the short end of the stick. Our plight does not stop at the escalating insurance premiums. We are also confronted with limitless out-of-pocket costs, from co-payments every time we set foot in a doctor’s office to high deductibles for doctor’s services, hospital stays and prescriptions. We are liable to providers for medical claims denied by the insurance companies. Instead of addressing these legitimate concerns, these companies and their surrogates run advertising campaigns designed to derail the debate. Why wouldn’t we want reform?
Who benefits from the high costs of healthcare anyway? According to Fortune Magazine, pharmaceuticals and healthcare industries have been among the 25 fastest growing industries for the past 5 years. Another measure of their success is typified by a jump from the top 50 most profitable industries to the top 40 in the spate of one year, from 2008 to 2009. As regards the insurance component of the sector, its performance is predicated on its ruthless operations management, anchored in a strategy that reposes on increased premiums and low claim satisfaction or, using the administrative lingo of the industry, low “losses.” In the realm of insurance operations, a claim is referred to as a loss. A paid claim is a realized loss. It stands to reason that, as for-profit corporations, insurers must contain these losses. Hence the importance of the concept of Loss Ratio, a metric that essentially measures how well the industry manages its claims in relation to the premiums it earns. Lower claims mean lower loss ratio. The lower the ratio, the more beneficial to the bottom line. Wendell Potter, former senior executive with Cigna, echoed this point at his hearing before Congress on June 24, 2009: “The accounting firm (Price Waterhouse Coopers) found that the collective medical-loss ratios of the seven largest for-profit insurers fell from an average of 85.3 percent in 1998 to 81.6 percent in 2008. That translates into a difference of several billion dollars in favor of insurance company shareholders and executives and at the expense of health care providers and their patients.” So, denying claims is for the insurance industry a matter of survival. Why would the insurance companies want healthcare reform?
Indeed, senior management at these companies, who have devised the high premium and claim denial schemes, have been rewarded with exponential compensation increase over the past decade, some of them, such as Ron Williams of Aetna and Edward Hanway of Cigna, ranking among the top 100 highly compensated CEO’s. According to
In addition to company executives, the lobbyists acting as surrogates for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies have benefited from the status quo. As an underpinning of the healthcare industries, the lobbying firms have made a successful living out of the millions of dollars they collected from consulting fees and services. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, total lobbying spending in 2008 amounted to 3.3 billion dollars. Pharmaceuticals topped the list with $236 million and the insurance companies placed third with $161 million. With the healthcare debate intensifying, record lobbying spending will be set in 2009. As Daily Dose reported earlier in the year, “(t)he industry…set records from January to March, when health-care firms and their lobbyists spent money at the rate of $1.4 million a day” to position themselves in the upcoming debate. In the midst of these disbursements are Washington lobbyists. Their fate is intricately tied to the status quo. For them as well, it is a matter of survival to fight tooth and nail and obstruct any attempt to reform.
Last, but not least, the congressmen and senators from both parties benefit from the largesse of the healthcare industry in support of their campaigns. Up until 2006, per the Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans received more than two-thirds of the healthcare industries’ political contributions. In 2008, however, as the impet
us for change was brewing, these industries hedged their bets and orchestrated a shift in their strategy by equally funding both parties at $71 million apiece. In so doing, they planted the seeds for discord within the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs (conservative Democrats) being among the big recipients of these funds. Yet, within the healthcare bloc, the insurance industry remains firmly entrenched in the Republican camp: in 2008, 55% of their contributions ($26 million) went to the GOP. The healthcare industries have played their hand with dexterity and made the task of reforming the healthcare system complicated. These various individuals or factions, who have acted as pawns of these companies, have a vested interest in seeing that the status quo is maintained at all cost and that healthcare reform fails. Reform means that all these millions of dollars would be redirected to operations, used to modernize the healthcare systems, get rid of inefficiencies, satisfy insurance claims, and pass some of the savings to the insured in the form of premium and deductible reductions.
Another argument advanced by the foes of the reform initiative is that the public option is a path to a single-payer system and leads to healthcare rationing. What they fail to realize is that we ARE in a healthcare rationing regime. Self-imposed rationing. An estimated sixteen million Americans die every year of preventable deaths due to lack of medical care. A great number of them did have health insurance. However, facing high premiums, ever-increasing co-payments, exorbitant drug prices, and unaffordable deductibles, they are forced to self-ration their care. They simply AVOID going to see a doctor and, sadly enough, take a gamble on life. That should never have been. Not in
The argument that possibly gains more traction in the anti-reform camp is that it will cause the Federal budget deficits to widen. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan organization, projects deficits in the trillions-of-dollar range over the period 2010-2019. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OM itself estimates “the out-year (2010-2019) deficits (to) hover in the range of 4 percent of GDP, which is higher than desirable.” The analysis went on to attribute a large part of the deficit increase to healthcare expenditures. Budget deficits do matter. However, a distinction need be made between chronic or structural deficits and temporary deficits. It is not the purpose of this article to expand on this distinction. Suffice to say that no economies can sustain chronic deficits without impeding economic growth. On the other hand, temporary deficits incurred to correct economic imbalances or make up for the anemia of the private sector are, from a Keynesian economics perspective, not only necessary but advisable. For sure, there are real costs associated with reform; these costs are susceptible to increase government spending, and by default will impact the deficit–despite the President’s contention that his plan is deficit neutral. However, the cost of staying the course is even greater, as government spending for Medicare and Medicaid in terms of drug prices and hospital charges will skyrocket in the next decade and severely cripple the national economy. Viewed from this angle, the deficit prospect, rather than hurting the push for reform, makes an even more potent case for it.
Some nostalgics of the former administration still view Obama through the lens of Cheney/Bush and their cowboy diplomacy. What did we gain from that reckless, unimaginative, simplistic and reductionist diplomatic approach that is so appealing to the right? We gained the worst attack on American soil. We gained a more potent adversary in
If Obama is being tested by the events in
If anything, Obama should be credited for that popular effervescence. A year ago, scenes like this would be inconceivable. A month ago, unimaginable… until Obama’s fatidic speech in
June 20, 2009 at 05:19
What did we gain from that reckless,unimaginative, simplistic and reductionist diplomatic approach that is so appealing to the right? We gained the worst attack on American soil.
You do realize that 9/11 was already in motion before Bush/Cheney took office right? So what you are saying is that it was Clinton/Gore who brought on this attack. But i understand how you could come to this conclusion, if i didn’t know anything about military planning and operations i would use a simple timeline association as well. It’s ok no need to feel bad about your mistake, not everybody the instestinal [sic] fortitude to do what it takes to gain such knowledge, after all somebody has to take all those liberal arts classes. Right?
Etzer Cantave replies:
June 20, 2009 at 13:15
Let me see if I get it. Should a man-made calamity (terrorist act) strike us at this moment, Obama should blame it on Bush? Right? How about three months from now? Still Bush, right? So, at what point should a sitting president take responsibility for actions that occur on his/her watch?
The argument that 9/11 could or should be blamed on
June 20, 2009 at 05:23
“Make no mistake about it, this movement is above all a nationalistic one that doesn’t need outside interference. We should not try to claim paternity over this internal show of force by the Iranian people.”
A full four sentences later:
“If anything, Obama should be credited for that popular effervescence. A year ago, scenes like this would be inconceivable. A month ago, unimaginable… until Obama’s fatidic speech in
You don’t beleive yourself, hopefully no one else is foolish enough to listen to you either.
June 20, 2009 at 05:52
Heh … yeah, it was the
I love lectures that are based on some fantasy which only exist between the ears of the lecturer, don’t you?
Etzer Cantave replies:
June 20, 2009 at 14:23
As they say, timing is everything. The timing of the
June 20, 2009 at 05:44
The 9/11 attack:
The muslims have been waging war on the West for 1200 years. The Ottoman Turks fought against us in WWI. Radical islam supported the Nazis in WWII.
The sleeper cells were in place when Bush took office. Jamie Gerelick put a wall between the FBI and the CIA, neither agency could connect the dots. If Richard Clarke knew so much, why didn’t he pop Osama on
Relatively speaking, our losses have been light. In
If “caused tens of thousands to be maimed or irremediably injured” refers to al Qaeda, Baathist or Mahdi IEDs or attacks without regard for their own civilians, why is that our fault?
Call it “coyboy diplomacy” if you like, but it kept us from being attacked again. We will see if “home boy” diplomacy can do as well.
Madeline Albright cut a deal with Kim Jong Il including $4B and a nuclear power plant in exchange for shutting down his nuke weapons program.
We could have hit them, but the South Koreans did not want us to attack. Neither did the democrats, the Chinese, the Russians, or the Japanese. What would be the price of an attack? War on the
What is likely to happen is that the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Taiwanese will go nuclear. The Japanese already have every thing they need. If they decided to do it, they could detonate a device in weeks. It would take the others 6 months. The big loser would, of course, be
Is Obama still going to scale back or cancel missile defense?
Etzer Cantave replies:
June 20, 2009 at 15:38
Your argumentation is factual and lends itseld to an enjoyable read. I don’t take issue with the facts, but rather with the interpretation of the facts. I don’t feel we are drastically far apart.
Where you lost me, though, is when you say “Relatively speaking, our losses have been light. In
To me, the
June 20, 2009 at 05:10
“We sacrificed over 4000 young American lives full of promises to satisfy the megalomaniacal tendencies of Machiavellian duo, caused tens of thousands to be maimed or irremediably injured.”…
Such partisan shallowness, here are a few reminders for you.
If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.
- President Bill Clinton, Feb. 17, 1998
Iraq is a long way from (the United States), but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.
- Madeline Albright, Feb 18, 1998
He will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has 10 times since 1983.
- Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, Feb. 18, 1998
(We) urge you, after consulting with Congress, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.
- Oct. 9, 1998, letter to President Clinton signed by Sens. Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Kerry and others
Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology, which is a threat to countries in the region, and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.
- Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Dec. 16, 1998
Hussein has … chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass destruction and palaces for his cronies.
- Madeline Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, Nov. 10, 1999
There is no doubt that … Saddam Hussein has invigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status.
- Dec. 5, 2001, letter to President Bush, signed by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. and others
We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country. Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power.
- Al Gore, Sept. 23, 2002
We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.
- Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Sept. 27, 2002
I will be voting to give the president of the United States the authority to use force – if necessary – to disarm Saddam Hussein because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.
- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Oct. 9, 2002
Etzer Cantave says:
June 20, 2009 at 12:49
I fail to see the point of your recitation of past facts. Is it to argue that the Bush/Cheney foolhardy adventure in Iraq was worth the sacrifices in blood, treasure, and reputation we endured? For what those pointed remarks are worth, I don’t see anyone advocating a full-scale invasion of that country. At best, they seemed to endorse punctual surgical operations. I feel the litany of diplomatic actions, posturing and pressuring you cited, exonerates my view that war should not be waged casually, based on flimsy evidence, gratuitous innuendos, whims or gut feeling… Four thousand plus American lives, twenty plus thousand severely wounded compatriots, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis’, $1 trillion in treasury—portion of which filled the pockets of cronies such as Halliburton & Co., that is what this blunder cost us under the Bush/Cheney tandem. What are not quantifiable and might even cost more, though, are the intangibles—loss of credibility around the world, radicalization of a growing sector of the international opinion, the distrust of our traditional allies, the resurgence of nationalistic feelings ill-disposed to our interests.
No one disputes that Saddam was an awful character, who deserved the wrath of the international community. So was Kim Jon Il of North Korea. The Asian leader was not just suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction. At the time of the run-up to the Iraq War, he was known to possess them; and he bragged about it. Allies of ours—South Korea and Japan— as well as 40,000 of our troops were directly exposed to those weapons. Why did we not mount an offensive against North Korea? Oh! I see: Kim Jon Il had no connection to 911, but Saddam did… Right!