Opinion

Commentary: Big Three beggars in corporate jets

Leaders of the U.S. automotive industry testify at a hearing held by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2008. Seated in the foreground from right are Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally, Chrysler chairman, CEO Robert Nardelli and General Motors CEO G. Richard Wagoner. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
Leaders of the U.S. automotive industry testify at a hearing held by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2008. Seated in the foreground from right are Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally, Chrysler chairman, CEO Robert Nardelli and General Motors CEO G. Richard Wagoner. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) MCT

If you're like most Americans, you probably weren't dabbing tears from your eyes while listening to the woeful pleas of Richard Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Robert Nardelli.

They are the chiefs of the Big Three automakers, who last week traveled in high style to our nation's capital and begged for $25 billion to save their companies – and, by dire inference, the whole American economy – from ruin.

Interestingly, none of these gentlemen took much blame for leading the U.S. car industry into this terrible abyss, citing instead the global credit crunch, unfavorable trade policies and other factors out of their control.

And while it's probably true that the automobiles being made today by GM, Ford and Chrysler are safer, more reliable and more fuel-efficient than ever, that's only because they're scrambling to catch up with Japanese competitors, who've been kicking their butts for the last 30 years.

Toyota and Honda aren't asking Congress to bail them out, because they don't need it. But if they ever do, they probably won't be so foolish as to send their top executives on a public money-grubbing mission in a private luxury aircraft.

Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli all flew to Washington on separate corporate jets, which provoked lacerating commentary from the legislators whose sympathy they sought.

Said Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York: "It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo . . . I mean, couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?"

The response to that inquiry was a blank stare from the pampered auto chiefs, for whom the idea of flying commercial is inconceivable, worse than standing in the deli line at the grocery.

You'd be hard pressed to find three guys more disconnected from Main Street and less qualified to talk about the plight of the average auto worker. According to The Washington Post, Wagoner's total compensation from GM last year was $15.7 million. Mulally collected $21.7 million from Ford.

When asked by Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois if he'd be willing to cut his salary to $1 a year, as Chrysler's Nardelli has said he would do, Mulally replied: "I think I'm okay where I am."

Spoken like a true capitalist. Now give that man a big fat government bailout! As for Nardelli's benevolent offer to accept only a buck-a-year in compensation, he could surely afford it. In January 2007, he quit abruptly after six years as CEO of Home Depot Inc., where he'd been paid as much as $38 million annually.

Before leaving the company, Nardelli negotiated a "retirement" package worth $210 million, a stunningly obscene sum even in the surreal realm of corporate parachutes.

The amazing thing is that GM, Ford and Chrysler all have sophisticated public-relations departments that their executives obviously failed to consult before hopping in their Gulfstreams and Lears and zooming off to Washington.

Nobody was asking that the CEOs apologize for their personal wealth and career successes. But when the corporation that rewards you so extravagantly is going down the toilet, a little humility and sensitivity is in order.

If one or more of the Big Three should collapse, the impact on the economic markets will be massive, the ripple extending far beyond Detroit. Labor experts estimate that as many as 2.5 million people could be thrown out of work nationwide.

Nobody wants that to happen, but we also don't want to throw our money at an industry that stupidly continued to crank out SUVs even as gasoline was hitting $4 per gallon.

When the Big Three belatedly decided to "retool" and go green, what did they do? They asked for, and have been promised, a $25 billion loan from Uncle Sam.

Then the companies announced they needed another $25 billion as a cash float, to get through these rocky times. Boy, did they send the wrong bunch to make their pitch.

The generosity of Americans doesn't – and shouldn't – extend to sustaining the ethereal lifestyles of multimillionaires. Lots of executives fly private, but not to their own pity parties.

Bailouts are meant to save jobs, not corporate chariots. The CEOs went back to Detroit rejected, if not chastened. While Congress is mulling a compromise loan package, the attitude toward the automakers remains deeply skeptical.

If the companies were smart, they would have benched the Fab Three and instead sent some Main Street faces to Washington – an assembly-line worker from a Ford plant, a transmission mechanic from a Chrysler dealership, an upholstery cutter from a GM parts supplier.

In other words, men and women who would truly suffer if those companies folded; folks who might not be able to pay their mortgages, or keep their kids in college . . . or even fly Jet Blue, much less on a Gulfstream.

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