General Motors: Commentary on Scandal and Shame

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by Gary Spina

I remember as a kid hearing General Motors former CEO Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson in a 1953 newsreel uttering the famous quote: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. – and vice versa!”

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Former General Motors CEO Charles Erwin Wilson, 5th U.S. Secretary of Defense

Of course, over the years my recall has been faulty because that is not exactly what he said. But he must have been an impressive man, and me an impressionable 8 year old because, though I didn’t get the words exactly right, I can still, even today, see him in my mind’s eye and still hear his gravelly voice — and even at the time, I kind of smiled because he pronounced the words “vi-see versa.” I thought that was funny because everyone I knew said “vi-sa versa.”

The real story is that in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated GM’s CEO Charles Erwin Wilson to be America’s 5th Secretary of Defense. During his confirmation hearings, Wilson was asked if as Secretary of Defense he could make a decision in conflict with the interests of General Motors. Wilson answered that he could, but added that he could not envision such a choice “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vise Versa.”

And so over the years those words had become an accepted aphorism, for General Motors Corporation was at the time the largest corporation in America in terms of its revenues as a percent of the GDP. As such it was a vital cog in the wheel of American prosperity. American industrialism, ingenuity, free enterprise, ambition, jobs, capital, perseverance, and pride were wrapped around the giant automaker.

Now, 13 deaths hang over the corporate image, and the scandal is unraveling, and many are calling for criminal charges against the individuals responsible – both at GM and within the federal government.

Mary Barra has only been CEO since January 15, 2014, and she has apologized for the corporation, but she admits to no knowledge of the ignition switch design flaw until January 31. Yet Barra has been with GM since 1980 and has been an important part of the company. She is on their board of directors, and GM’s own website describes her as a “global industry leader in automotive design and technology, product quality, customer care, and business results.” Fortune magazine lists her on their “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Forbes puts her among their “100 Most Powerful Women.”

And it seems our own federal regulators may have blood on their hands. How strange that the feds would turn a blind eye to GM’s safety standards when our Justice Department has pursued harsh punitive retribution against Toyota for arguably lesser infractions. Just two weeks ago Toyota settled a $1.2 billion law suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department, Toyota admitted it “misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues involving its vehicles.” Under the terms of the settlement, the payment is not spread out over several years. Instead Toyota had to wire-transfer $1.2 billion to the U.S. Marshals Service within days of the agreement.

But General Motors was allowed to skate. It seems the United States government and General Motors remain strange bedfellows since 2008 when the government deemed GM “too big to fail” and bailed out the company with TARP money. The government bought 32 percent of General Motors stock. More recently, the government has allowed GM to buy back much of the stock, but the feds still own 16 percent of GM.

But what a grand history – what bygone years — what splendor before the fall!

GM made the Cadillac – the car Americans believed was the finest luxury car in the world. Everyone in America unabashedly wanted a shiny new Cadillac – maybe a fancy Caddy convertible, maybe a pink one with the horns of a long-horn steer across the hood – maybe a Cadillac and driver to go with it. That would be neat — and the want and desire provided an inspirational focus, an unapologetic drive for American wealth and success.

GM made the powerful Oldsmobile – thought to be an innovated experimental cluster of steel and chrome and rubber on the cutting edge of rocket-technology. The very best of the automaker’s genius went into the Oldsmobile. There was simply no other car to compare with the Olds – no other feeling, no other thrill as being behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile on the open road or along a country lane.

There was the quiet, not-so-subtle esteem of the road-worthy Buick – just as elegant as the Cadillac, but more affordable, more suitable for the average American family with its many kids and at least one mixed breed family dog. The Buick was understated elegance – a solid
investment, a statement of confidence in all the good years that lay ahead.

The big, bold Pontiac was made for the young man just coming up, just coming into his own – dating young women who wore stockings instead of bobbysocks, and wore their hair high. The Pontiac seemed to be made for a young man acquiring class and stature – back when earning a living was a simple matter of hard work and more hard work and ambition and brains — and the money was good and soon better and a young man would trade in his Pontiac for one two years newer, and then another newer trade until he bought his first new car – and he was taking his dates to Broadway shows now, to the Copacabana, McSorley’s, Village Vanguard, The Stork Club, and Toots Shor’s restaurant, and the women were gorgeous and intelligent, and that was all Friday and Saturday night. But come Sunday morning, he would dress up proper and go to church services where there was parking on the street when the church lot was filled, and on the street the cars were clean and shiny and most of them were made in the U.S.A. by General Motors.

And of course, the Chevrolet was the standard. The Chevrolet was America – and people would say things like: “…as American as apple pie and Chevrolet…” Or they would say: “…Momma, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” Chevrolet was your first car. You drove to high school in your Chevy – maybe a hot-rod – maybe a ’46 Chevy with a ’55 Chevy V8 engine, and that thing could fly – maybe a 411 rear if you lived in town where short bursts down the strip turned heads. The Chevrolet was an honest car for an honest buck.

GM made the Chevy pickup truck and it was a legend in its own time. It was reliable and rugged and simple to get under the hood and work on yourself, and Saturdays every other guy would be out in his driveway or at the curbside in front of his house with the hood up on his GM car or Chevy truck – changing the oil or rotating the tires – and washing and waxing in the cool shade beneath a big maple or oak tree, the suds and the rubbing and the buffing all through the afternoon as the sunlight softened cooler and friendlier toward early evening, maybe your friends riding by and stopping to talk awhile as you work.

GM made the big GMC over-the-road haulers – and marine and aircraft components, and you could only guess what else they were endeavoring. You just knew GM was one of the world’s largest corporations.

You knew GM stood by behind its products. A General Motors car or truck could and would last ten years if you changed the oil regularly and greased it and changed the head-gaskets. America and Chevrolet were honest and exciting and fast and sure and solid and a man could count on his GM car or truck to take him places – anywhere he wanted to go — and get him back home safely.

That was all back in the last century when GM was honest and America was honest – when even a wild young man kept a good balance on work and play and church on Sunday – back when morality was something no one had to explain to you.

That’s all gone now. General Motors has disgraced itself. Even the people who are now suing GM are up against a company that is already hiding behind bankruptcy protection – no matter how contrite CEO Mary Barra may have sounded before her Congressional hearing.

Everything is different now – both America and its people – now that God has been kicked out of our schools and public places. General Motors is no longer the world’s largest automaker, no longer America’s largest corporation, no longer the pride of the U.S.A. And now we know General Motors was morally bankrupt even before it was financially bankrupt.

And it seems America is part of that equation. The expression “good for you” used to be pure taunting, sinister, sarcasm meaning “Good — you got what you deserve!” So, in that vein: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. – and vi-cee versa!”

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