He was known as “Engine Charlie.” And while Charles Erwin Wilson was both the longtime president of General Motors and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, he has come to a deserved rest in Bartlett’s for saying, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” I couldn’t agree more. What would be good for both is if the proper parties are condemned to drive the cars they made.
This will not happen. It is likely that no one will even be fired. A flawed ignition in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars may have resulted in at least 12 deaths, yet GM was hideously late in revealing the problem and instituting the recall.
We now learn from both The Washington Post and The New York Times that GM was aware it had a problem, yet it responded not just with engineers but with lawyers as well. Claimants were threatened with countersuits, and in one case, GM lawyers argued that the new General Motors that had come out of bankruptcy was not responsible for what the old GM had done. Two of the suits were settled confidentially, which meant that the public was not informed — and neither were the people still obliviously driving Cobalts and other GM models.
GM first realized it had a problem more than a decade ago. The cars were not recalled until this year. In the interim, it is not unlikely that GM managers and others knew of the faulty ignition switches and did nothing. Probably, just like the old GM, the new GM is a bureaucratic morass, a Great Dismal Swamp of lost memos, forgotten conversations and -- lest you think sheer ineptitude was the culprit — a whole lot of buck-passing and protecting one’s career.
The problem at GM is cultural — lots of otherwise good people doing the easy thing. Mary Barra, the newly installed CEO, promises to rectify matters. She made a videotaped statement that no doubt was granularly lawyered. She was contrite. She was apologetic. She was, after all, not only the new CEO but “a mom.”
“As a member of the GM family and as a mom with a family of my own, this really hits home for me,” she said.
The statement went over well — but not with me. In the first place, GM is not a family. It is a bloodless corporation that was — remember? — quite willing to insist to some poor victim that it was not the same GM that had made the faulty car. I recognize the legal basis for the argument, but morally, it’s repugnant. As a so-called family, GM has racked up more victims than Tony Soprano’s.
Second came the playing of the mom card. This, like the word “frankly,” puts me on high phony alert. Is Barra saying that a male member of “the GM family” wouldn’t care about the loss of life? A dad, a pop or an ol’ man might have put profits first or, maybe, his career. But a mom ... a mom would never do such a thing. A mom is a nurturer, an embracer, a protector, who, as the word has come to imply, puts her family first. I wonder. Barra joined GM at the age of 18. Somehow I feel that she didn’t get to run the company on account of her mothering skills.
There is plenty for Congress to investigate here. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took a long snooze while the accident reports were hitting “incoming” with appalling regularity. The NHTSA could be an example of government watchdog turned lap dog. Let us investigate and let us wonder also about complaints about overregulation.
But it was GM that made the cars and failed to institute a recall. It is GM that has to peer under the hood at its corporate culture, which, in some respects, is little different than the one that tried to ruin Ralph Nader’s reputation when he, in the 1960s, said that the Chevrolet Corvair was, in effect, killing people. GM went so far as to hire prostitutes to entrap Nader. They have since stuck to lawyers — a difference in fees, if not in morality.
Engine Charlie’s quote has often been rendered as “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” which is both pithier and close enough. What’s good for both at the moment is to determine why some GM customers got killed and no one did anything about it. For all the ad slogans, it seems not much has changed in Detroit. It turns out this is your father’s GM.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.