Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2001 / 16 Shevat 5762
And, a day later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
There was Al Sharpton, each hair of his magnificent pompadour immaculately in place, striding up to the microphones to talk to reporters last Wednesday outside the Enron building, also known as "the scene of the crime," in downtown Houston.
Sharpton, chastised the government for failing to protect Enron investors from the company's downfall.
"Somebody must stand up" for the investors, he said, and called on the government to find money to help those who lost their savings. If the government can afford to bail out airlines and other struggling corporations, Sharpton said, "they can certainly find money for victims who would not have been victimized if the government had protected them."
Of course, it's not clear that government can afford to bail out the airlines or that it should. And, even if it were clear, it wouldn't necessarily mean that the government should bail out the stockholders of collapsed companies.
Enron was only the largest bankruptcy filing in history, not the only one. Last year alone, 255 publicly traded companies filed for bankruptcy, according to BankruptcyData.com, a Web site that tracks such things. Should government bail out those who lost their shirts on those tragedies, too?
Such reality checks don't matter much in the world spun by political rhetoric; such a false comparison is known as a "Man-on-the-Moon" move. You hear it whenever you hear someone say, "If we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to (fill in the blank with whatever you're trying to get)."
The "Man-on-the-Moon" move is getting old these days as a new generation too young to remember humans walking on the moon has come of age.
Since 9-11, of course, the "Man-on-the-Moon" move has been replaced by the "We must (fill in the blank) or the terrorists will win" ploy.
You hear that one on Capitol Hill when every pet project from music museums to buffalo farming must be funded "or the terrorists will win."
Maybe now I can tell my 12-year-old, "If we can afford to bail out the airlines, you ought to be able to find time to wash the dishes."
Ah, but Sharpton is on the soapbox circuit where great promises can be made without concern as to how they're going to be kept. He is on an "exploratory campaign," he tells us, for a possible presidential run in 2004. Something tells me George W. Bush is not quaking in his boots over that possibility.
Some observers found symbolism in Sharpton's arriving in Washington a day before Jackson. Getting the jump on his role model? Sharpton did nothing to discourage that notion. He's made no secret of his desire to replace the Rev. Jackson in the national spotlight, even if it seems to be a shrinking spotlight.
Still, I wonder, are there really so few inequities or injustices around that these two have to parachute into the Enron case?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Sharpton or Jackson hater. There are plenty of other pundits around to fill that role. I'm another kind of critic. As someone who agrees with many of their positions, it makes me wince to see them become parodies of themselves, which seems to be happening more often these days.
The approach taken by the two old-school civil rights leaders seems particularly ill-timed during a week when Newsweek magazine was featuring three black CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations on its cover as "The New Black Power."
At a time when Stanley O'Neal of Merrill Lynch, Richard Parsons of AOL Time Warner and Kenneth Chenault of American Express are coming to power in the sort of companies where blacks once could barely get jobs as janitors, Sharpton seems about as anachronistic as bell-bottoms, nylon shirts and mutton-chop sideburns.
But, there's always a danger fashions of the '70s will return, isn't there? Similarly, the danger is always present that African Americans, the poor or just the ordinary, not-very-powerful people of any race will be wronged.
Such wrongs create causes around which old-school civil rights leaders like Sharpton or Jackson can rally.
But, while they run off to chase the next headline, somebody has to stay behind to provide the leadership that brings long-lasting rewards. That's the kind of leadership all Americans need in politics -- and in business. It's too bad Enron didn't have more of
01/25/02: Searching for slaves in bin Laden's attic