And so with the AIG story. First outrage, then outrage over the outrage, then the actual facts start to roll in: bonuses contractually obligated, which would not have been paid if the company had been allowed to fail, and so on.
We get to watch the very politicians that wrote the bill running around with their hair on fire, outraged about the bill. So they got the bonuses, which were then going to be custom-taxed, which were then returned, and tomorrow? Who knows? Off we go!
But despite the fact that the ginned-up outraged is a smoke screen hiding the real large-scale larceny, the fact remains that failed corporations paying bonuses or buying executive jets on taxpayer money is indeed something to be furious about. When Lee Iacocca asked for federal help with the situation he was hired to fix at Chrysler, he took a dollar a year salary until the loans were repaid; which they were, and seven years early, at that. The performance of Tylenol after their horrible poisoning scare, and Southwest Airlines after 9/11 also leap to mind as examples of outstanding corporate leadership, as do the thousands and thousands of sound judgments carried out each day by small businesses, based on nothing but common sense, integrity, character and a dedication to their customers.
Not much of that is on display these days. In fact, the attitude of some of these big corporations, with their hat out in one hand as they write enormous checks for luxuries with the other, is so out of touch with the mood of the country, so absolutely and utterly TONE DEAF that I was trying to think of the last thing I read along these lines that was this damned outrageous. And then I remembered it, and I want to share it with you since it’s such a great story.
This man is someone you, and everyone else in the world, should know. His name is Wallace Hartley. Wallace Hartley was not a great general or a politician. Wallace Hartley was a musician. A young Englishman from Lancashire, he was 33 years old when he took – with misgivings – a job as bandleader on the most remarkable ocean liner of his day.
Just after midnight on the morning of April 15th, 1912, Wallace Hartley and the rest of his orchestra awoke to discover that their ocean liner had struck an iceberg and was sinking into the ice-cold North Atlantic. Hartley gathered his musicians, and in the space of a few minutes, these men made a decision.
These are names you should know as well: alphabetically, they were Theodore Brailey, Roger Bricoux, John Clarke, Jock Hume, Georges Krins, Percy Taylor and John Woodward, of whom no photograph survives.
These eight men, decided, as a group, to return to their cabins, retrieve their instruments, and then emerge to the deck of the sinking Titanic in order to play lively tunes to calm the terrified passengers and keep up the spirits of those facing their imminent death in the freezing water.
It was widely reported that their final song was the haunting hymn, Nearer My God to Thee. It certainly makes a great story. But the fact is, the musicians wanted to keep people’s spirits up, and Nearer my God to Thee is almost a dirge. Historians – after much argument – have concluded that the most likely tune they played as the ship slid away beneath them was Songe d’Automne, sometimes simply know as Autumn.
And that’s what they were on that morning. Underpaid, overworked, second-class passengers who had every right to try and gain a place among the 338 men that survived to tell the story, a story ennobled by the universal praise from the survivors for these eight men who did not run from a duty that existed not on paper but only in their own magnificent hearts.
None of them survived. Not one.
Several weeks after the sinking, the grieving parents of violinist Jock Hume – body number 193 — received a small note, almost lost in the mountain of condolences.
It was from the talent agency that represented all of the musicians on the various transatlantic liners. It read:
Dear Sir: we shall be obliged to you if you will remit to us the sum of five shillings and four pence, which is owing to us per enclosed statement. We shall also be obliged if you will settle the enclosed uniform account. Yours Faithfully, C.W. and F.N. Black.
It was a bill, in the amount of about three dollars and fifty cents, for the uniform that Jock Hume was wearing at the time he gave his life for the rest of the passengers onboard the greatest maritime disaster in history. They billed him for the uniform they found him floating in, that he actually had no obligation to wear since, like the other musicians, he was not technically an employee of White Star Lines and was paid by the agent, rather than White Star.
When the parents of the musicians went seeking some small portion of the damages being awarded to survivors by the courts, they were told by Black and Black that this was White Star’s problem, and then told by White Star that they were simple free-lancers employed by Black and Black.
...who did survive, being lowered into a lifeboat to the calming strains of Autumn being played by eight underpaid musicians, not one of whom would live for another hour… While all of this shabbiness was going on, searchers finally found Wallace Hartley, body number 224, floating in the Atlantic where he done his duty not to White Star, but to humanity.
And at his funeral, forty thousand people stood in silent memorial. Afterward, people would cross the street to avoid Bruce Ismay.
I repeat this story for two reasons: one, it bears repeating, and often. Two, so that you realize that the sort of corporate tone-deafness that would buy multi-million-dollar French executive jets on public money is not a new thing. What is new, this time around, is that no matter where you look, there is not a single hero to be found… let alone eight of them.