He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.
--Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking of Nicaragua's President Somoza
Detroit's Big Three automakers have painted themselves into one hell of corner--firstly and monumentally by driving their incredible engines of industrial enterprise right into the ground with massively bad business decisions over the last oh say 40 years and secondly and just as tragically, with their incredibly tone-deaf performance in front of Congress and the American people last month.
Whether or not they travelled to DC and back in private jets or car-pooled in a hybrid was never the issue. What was is that they showed up to ask for a big fat loan from a Congress whose leadership had just had to armtwist reluctant members to fund a Wall Street bailout and the hard-luck trio did so without a plan among them for just what they'd do with the taxpayers' money. I'd have hooted them out of the hearing room, too.
Now Motown's three greatest hits-- and flops--are back at bat. We can only hope they are grateful for getting a second cut at the ball and above all, that they will make this trip to the plate count by banging one, two, three hits right out of the park.
And if there ever was a moment for public relations to carry the day, this is it. It seems the biggest mistake the Big Three have made in their pitch is not getting across to Congress-- and the rest of us for that matter-- that what they're seeking is not a handout or bailout, but a loan.
This was brought home to me today by a staff editorial I read posted on the website of the Motor City's beloved hometown daily, the Detroit Free Press-- a.k.a "The Freep"-- entitled if not eloquently but directly as "Hey, America Detroit Needs a Loan." This is the kind of message Detroit needs to get put in front of Congress and the American people if they hope to get any help-- and get it in time.
The editorialist asks all of us to please bear in mind that the Big Three are after a loan-- not a handout-- that will be paid back with interest: "This is not a gift, a grant or a handout. It's a loan, the kind of thing financial institutions used to do before they all had to scurry to Washington for their own bailouts, which have been far bigger and subjected to considerably less scrutiny than this loan that the auto industry desperately needs to keep operating -- and keep millions of people employed."
The writer goes on to point out that the last (and first) time a Big Three automaker-- Chrysler in 1979-- asked the government to float it a loan (for $1.2 billion) it worked out handsomely: "Lee Iacocca's company repaid the loans early -- with a $336-million gain for taxpayers."
A federal loan worked then, and they can now
Yes, this time around, the loan will be bigger and in triplicate but the stakes are so much higher, too.
Think of the jobs to be lost, the manufacturing capacity to be shuttered, the national pride to be shattered, if we allow one or more of our automakers to go under.
And the key word is "our." We-- I know I ain't-- may not be happy about the pickle Detroit has largely driven itself into, but these troubled firms are major-- iconic to boot-- American industrial corporations employing tens of thousands of Americans in honest labor that we can all take pride in.
Yeah, yeah, they screwed up. To paraphrase FDR, they may be screw-ups, but they are our screw-ups and if you ask me, we ought to give them the same second chance anyone of us would like to have if we were in dire straights.
I think we owe them-- and by extension, ourselves-- at least that much.