General Motors, and Mary Barra, and the American Dream

Charles Wilson, who in the mid twentieth century was CEO of General Motors, has been relentlessly misquoted. In 1953, when he testified before a Senate Committee as President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, he reputedly said, “What’s good for GM is good for America.” But what he really said was this: “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Very different. And very apt because for so many years what Charlie Wilson thought to be true was true. For so many years when America did well so did General Motors, and yes, vice versa.

Which leads me to wonder, does it also happen that when America stumbles so does General Motors – and vice versa?

What’s happening now at General Motors is mind-boggling. The number of vehicles recalled in recent months – the total for the year is 13.5 million – is so huge as to be abstract, not fully comprehensible. Similarly, the fact  that GM has been brought so low, is being so dreadfully debased, says something not only about this particular car corporation but about America more generally.

I don’t want to go all out here – this is not about America’s irreversible decline and inevitable fall. But it is not trivial. It is not trivial that a company thought so important to American fortunes that in 2009 it received from the U. S. government a $49.5 billion bailout, has engaged in practices so dangerously deceptive that it will almost certainly be prosecuted for criminal wrongdoing. One could argue that what’s happening now is good – all those recalls testify to a company that’s finally getting its act together, acting in the public interest as opposed to its own. But…give me a break! That’s not the point! The point is that GM has failed the test of trust.

There is no way in hell that Mary Barra, who of course became GM’s CEO only earlier this year, can escape being tarnished by the truth of what happened. Among other reasons she spent most of her professional life not at IBM – but at GM. Too bad… yet another woman leader destined to bite the dust, though if there’s an alternative I can’t think of it. If Barra is spared it will not be because of merit but because of gender.

Poor us. We the American people have no choice but to watch all this play out. For years we will have before us the spectacle of a once iconic company deservedly dragged through the mud. And for years we will have before us the spectacle of a once iconic country relentlessly reminded both of what was – and of what is.

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