The Legacy of Ken Lay
It's certainly not the same as knowing where you were when Kennedy was shot, but I think I'll always remember the moment I heard of Ken Lay's unexpected death.
I got the news from the Randi Rhodes Show on Air America radio. I first heard it via a "comic" bit that was over-the-top, and pretty tasteless, even by my admittedly loose political correctness standards. What followed was even dumber though. Perhaps the dumbest thing I've heard on TV or radio in the past month - and that's saying something.
Randi implied the Bush administration had Kenny Boy killed to cover up their collusion with him in the Enron scandal.
Now, I'm not fan of either the Bush administration or of Ken Lay, but this sort of baseless charge - even in jest - is just plain stupid. It was stupid when the right wing tried to pin murders on Bill Clinton and Randi's actions are just as stupid now. They're exactly the sort of thing that earns liberals the "moonbat" monkier and they're doubly wrong because they're hypocritical. I remember Randi justifiably criticizing Bill O'Reilly for "joking" that San Francisco should be bombed, so it seems a tad disingenuous for her to "joke" about similarly dastardly deeds now.
But eventually I got over her comments and began to think more directly about Ken's departure.
I'm sure there are thousands who are muttering under their breath, "The evil greedhead deserved to die. I'm just pissed off that he didn't hang around for a few years in jail." Others muttered only a little more charitably, "good riddance to bad trash." Still others thought, "Damn! Now we'll never find out what his ties to the administration really were."
All of those points are understandable enough and maybe even a little more than true, but I think they miss a point that is worth probing, Ken Lay's personal legacy.
No one can have much doubt that Ken was a charlatan who ruined the lives of thousands of employees and small stockholders. I don't think you'd get a strong argument from most people that he left the world a worse place than he found it. You also couldn't convincingly argue that the distrust and fallout from his felonies haven't muddied corporate governance for generations to come, hurting companies, stockholders, employees, and consumers alike.
To some, Ken Lay was evil man in a nice suit - someone who would sell his own mother to make a buck. To others he was the kindly community booster who donated millions to a wide variety of charities. He had a good side and a bad side, something true of most of us - except perhaps the most crazed of psychotic criminals. Ken may have been an evil man in a bad suit, but I don't think he had the heart of a Jeffery Dahmer either. He was mostly just stupid and arrogant, something he was justly punished for.
I think the truest measure of Ken Lay's legacy may not lie in his public persona at all, but in what he did to his family.
It's true that Kenny Boy's family lived as high on the hog as he did. They certainly benefited from the big cash, multiple houses, and corporate jets. They may have even talked down to the servants and have been hell-on-wheels to live next door to. I don't know. But, what is true is that they trusted him when he said, "I didn't do it."
If they were like most families in this situation, they circled the wagons and supported good old Dad through the grinding ordeal. I'm sure it was as tough on them as it was on Ken. Each day dawned and they faced yet another day of scorn and ridicule they had no part in making.
As the circling legal sharks consumed the once vast fortune, the family watched much of what they owned be sold off to raise money for Ken's defense. When he died, Lay's estate was estimated at $8 million. His wife was still living in the luxury condo and she still drove a nice car. So with that kind of "downsized" lifestyle, it might be a little hard to generate much sympathy from someone making $20k and riding the bus to work.
But think of it this way.
You can bet that as long as there's still a dime in the bank, the lawyers will continue to circle. Unless the family is very lucky, the rest of the $8 million will evaporate like water in a hot Houston sidewalk. But worse, they'll get out of bed on funeral day and go to the cemetery in full public view. They will feel the burning eyes upon them and receive the accumulated public hate for Ken transmitted directly onto them. They will stand in a crowd during an event that is ghastly enough as a private affair, horrific as a public one.
As they stand there, many will think, "I have no sympathy for them. They lived off stolen money. They spent it obscenely. Their torture is their just dessert." That may be true, but even if you feel this way, think of this - Ken screwed many people in his life, nearly all of them complete strangers. However, the worst thing he did was drag his family down into the criminal muck with him. Then, he committed the final cowardly and nasty act of his life - he died and left them to face the music alone.
And for me, that will always be Ken Lay's legacy.
Shameless Plug Department: Stop by Dusty's post over on BIO. It's a humdinger!
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Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, July 05, 2006