Sweet. Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling found guilty. For several days last week, newscasters couldn’t resist using language like “in jail for perhaps the rest of their lives” or “spending the rest of their lives in jail”. Why should they? It was all some could do to keep from dragging out the old Kool and the Gang tape and pumping up “Celebrate!”
Last week justice appeared to be on hot streak. Righteous actions were everywhere. There was the ever-widening investigation into federal corruption. There was the investigation of possible Iraqi civilian executions by Marines, allegations the government was taking very seriously. Hell, they were even busting polygamist Mormons on the Arizona-Utah border. Finally.
I’ll never be able to prove that the Lay-Skilling convictions set off some kind of global guilt bomb, but how else to do you explain that oafish press conference where Tony Blair and George Bush boldly stood in the shadow of the Enron convictions and confessed their sins regarding the handling of some aspects of the Iraq invasion. Oh, they still had no regrets about the invasion itself (the mission, the fight for liberty; you know the lyrics to this song), they just wanted to come clean on certain things they might have handled better. Like their own careers.
Is change afoot? Corporations are now proudly boasting of toughened-up ethics policies and their websites are filled with commitments to good behavior and compliance. Enron’s collapse and now the convictions of its former chief executives are having what some describe as a surprisingly broad effect on corporate behavior. Meanwhile, Bush is finally acknowledging that he might learn to speak “in a little more sophisticated manner.”
And it’s no secret that the Republicans would love to announce that everyone in their party has received a heart transplant, or that at least that they now all have hearts. And could you please rush the X-rays proving it so that we have them by mid-term elections?
What is it? Are we turning a corner of some kind?
I remember a corner called Watergate. For those of us who recall sitting in our living rooms and watching Sam Ervin and the gang drill for the truth, there was a feeling that this would do it. Nixon would fall and we’d never see that kind of monkey business in our government again.
Break-ins. Cover-ups. Lying. Yessir, that stuff was over. Because that stuff was nickel and dime compared to what we’ve been dealing with since, oh, the 2000 elections.
Yet last week we saw the once mighty fall and there was a new sense of empowerment. Dedicated prosecutors worked long hours and their hard work came to something. Their efforts were backed-up by jurors who were reportedly most disappointed that the two executives never expressed regret. They never said they were sorry for what they did because, right up until the very end, Skilling and Lay thought they might pull off one last scheme: Convincing the jurors they had no idea what was going on.
And then Friday morning, there they were on the front page. Their tired squinting eyes framed in small rectangular photos, as though they were looking through that slot in the door of a solitary cell. Come on; don’t tell me you didn’t get a buzz from that.
Still… change? The convictions are evidence that truth still has a shot against millions of dollars worth of defense attorneys, but there’s fog around the shore. Corporations may be taking oaths on ethics, but none of those oaths seem to be about a fair price for gas. The government may prosecute soldiers for certain civilian killings, but the other killing will continue as scheduled. Polygamists might be put in jail, since they can’t be safely relocated by their archdiocese. The Skilling-Lay convictions have sown some seeds, but we still await the harvest.