Saturday, August 08, 2009

"All Available Means of Persuasion"

I had a chance yesterday to talk with an old buddy of mine, Vern Gosworth, who works for a public relations firm. We met for lunch at Eppie’s. Vern hemmed and hawed and finally ordered the Wednesday special, hot tamales, but I stuck with the jerk chicken.

While we were sitting at the table, waiting for our names to be called, I asked him about the news this week that a Washington lobbying group hired by a coal industry consortium, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), had sent forged letters opposing clean air legislation to several members of Congress.

The letters were supposedly from organizations such as the NAACP and the American Association of University Women, but were actually written on fake letterheads.

“Boy, coal companies must be really angry that somebody they hired would try to deceive members of Congress into voting against the clean energy bill,” I said.

“Oh, absolutely,” said Vern. “They’ve issued a statement that they have ‘always maintained high ethical and professional standards,’ but then something like this happens and makes people wonder. I couldn’t blame them if they were furious.”

“Why are they so opposed to the clean energy bill?” I wondered.

“Are you kidding? It could end up costing them billions. Coal is the dirtiest energy out there. They shoveled out almost $11.8 million lobbying against this clean energy bill in the past three months, so you know it’s a huge issue for them.”

“If it’s that important, and they spent that kind of dough, they must have hired the best,” I reflected.

“For sure,” said Vern. “My outfit wanted the job, but we didn’t stand a chance with the Hawthorn Group in the hunt.”

“I think I know what you were up against,” I sympathized. “I was just checking them out on line. Their website says that they approach an ‘advocacy challenge’ with ‘all available means of persuasion.’ They must mean it; they run the phrase three times in three paragraphs on their home page. Your company probably didn’t stand a chance against one that was willing to use ‘all available means of persuasion.’ I hate to ask, but when they say ‘all available means of persuasion,’ do you suppose they mean ‘all available means of persuasion’?”

“You’re reading too much into that, Ace. What they really mean is ‘all available means of persuasion that are legal, ethical, responsible, and morally exemplary.’ They just keep it short because spelling that out would be too cumbersome,” Vern said.

““You’re probably right, I expect. But don’t you think there’s a danger that somebody reading their mission statement would think the Hawthorn Group is willing to do whatever it takes to sell whatever somebody is paying them to pitch?”

“Oh, absolutely not,” said Vern. “It’s already a given that these campaigns will operate on the highest moral and ethical plane; that’s the only way these companies will do business.”

“I see,” I nodded. “But if coal companies are shelling out millions of dollars to oppose the clean energy bill, don’t you thing they would spend some time with their PR firm laying out some guidelines for what they want, and then review ideas the firm comes up with before they okay them?”

“Oh heck no,” said Vern. “That’s not the way the big boys do it, Ace. It’s carte blanche. They just give us a budget, tell us to come up with something, and then forget about it. They trust us to do quality work.”

“And this unnamed employee who created the phony letters--is that the way these things normally operate? I mean, you’ve got a top-drawer client spending huge sums of money, and some employee, all on his own, without even talking with anybody else in the firm, without clearing his idea with some kind of boss or superior, takes it on himself to forge letters to members of Congress?”

“Incredible, isn’t it, Ace? We’ve got so much freedom in the PR business you wouldn’t believe it. We never clear anything with anybody before we put it into effect.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “not even something that important, involving so much money and the Federal government? The level of trust in your business is fantastic!.”

“Well,” he said modestly, “we’ve earned that level of confidence. That’s what they pay us for.”

“I was looking at the Bonner & Associates website too,” I went on. “They say that they have ‘a 25 year track record of extensive, winning experience in all levels of government,’ with ‘hands-on experience in winning tough fights.’”

“Uh huh,” Vern said.”

“So evidently this is a veteran outfit that doesn’t mind mixing it up if you pay them enough,” I surmised.

“Oh, I’d definitely say so,” agreed Vern.

“And yet something like this happened,” I pointed out. “You have a top PR firm, and a savvy insider firm that traffics in using grassroots organizations, both promoting themselves as delivering wins, and yet somehow you end up with a dirty, crooked stunt like this.”

“Ace, these things happen,” said Vern. “It was all the work of one person, a rogue temporary employee far down the food chain. Nobody higher up had any clue what that person was thinking of, squirreled away in some lonely cubbyhole. Now that it’s come to light, everybody’s embarrassed.”

“Do you suppose the employee was ‘temporary’ before news of the forgeries broke?”

“I couldn’t speculate on that, Ace.”

“It’s too bad the forgeries came to light after the vote on the bill, since a couple of congresspeople who got the letters actually voted against the clean energy bill.”

“The timing was unfortunate,” he agreed.

“The odd thing is that ACCCE, the consortium of coal companies, says that Bonner and Associates told them about the forgeries before the bill was voted on and before the news came out in the papers. They say that Bonner told them it had contacted the organizations whose names they used on the forged letters, as well as the congressional offices who got the letters, to clear everything up. Now the coal consortium is just shocked to learn that didn’t actually happen.”

“There you go. Somebody at Bonner dropped the ball. Probably got too busy in the hurly-burly of the campaign to follow up on that piece,” said Vern.

“It looks as if somebody at the coal consortium dropped the same ball,” I pointed out. “You wonder why they didn’t address the matter themselves, instead of leaving it to Bonner. And once they’d passed the buck--or bucks--you’d think they’d want to keep on top of the potential scandal, making sure it was taken care of, given their concern to see that “everyone involved in the public policy dialogue lives up to the highest ethical standards.”

“Hindsight is 20-20, Ace.”

“Hindsight is 11.8 million, Vern.”

© Tony Russell, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Not a Pretty Sight"

Lead sentence in CNN article: “The more Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.”

Third paragraph: “White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified--more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it.”

Patty and I were sitting in Wendy’s, quietly working our way through our combo meals. The ladies behind us were working their way through their friends.

“What kind of Christian does she think she is?” scoffed one. “Supporting terrorists by saying we shouldn’t torture them.”

“I know,” said another. “I always thought better of her than that.”

“She may have a lot of people fooled with that sweet smile and soft voice,” said the first, “but God knows what’s in her heart, and you can bet it’s not a pretty sight.”

“She actually pointed at her ‘What Would Jesus Do?”’ wristlet when she was talking to Wilma and told her that she didn’t believe Jesus would waterboard someone, or strip him naked and sic a dog on him,” tossed in a third. “Can you believe it?”

“I heard that too,” said a fourth. “Wilma told me she couldn’t believe her ears. She was just shocked.”

“Not as much as those thugs at Guantanamo when we hooked them up to electrodes,” joked the second woman.

“This isn’t a laughing matter, Gladys,” one of them reprimanded her. “We’re talking about someone whose patriotism is so shaky her immortal soul is in danger.”

“I tried to talk some faith into her,” said the third woman. “Jane,” I said, “Jesus never said a word forbidding torture. Search the New Testament from beginning to end, and he never says a word against torturing your enemies.”

“You’re right, of course,” said the first woman. “I hope that gave her something to think about.”

“To tell the truth, she didn’t think much about it at all,” said the third woman. “She just quoted Matthew, chapter 5, from the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. ’ She claimed that Jesus was very clear about how we were supposed to treat our enemies, and torture sure didn’t fit in the picture Jesus was drawing.”

There was a pause. Patty and I looked at each other, ears perked, waiting.

Finally, the first woman sighed. “I hate to say it,” she said, “but sometimes Jesus could be awfully unrealistic.”

“I know what you mean,” said the second woman. “Those are great ideals, but we live in the real world, with suicide bombers and people flying planes into buildings.”

“Right,” said the third woman, “Jesus did have enemies, you know, and he didn’t torture them or kill them. But look what happened to him.”

I glanced around. They were all absentmindedly fingering their crosses while they gave that some thought.

“My gosh, look at the time!” said the first woman suddenly. “We’re going to be late for prayer meeting if we don’t get a move on.”

© Tony Russell, May 12, 2009

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"Obama's Plan to Raise Taxes on Wealthy Meets Fierce Opposition"

President Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent while cutting taxes for the remaining 95 percent has raised fierce opposition nationwide. Protests against the proposals are scheduled later in the month in major metropolitan areas coast to coast. Organizers expect the largest turnout since the futile demonstrations of 2003 against a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Officials in New York and Los Angeles both anticipate turnouts of more than a million demonstrators.
Rep. David Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said that with unemployment exceeding 10 percent in many parts of the country, numerous former workers will have time on their hands to show their opposition to the increase. “As CEOs slash workforces to maintain their company’s bottom line, that frees up huge numbers of people to show their support for maintaining the status quo,” he said.
Evan Rouse, a teacher whose contract will not be renewed for next year because of budget cuts, was among many local citizens protesting the tax increase for the rich. “Those at the top need our help,” said Rouse. “I feel their pain.” Facing the possibility of losing his health insurance for his family of four, and of having his mortgage foreclosed, Rouse remained upbeat in his support of the well-to-do. “I just think it’s unfair to put people in a position where they might have to rethink the purchase of a Rolex or downsize their yacht,” he said.
Bibi Weinhart, a local socialite, appreciates the outpouring of support from across the community.
“It’s so heartening to see the housekeeping staff at hospitals and universities, Hispanic landscape workers, retail clerks, fast food servers--just the whole range of little people who make our lives easier--come to our defense,” she declared. “I’m giving our nanny and housekeeper an extra hour for lunch to attend the local rally.” “They can make it up on the weekend,” she added. “They understand that my friends and I regularly donate our cocktail dresses and sportswear to thrift stores once we’ve worn them a few times. We have a social conscience; we’re not ogres.”
“It’s not just the increase in the tax rate that’s so unfair,” contends local real estate developer Max Wilmoth. “The president also wants to keep us from using tax havens to avoid paying taxes. That’s a double whammy. My friends and I salt away part of our capital gains on a little tropical island, thinking we can hide it from the IRS, and then along comes this Obama fellow, breaking an unspoken compact between the rich and our government. Wealth has its privileges, and avoiding taxes is one of them.”
“It’s not the principle,” he added, “it’s the money of the thing.”
Wilmoth knows what he’s talking about. The top tax rate people pay for money they earned at work is 35 percent. But the top rate for income from dividends and capital gains is only 15 percent. So the super-rich are taxed a much lower percentage on much of their income than their cooks and chauffeurs pay on their earnings.
“That’s as it should be,” says Wilmoth. “ It’s all about job creation. It’s how we can afford so much help. Obama is trying to take us back to the fifties, when people in the top income bracket paid more than 50% of their income in taxes. Who would want to go back to those days?”
Rouse, the math teacher, agreed. “Just think, if we had kept those fifties tax rates, we could have afforded universal health care, maintained the levies in New Orleans, kept from robbing the Social Security system, cleaned up the environment, and invested in education,” he said. “It’s frightening even to contemplate. The preference of every ordinary voter I know is to line the pockets of the rich instead of squandering money on those kinds of programs. Where are this administration’s priorities? I’m organizing the staff of my school. We’ll show up en masse to oppose Obama’s budget.”
“I never imagined he’d actually follow through on his campaign pledges,” added Rouse. “He would never have been elected if people had understood he was serious about this kind of change.”
Don Hagerman, an investment banker, joined in praise of the usually-silent Americans who are flocking to the defense of the elite. “Who knew there would be this overwhelming popular support for people in our tax bracket?” he asked. “We thought we were dependent on thousands of lobbyists and hundreds of millions of dollars in political donations to make our case. But it turns out the voice of the people is more powerful than the cries of cash, and it’s making itself heard.”
The cause of the rich is being aided by Republicans in Congress, who are nearly unanimous in their opposition to Mr. Obama’s proposals. “ When we cut taxes for the rich and shifted the burden of the budget to the poor and the middle class, that was intended to help everyone; when Obama wants to cut taxes for the lowest 95%, that’s class warfare!” declared Eric Cantor, R-VA, the Minority House Whip.
“President Bush, over a period of eight years, fought for a series of tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts that helped forge the economy we have today,” Cantor continued. “How quickly people forget.”
© Tony Russell, 2009