Thursday, July 06, 2006


Ken Lay Feeding Frenzy

Ken Lay dropped dead. Yeah, yeah... We all know that. You'd have to be an aardvark not to have caught that bit of news. He was not in jail yet, and still had millions in the bank - leading some (like my wife, who first gave me the news) to believe that he had somehow escaped punishment despite his conviction. In fact, his fatal sojourn in his Colorado home would only have been temporary. He was shortly due to spend the rest of days incarcerated, and much of what wealth he had left he was bound to loose through class action lawsuits and the like. Some say he deserved to die. Some are sure he had committed suicide - either deliberately, or unconsciously. Internet doctors solemnly opine that he was killed by "stress". Some, only half in jest, claim that his death was faked and that he had been whisked away into a "tycoon protection program" orchestrated by his Republican cronies. A few of his old friends and colleagues mourn him as a visionary, a genius, who traded natural gas like the hottest stocks, while millions who did not know him from a hole in the wall hope he rots in Hell. He is currently so despised that I would not be surprised if he suddenly replaced Saddam Hussein as Satan's favorite bunk-buddy in the South Park reruns I've been watching.

Me, I never followed the Enron case all that closely, as I tend to shy away from "popular" things. I do know he and Jeff Skilling committed the biggest fraud in corporate history, destroying the livelihoods and the savings of thousands of Enron employees. But he is scarcely the only CEO to ruin human lives through the wanton misuse of his will. He may be the biggest, or the latest - for now, certainly the most notorious. But don't be fooled. His name is legion.

He was born the son of a minister in Missouri. Some say he was born poor, but a minister's son sounds reasonably middle class to me - even if it seemed "poor" to the mogul in retrospect. He was educated at the University of Missouri, and went into the military - as a 26 year old officer - during the Vietnam War. He got a Ph.D. while in the service, and worked as a deputy undersecretary in the cabinet when he got out. Obviously, he was a smart guy with fire in his belly who met the right people at the right time, and played his cards well enough to become a big man. Lots of us are smart, lots of us try hard, but fate is not equally kind to those with merit. At the peak of his seamless, shining trajectory, he must have assumed he could do no wrong. That he could lie, that he could risk the futures of others whom he considered his servants and inferiors. Whatever he did, his glory would inevitably grow, his apotheosis was all but pre-arranged. The worst part of getting caught for him must have been the ignominy he faced. I mean, that's what drives them all in the end, isn't it? Fame? Acclaim for a job spectacularly well done? He got infamy instead. Let's hope his infamy lasts for a while, not to damn him, but simply so that he can serve as a deterrent to others with a similar lust for "greatness" at any cost.

"Bloggers weigh in fast with theories on Lay's death" from USAToday
"Ken Lay's Heart Attack: A Case of Death By Stress?" from WebMD
"Ken Lay and the trouble with Wikipedia" from the Chicago Tribune
"Will Lay's legacy be greed or innovation?" from Globe and Mail
"Lay's Conviction Is Gone With Him" from Time
"Ken Lay escapes life behind bars, but not necessarily justice " from The Morning Journal

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