Podcast: Look in Your Heart

Virtual Memories – season 2 episode 5
John B. – Look in Your Heart

The May episode of The Virtual Memories Show is up and ready to go! This time around, my guest is John B., a pal of mine who died last year (but got better!)

There’s also a little rant about the publicity-industrial complex, the Avengers, the new book by Robert Caro, and the redemptive powers of a certain margarita-soaked musician.

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Credits: This episode’s music is tied into the conversation with John, so you’ll have to listen to the episode to find out what it is. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic, and the conversation with John was recorded on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder. The conversation was recorded in an exhibit hall during a trade show, so getting the sound quality up to snuff was a little work.

The Big Stall

This lengthy WSJ article on how Chrysler got into this mess is pretty informative. In some respects, it’s just another story of how private equity execs were geniuses when credit was cheap, but became dumb when they actually had to come up with ways to run the businesses that they’d bought. The article also includes some gems that require translation (all emphases mine):

By the mid-90s, it was one of the most profitable car makers in the world, with its strong minivan sales and its Jeep brand benefiting from the growing U.S. love affair with SUVs. But management was under pressure, most visibly from billionaire shareholder Kirk Kerkorian, to deliver more value.

By “deliver more value,” they meant, “sell to a bigger company so we can get our shares bought out.”

When the deal was announced in May 2007, Cerberus founder Stephen A. Feinberg went to the company’s sprawling headquarters to meet its top management. He wore an American-flag lapel pin and he told his audience of about 300 executives that he drove an American-made pickup truck. People who attended the meeting say he said he wanted to save this icon of American industry, not to bleed it of assets and value.

By “not to bleed it of assets and value,” he meant, “to bleed it of assets and value.”

Under the terms of the deal, Daimler essentially gave the company — it was basically debt- and cash-free — to Cerberus, with the latter agreeing to invest $5.4 billion into the car company.

By “agreeing to invest,” they meant, “mortgaging the assets they’d just been handed, so they could load the company with debt,” not anything like, “put up their own money to run the company they ‘bought’.”

By then, Cerberus was seeking a way to hand off the car company to a partner.

Read: “dump off the car company on a sucker.” And maybe “bleed it of assets and value.”

By November, Chrysler’s sales were in free fall. Chrysler Financial was so short of funds that it practically stopped approving loans altogether, leaving many dealers with no way to get financing to those customers who were ready to buy, people familiar with the matter said.

Inside Cerberus’s Manhattan offices, the firm’s top officials realized an auto-financing business was profitable only if it’s connected with a healthy car company. “We had this stupid illusion that the finance company could have value on its own,” said one person familiar with Cerberus’s thinking. “We were wrong.”

You don’t really need translation for this one, but it’s nice to hear someone actually say, “We made a huge mistake.”

But my favorite nugget from this article is the realization that Chrysler was going to be owned by Thomas Pynchon:

[Cerberus founder Mr. Feinberg] also met with union boss Mr. Gettelfinger. Although Mr. Feinberg is famously camera-shy, he allowed a Chrysler photographer to shoot him and the union boss together, a person familiar with the matter said. The photographer was instructed to make two prints of the shot — one for each subject — and then to permanently erase the digital files, this person said.

I have no translation for this. It’s just flat-out and delightfully weird. It’s like when I read the intro to the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson and discovered that LBJ hunted down copies of his college yearbook so he could excise his nickname and other comments about himself from the record. (Did you even know People Magazine keeps an online archive?)

Life’s work

Earlier this year, I had variations of the following e-mail exchange with several NYC literary figures I know:

GIL: Just wondering: do you know Robert Caro?

AUTHOR/WRITER: By acquaintance. Why?

GIL: Would you say he’s in good health?

A/W: Not sure. What’s up? Have you heard something?

GIL: No. It’s just that, well, I loved his biography of Robert Moses, so I grabbed the first three volumes of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. But I know he’s getting up there in years and I’m afraid to start reading it until I know that he’s going to be around to finish the fourth volume.

A/W: . . . You’re a cold person.

GIL: Yeah, but do you think he’s going to finish the biography?

A/W: . . . Good question.

Caro’s own site doesn’t give info about how he’s doing and I’ve been afraid to contact his agent with such a crass question, so I’ve held off on starting the series. The first three books add up to around 2,250 pages, and winds up in 1960, as he becomes vice president under JFK. I confess that I didn’t understand Caro’s desire to devote the half his life (figuring that he started around 1976 or so) to this biography; I don’t know enough about LBJ’s presidency or his character. He’s sort of a void for me, falling between the mythologies of JFK and Nixon.

But, given Caro’s enormous achievement with The Power Broker, I picked up the first volume of the LBJ bio secondhand last summer and read the first 40 pages (introduction and first chapter) one afternoon. I was blown away by the combination of Caro’s wonderful narrative prose and his ability to convey exactly how LBJ epitomizes American politics. On top of that, LBJ’s character and his seeming desire to cover up and rewrite his past made him a fascinating literary character (to me, but I still like Thomas Pynchon’s novels). By the time I’d wrapped up those 40 pages, I knew that Caro had made a perfect choice of subject, and was looking forward to reading the whole series.

Still, I’d seen Caro in Ric Burns’ New York documentary and, while he didn’t look frail, I feared that I’d be taking a risk in diving into the biography, only to see it cut prematurely.

So I was happy to read that there was a Caro-related party this summer as part of the Authors’ Night  benefit for the East Hampton Library (and you scoff at my devotion to Page Six!). I found out about it too late to break out my seersucker suit and crash the event, but I took it as a good sign that Caro was part of the social scene.

Yesterday, I got even more of a boost when I followed an Andrew Sullivan link to a George Packer piece in The New Yorker, where he discusses the importance of LBJ:

Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, it’s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who can’t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. “It would be only just to Johnson,” Caro said. “If the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnson’s White House years. “I am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaper—and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.”

Looks like I have a new reading project set once this Montaigne project is over!

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