- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

To the reader: The following are three unsuccessful starts of a column about the convoluted scandal that is Enron. Actually, each works fine as a start. It's just that they don't go anywhere clear. They're as inconclusive as the scandal itself at this point. You'll have to supply the endings. Or the news will.
1) The man who knew Enron. Scene: one of the quieter, smaller, wood-paneled lounges aboard a great ocean liner. The kind of room the first-class passengers discover immediately, the rest of us not till the last day out, when the swanks have tired of it. The walls are lined with books in fine binders for decorative purposes only. Little lamps with green eyeshades cast an indirect light. An older man in lined face and bow tie is taking his Scotch neat and explaining things to his son-in-law, or maybe a junior partner, or just a nice young fellow he met at his table the night before.
The time? Now. But with a change in costume and lingo, it could be one of those years lost in the wake of 1929. Or shortly after the Panic of '93. Some things don't change. Our protagonist sits back in the shadows and speaks with the air of a man in the know but muted, modest, diffident, with enough humility to mask his relief at not being caught up in the scandal himself:
"I really don't know these people, you understand. Met a couple of them once or twice. We used to office in the same building years go. They were very well thought of, very well thought of. Enron was a great corporate citizen, giving lots to the nonprofit community. It had the best and the brightest working for it, and its trading operations were superb cash generators. The turnaround came lightning fast. From being solid gold to disgraced in a few months. I understand one of them has got two bodyguards now. Old friends cross the street to avoid him. The kind of people who want to meet him reporters, disgruntled employees, loonies he doesn't want to meet.
"I can't understand how the SEC would allow a CFO to be on both sides of partnerships that could be used to increase earnings on the books. Where was the board? Why would the board suspend its ethics policy to approve these deals? I think arrogance was the biggest factor. This'll take a long time to play out, and it'll hurt Houston and Texas in a lot of ways. Financially. Reputation-wise. Just where this will all end up, who knows? I'm being brutally candid with you. Don't tie these comments to me ."
You can imagine the rest of the dialogue. The Germans have a word for its tone: schadenfreude, a certain suppressed joy in others' troubles.
(2) How would Scott Fitzgerald have written It? There's an unfashionable observation on the first page of "The Great Gatsby" that's seldom quoted now. Though it grows more relevant and more original as reaction to the Enron scandal mounts:
"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."
In all the flood of copy the scandal has produced, has anyone asked us to reserve judgment? Such restraint would be out of sync with the times, with the hubris of Enron itself, and with the demands of the continuous, talk-show loop that the news has become. That great maw must be fed a steady stream of judgment, judgment, judgment. Nonstop. To reserve judgment would be to commit the unpardonable sin: dead air.
Suspicious as Enron's manipulations were, there is also something suspect in the pile-on of sage commentators, partisan moralists and politicians on the make, all eagerly casting stones in every direction. Wasn't Billy Tauzin, now a crusading congressman, trying to stifle accounting reforms before he turned crusader?
My favorite moral preener has to be the New York Times' insufferable Paul Krugman, who takes $50,000 from Enron for not doing anything much and then flails about at the moral corruption that Enron represents. What the Enron story needs is somebody like Nick Caraway, the decent narrator of "The Great Gatsby," who winds up admiring the man "who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." Even more impressive, Nick shakes hands at the end of the story with Tom Buchanan, who is so easy to despise.
It's hard to imagine a Nick Caraway covering the Enron debacle. The romance of high finance and the temptation of low gossip seldom inspire charity when they're found in one story. So look for outrage as far as the eye can see and ear absorb, uninterrupted by insights.
(3) Suppose Enron had succeeded. Yes, suppose the market for energy hadn't flattened out. Suppose the profits had kept flowing. Does anybody ever ask questions about a successful company? It's only when things go sour that ethical doubts begin to arise.
Suppose nobody had ever caught on to this latest variation on a theme by Ponzi. The same astute commentators who are now tracing Enron's corporate structure like some diagram of a football play gone awfully wrong might be praising the organizing genius of its financial planners. MBAs would be studying its corporate layout the way professors of chemistry admire the structure of some particularly intricate element. There would be an endowed Kenneth Lay Chair of Financial Organization at the Ivy League school of his choice.
What determines our attitude toward sprawling corporations? It's not the principle of the thing but the money. And the lack of it when the whole, intricate, innovative structure collapses. Would Enron still be an ethical outrage if it had succeeded? What do you think? Your answer would tell me a lot. Not about Enron, but about you.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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