Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Flashback: The Trip to Detroit: A Bumper Crop of Dealerships. A Smashing Success?. At Least I Thought So--(and Even Mr. Townsend Became Convinced.).

[Remembrances of 50 years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

About a month before the fateful White House telephone calls to CEOs of the Big 4 automobile companies, I hired a black Chicagoan, Johnny Johnson (he went by the name Johnny), a sophisticated graduate of the University of Chicago divinity school who was re-thinking ordination. His knowledge of black churches and black history as tied into the churches was such that I couldn’t resist—despite the fact that from On High the secretary had warned, unbelievably, that we were not to hire many minorities, the theory being that we were to concentrate on whites who were to teach minorities (and if you don’t think that would be a tough sell, think again).

Johnny Johnson was then a man of his 30s, married (no children) who wanted some time to think before he embarked on a lifelong career in the ministry. He was gregarious and fun to be with, not at all consumed by the preoccupation that hobbled so many blacks in the `60s—that whitey should provide for them out of a sense of entitlement which continues to be the sole rationale for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s forays to this day. Yet Johnson knew the patter and line very well and could even ridicule it by a brilliant imitation of a black preacher rabble-rouser. He put on a demonstration for me one afternoon when I was interviewing him.

We were talking about the phenomenon of white guilt. He was saying that liberal and elitist whites are easily swayed by any rabble-rouser who shouts that they today must pay recompense for what they or their immediate predecessors had done but what had been done from the 16th to the 19th centuries. He told me, “it is relatively easy for any carny hustler black preacher to make a sale that way! Easy as pie!” I said that certainly the times had passed when that appeal could be used. How wrong I was. And to show how wrong I was he volunteered to put on a demonstration.

His hair was naturally short and well-trimmed but first he would ruffle it up so what there was of it would stand on end. He would then bring his wrists together as if they were manacled. Then he would contort his 6 foot 7-inch 270 lb. body and with the most fearsome outcry I had, up to that time, ever heard, he would scream: “Four hundr-ed ye-ars ago! My ancestors came to this country ag-ainst th-eir will! Rolling to and fro, I say to and fro! In a slave ship!” He went on at such a excited pace that a group of startled blacks as well as whites on our staff ran in to my office to catch the act. As he continued, aware of his audience, he brought down the house. The peroration went like this:

During all that time from the slave ship…through the hardship…through working for the white master on the plantation…through sweating in the fields…through sharecroppin’…we sometimes saw the hope of Jes-us…I say JES-US…but always we were dashed on the rocks of refusal…I say rocks of refu—sal! Always the white man wins! Al-ways! Now that you have turned me down, white man…now that you have turned me down…you have won again! Yes, you’ve won! Now beat me…beat me…white man!

With that he slammed his massive head down on my desk with a force that sent it rocking, and said, his soulful eyes looking upward…Beat me! Beat me white man! For you have won again!

It was such a dramatic performance that he received not just laughter from the sophisticated and admiration from those less so but hardy applause from all. Indeed some of our white liberals--unreconstructed from those days--felt that there still were great grounds for that appeal…although the popularity seemed to be going out of vogue by 1969. Yet the appeal has been resurrected here in Chicago with the same, almost identical outcry, without the irony, by Alderman Dorothy Tillman who has cowered the cynical City Council with her rhetoric that is not vastly different—just thirty-eight years later than Johnny Johnson’s—leading to passage of foolish reparations injunctions against major companies with longstanding antecedents in the nation…everybody knowing the hollow vacuity except the guilt-ridden white liberals of the media.

On the basis of that performance alone, I hired Johnny Johnson but far more valuable were his connections with black churches and ministerial associations throughout the nation. He himself was a masterful speaker and we agreed that he would make presentations at certain times to encourage blacks to consider the option of training and ownership. So much for that.

The day before our small group was to leave for Detroit and the meetings, one of our number fell ill and I decided to recruit Johnson as his first official act. We flew out (coach, of course) together and stayed at a low-cost dump (somewhat for effect) on the outskirts of Detroit. We had a long day beginning at 8 a.m. with a sumptuous breakfast buffet in the office of Henry Ford II where he had agreed to sign a contract with us to deliver twenty-five dealership opportunities. When we arrived he was very gracious, even jovial. The media was on hand as was his own public relations people. We left his office exhilarated. After all this time when we had only seven dealerships out of 28,000, we now had twenty five.

The next port of call was General Motors where we met with James Roche, the CEO, some reporters, photographers and his local public relations dignitaries. There Abe Venable delivered a speech that was so good it eventuated in his ultimately…after his Commerce service was completed…being hired as a full-time, top level manager of minority affairs including the dealerships from which he retired with well-deserved huge corporate acclaim, (receiving, I am sure, far more recompense than I at Quaker Oats). We left there with another twenty five—a total of fifty.

For lunch we went to a luncheon buffet at American Motors with the very same thing, Abe making an excellent speech and Roy Chapin signing the contract. We left for the final event of the day with a total of seventy-five dealership opportunities. We headed to Chrysler to see Lynn Townsend for the final twenty-five. Then we would all catch the red-eye back to Washington. But from the second we entered the Chrysler building, I knew something had gone wrong.

For one thing, when I told the receptionist that we were there to see Mr. Townsend, she said rather softly, “no you’re not.” I was perplexed. She added, “You’re here to see Mr. Porter.” Oh-oh. She was referring to one Arnold Porter, the Chrysler government rep guy whom I knew from Quaker Oats days when we would meet at business trade associations. He and I had been somewhat friendly, but not all that friendly. Nothing to write home about. So as well all looked at ourselves nervously, we were led not to the front office but to Mr. Porter’s office where when we entered, he was sitting at his desk with a wry smile on his face and doing something that I always hated when he had done it before. He had an artificial front tooth which, when he was agitated, he would pivot out with the tip of his tongue. It had gone loose and rather than have it fixed by a dentist he would continue to play with it, allowing it to beckon to you much like a toothpick, then retreat into his mouth.

As we entered, he jerked an insolent thumb at some chairs. We sat down meekly and there was silence. I attempted to introduce my staff which he accepted without a handshake. We cleared our throats and waited. This is what he said.

“Roeser, I’ve known you for a long time and this is without doubt the tackiest goddamn stunt I have ever heard of. I have done a great deal of checking on this event and just let it go along the way it did until you came to me. First, I checked around and no one in the White House acknowledges that they gave you permission to call. I suspect you called the CEOs from an obscure White House telephone in the sub-basement…a goddamn subbasement of the Executive Office Building where I imagine the minor functionary who occupied that office either didn’t know what you were doing or allowed it to happen. That’s my surmise.

“So using the entirely false premise that you were a White House staffer you called all the CEOs. I checked further and found out that your boss, the secretary of commerce didn’t know what you were doing…and by the way he wants to see you when you get back to Washington…and if he does what he told some people around here, he’ll fire you and I will be the first to cheer. Commerce repudiates you and this trip as they told Mr. Townsend that just a few minutes ago. Let’s say I hope Mr. Townsend will unravel your bogus negotiations with GM, Ford and American after you meet him. Let us say he’s eager to meet you.

“You concocted this deal with twenty-five dealership opportunities under false pretenses. It was a noble goal but you, Mr. Roeser, used deception and ruse…deception and ruse…to accomplish your goals—a tactic that is disreputable and which has brought your agency into severe opprobrium. Now let me tell you what I have done. I told Mr. Townsend all this stuff. You came here to see him…and yes you will see him…I am going to take you to see him—and you will hear from him several things. First, that our program to encourage minorities is moving ahead without your Big Brother’s intrusion, Mr. Roeser! He will tell you that! He is waiting to see you right now! And again let me also tell you this and all you people who followed him under false pretenses.--.”

His false tooth stuck out in the forefront; then he pulled it back in.

“As I say, if I had my way, I would have Mr. Townsend says that he will call the other members of the Big Four and tell them how they have been deceived ands that they should unwind the bogus deal that you arranged under false and misleading pretenses. Then and with that, all of you can go back to Washington. The trip back will be very meaningful for Mr. Roeser who will be thinking of what he will learn when he meets with the secretary tomorrow! Now, if you will follow me, we will go meet Mr. Townsend. Just this way, please.”

He stalked ahead. We stood there looking at ourselves and then started to follow him. As we were walking, Johnny Johnson caught up with me.

“What about if I give him the `beat me, beat me, white man’?” he said. “We’re all dead ducks. It can’t hurt!”

I said sure. Why not?

We were led into a massive conference room where we took seats ranging about the impressive figure of Lynn Townsend. Townsend stood up when we entered: a tall (six-foot two, I would gather) man of impressive build but short when compared to Johnson. According to my research he was orphaned, worked his way through the U of Michigan, then in accounting, finally to a partnership then to Chrysler senior management and now, at about 44, CEO. Supposed to be a man who avoided phone calls or memos but just dashed into mens’ offices for a quick confab. Deft, with an ironic needle for his subordinates—to get them motivated.

I steered Johnny Johnson to a seat directly next to him. Townsend, grim-faced, didn’t ask for an introduction. Nor did he encourage an introductory statement from me.

“I am informed,” he said, “that you gentlemen—particularly Mr. Roeser. Roeser is it? Roeser? R-o-e-s-e-r? Yes. I am informed that you are here under a ruse, under false pretenses and that furthermore you have gone under the same false pretenses to my colleagues… Henry Ford II…James Roche…and Roy Chapin. The goal you sought was worthy. Very worthy. The means you sought…through use of a White House phone where Mr. Roeser allowed to be inferred that he was a high operative working with the president…was highly unworthy. Therefore this is what I am going to do. I am going to deny your request for twenty-five dealership opportunities—not because it is unworthy but because the means to achieve it have been unsavory.

“And following this, I am seriously thinking of talking to Henry…and Jim…and Roy…and tell them that they have been most cynically used. Whether they decide to unwind the deal is up to them. I will advise them to do so.”

At that point there was a yowl that seemed loud enough to split the planets. We all leapt, including Townsend but Porter half-sprang to his feet in fright. I had not looked at Johnson until then but now I saw his hair was ruffled and his eyes were bugged and in such a state that Townsend drew away from him instinctively—as if he feared being bitten. As I knew what was to happen next, I then looked at Arnold Porter. His artificial tooth remained jutted out in amazement.

“I JUST WANT TO SAY” said Johnson as, to our dismay, snot bubbled out of his nose with the tears, “THAT ONCE AGAIN, ONCE AGAIN, YOU HAVE WON, WHITE MAN! YES, ONCE AGAIN YOU HAVE WON! FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO…” and here my group smiled inwardly in anticipation, “MY ANCESTORS CAME HERE MANACLED TOGETHER LIKE ANIMALS, ROLLING AROUND IN THE BOWELS OF A SLAVE SHIP!!!” and here he stood up to roll his enormous body…AND FROM THAT TIME ON…” and here he swiftly ran down the litany of the generations from the Declaration that omitted blacks to the Constitution which approximated them to fractions of a white man to Emancipation which was betrayed by Rutherford B. Hayes who pulled troops out of the South to segregation, discrimination, King’s murder, Bobby Kennedy’s murder and to this modest effort to secure redress today which failed because Townsend was going to unravel it.


Townsend blanched. The denouement—“beat me! Beat me, white man!” was spoiled by only one thing. Porter’s false tooth had finally sprung loose in the tension ands had tumbled down his throat where he could not breathe…and Townsend’s attention was rapidly diverted from a black roiling in a slave ship to his manager choking to death. A group of people pulled Porter out of the meeting and we heard him gasping and snorting as he went down the hall. But even here the interruption of Porter’s near choking to death was magic. Johnson seized the opportunity not just to weep but to grab Townsend and weep copious tears on his expensively tailored shoulder.


“Now-now,” said Townsend. “Here, sir. Please. I know how important this is to you!”

“You DON’T! wailed Johnson. “You DON’T! You should be happy for YOU’VE WON! Don’t you understand, YOU’VE WON AGAIN!”

The attendants, having ushered Porter out to the Men’s, now came back to see what they could do for Townsend whose own eyes were owlish with fright, a hand clasped to his chest as the enormous black man sobbed.

“Listen to me,” said Townsend. “We’ve all had…oh Christ!…we’ve all had a terribly emotional day! Let me say this, perhaps…perhaps, just like Mr. Roeser, I allowed myself to be carried away by events. And as a result I am going to re-think this…”


“No, I haven’t, “ remonstrated Townsend, pleadingly, brushing his shoulder where tears and snot had intermingled. “What is this man’s name, Mr. Johnson is it? Mr. Roeser, you give me the contract and I’ll sign it. I just wanted to make a point to Mr. Roeser here, not you, Mr. Roeser that--.”

And he mildly restated his objections as he signed it with a flourish and gave it to Johnson.

“But,” sniffed Johnson, finally, to our relief, blowing his nose, “you’ll call Mr, Ford…Or the Secretary will--”

“No, I will not. I will not. He will not! I will tell him he should not! This thing will go through. Can I tell you something, Mr. Johnson? Please buck up! Please don’t do this! You’ll have a stroke! What has happened to Arnold? Has he had a stroke? No? His what? His tooth went down his throat? How could that happen! Never mind. Mr. Johnson, you have my word…my word…that Chrysler will honor this agreement. Now I want our p. r. people in here on the double to record this signing!”

When we got in a Chrysler limousine with driver, which was given to us to drive us to the airport, Johnson nudged me and said, “how’d I do?”

All looked ahead stolidly. I nodded toward the Chrysler driver upfront and put a finger to my lips.

When we arrived in Washington, all felt that things had gone exceptionally well. Geimer who picked us up at the airport said the secretary wanted to see me the next day at 2 p.m. Then Geimer went tsk-tsk. But we had one hundred dealership opportunities where in the morning we had seven. All went home for a good night’s sleep…I to my apartment at 1420 N Street Northwest.

Just before I drifted off the phone rang. “This is the faceless professional,” the quiet voice said. David Koch. “You’ve been the subject of closed conference calls all day and incessant memo-writing all night. It kept me at the office until 10 tonight. I’ll pick you up for breakfast tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. The secretary’s people are quite divided about you—so what I’ll tell you will prepare you for the 2 o’clock.”

I had no trouble going to sleep. I comforted myself with the one hundred dealership opportunities. As for the secretary, if he couldn’t take a joke, the heck with him.

Next time: Could Maurice H. Stans take a joke? You’ll find out.

1 comment:

  1. In addition to Johnny Johnson's lead role, Tom may have earned the award for Best Supporting Actor simply by keeping a straight face and not laughing aloud during Johnson's rant.
    One smirk or chuckle would have spoiled the whole effect of the tirade.