Monday, August 6, 2007
Flashback: Back to the Daily Grind for One Day and, Guess What? Back in the Hospital Once More with the Last Rites. But Surviving to Fight Corporate Anonymity.
[Fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].
Dr. Jerry Bauer told me not to do it but I returned far more quickly than I wished because a Big (in his own estimation) Boss unmoved by anything other than his own destiny in the corporation insisted. His favorite movie was Patton and he tried to identify with the central character: itll be your [scatological word for butt] if you screw upthat kind of thing. In deference to him, let it be said that he promoted me to vice president in 1977, a goal I had always wanted. But just to keep me humble he would say, I made you vice president and believe me I can bust you to corporal in a minute. Gotcha.
No sooner did I get in the door than my secretary, Debbie, greeted me with the nine words that used to strike terror in the hearts of most (I exempted) who reported to him and who depended on a continuing Quaker Oats livelihood. Before I knew the phoniness of the Patton tirades, I was immune to the nine words but for others fear was perfectly justified. What were the nine words? Stay tuned.
Even so, the corporate culture is such that if your immediate boss tags you out no matter how you are regarded by say the CEO or the executive committee, it is de rigeur that he can get rid of you with no interference since to interfere with his prerogatives would be bad form. So if fired, you probably would get a phone call or consolation meeting with the chairman saying sorry about that but nothing would be done.
Better men than I were canned for whim and eccentricity with other senior officers shaking their heads at the decision but the Club does not tolerate any overrule. And my immediate boss had free rein since the new CEO with his MBA untarnished by any fixed opinions the one who agreed simultaneously with Jesse Helms and Paul Simon (showing how flexibility had triumphed over principle exerted by his patrician predecessor) had said I always want him [my immediate boss] by my side. That told me and everyone else that our fate was in the hands of an emotional whirling dervish. Ah the corporate culture.
The nine words used by Debbie:
________ [first name of the boss] (1) wants (2) to (3) see you (4-5) and is he (8) pissed (9)!
How was it that I became immune to the legitimate fear that paralyzed so many? Not because I was so heedless of being fired. But on my very first day working for him, I was very lucky to understand the game. That day while I was in his office he called in a vice president, on a par with me own level, and gave him un-shirted hell for some minor transgression. The minion trembled, flushed and stammeredjust like I would have. He was sent back to his desk and the Patton roared with laughter at the fun he hadforgetting that I had immeasurably profited from the experience. That told me it was all a game. He was playing General Patton.
Still the game grew exasperating with threats for instant removal over minor items. So about once a year as effrontery grew unbearable, whether he was playing Patton with me or not, Id walk into his office. Hed look up and say quizzically, yes?
Id say: [First name]?
Hed say expectantly and pleasantly, yes?
I would then tell him to perform an impossible biological act on himself and announce I was going home in response to a long, usually months long, pent-up anger about to explode. I would have to do that to keep my self respect. And I would go home, banking on the fact that he knew utterly nothing about politics or government he would be in a quandary about replacing me. It was an exhilarating gamble. Perhaps he would know just whom to get to replace me; then, maybeas I guessedhe wouldnt or wouldnt want to. I was always right. But it was always revelatory to contemplate on those trips I took home in the middle of the dayat least once a yearwhether I would be right once again.
But whenever I got home, Lillian would say, what did you say to him? Hes been on the phone three times wondering why youre mad! Then would come reconciliation which would last until the next eruption, much like the Old Faithful geyser except this would happen probably once a month and the build-up would begin again leading to my own blow-up.
Once after an eruption, he phoned and shouted: an urgent staff meeting right now! Get over here! and hung up.
I dialed him back. He answered and I said, Not coming! Get me? Click. Buzz.
Then his secretary called back and said sweetly, he says you dont have to come to the staff meeting because its not about you anyway. He says `have a nice day! I never heard him say that before. What does that mean?
But something funny happened this day, the first day back to the office after the surdural hematoma. For some reason the nine words caused me to tremble with anguish! I went to his office and took it on the chin. As he railed, I was thinking that something had happened to make me fear him for the first time. The tension filled me with chest-tightness I never experienced before. By the end of the day I was exhausted but since it was Friday I decided I should be better after the weekend. There was one small dinner party on Saturday planned by company colleagues the hosts of which insistedeven pressured me (I could have shot them for doing so)to come to welcome my recovery. I strove manfully to put on a front but was overwhelmed with a strange anxiety which necessitated me leaving in the middle of dinner and walking around the block with my wife. Jerry Bauer was right. When you fool around with the brain you fool around with the emotions. I was terrified and depressed and knew not why. Something definitely was wrong. Back to the grind too early.
After the dinner party which I complicated by walking out and around the block and returning, I awoke the next morning, Sunday, unable to breathe. Asthma had been my companion since I was 30, a growing hay fever turning into respiratory difficultiesusually correctible with Tedral a once prescribed tablet now over the counter. Tedral didnt do anything for me this time. Also I had a fever and a terribly sore throat. Now the inhaler Albuterol didnt work either. And Albuterol when used to excess no more than once every four hours creates further anxiety as a byproduct. In an effort to force breathing, I inhaled several times. No luck. Wheezing when breathing in and out got worse, producing anxiety and panic which in turn worsened the asthma. There was retractions or tightening of the muscles between my rids; I had a light blue color called cyanosis in the lips and fingernails and a pale, sweaty face.
Into the car, my wife driving, back to Lutheran Generals emergency room. One look at me and they scrapped the usual order of triage; I zoomed to the head of the line since they decided that if oxygen didnt get through to the lungs Id either strangle or die from a severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body which would affect tissues and organs first such as the brain, resulting in what doctors call cerebral hypoxia. This on top of the earlier operation was seriously. I could be a dead one very soon. Therefore as they were quickly shoving me into bed, I eluded them and screamed every gasped word a heavy effort (like 100 lbs. on my chest) that they give me as a last resortadrenelin which gives the heart a mighty kick in the ribs and starts the air flow. I had that experience years earlier in Minnesota when a severe cold impeded my airways.
But the scurrying ER doctors were afraid to give it to a 57-year-old. I told them: listen, youre worried my heart cant take itbut youre willing to watch as I die of asphyxia? Yes, they were. I still think they were wrong but no matter. While I struggled, their quick diagnosis was: it was more than asthma but a heavy cold and strep throat had triggered it and it was life-threatening. Far more dangerous than the surdural hematoma.
. Onto a respirator. Jerry Bauer was called into service and he made a pretense of shaking his fist at me for going back to work too soonbut there was no time for games. His face told me it was serious. Lillian was told by a worried ER doctor that if my blood didnt show faster signs of oxygenization, it would be all over. Fr. Keating showed up (in the usual green dickey). No time for kidding around or confession (I was voiceless due to the respirator). He anointed me again and stayed quite a while in prayer. Then all was black.
All night I was in and out, feebly pulling at the painful respirator, then lapsing into unconsciousness. Once again I asked as I had so many other times: Good God, is this the end of Tommy Roeser? One time I awoke and saw Lillian by the bed and, voiceless due to the respirator, formed the words stroke? I decided I had had a stroke which deprived me of speech. She shook her head and started to reassure me but I was off again in the wild blue yonder. Early the next morning, Tom Magnor, my son-in-law looked in on me (I was unconscious) and passed the word that it would be too traumatic for Lillian to see mebut she ignored it, of course. Chemicals were pumped into me all the while of course. Then finally the massive chest congestion started to break up; the respirator was taken from my lips temporary to allow me to cough up. It was a godsend but right after that back came the respirator. But during the 15 seconds or so that I coughed up the strangling mucus, I tested my voice. God! I could speak! I did not have a stroke! I told you no stroke! said Lillian smoothing my hair. I was a mess; days of going without a shave, eyes sunken, day and night supervision in a recovery room. This time there was no surgeryjust people watching and testing my blood to see if I would make it.
Then after a week or so, glory be to God, I started to improve. Then the slow and I mean s-l-o-w recovery that Jerry Bauer had prescribed. Also the side effects from the original surgery that he had warned about. When you tinker with the brain, he had said, all sorts of things can happen. They did after I got home weakened but cured from the strep throat.
First, ungoldly chills. Then the sweats. Followed by terrible itching. Then welts as if they had been produced by a beating with chains all over my body. Then flakingthe skin coming off in huge chunks. Oil baths were prescribed. Some nights I had to have every heavy comforter in the house on top of me while I shivered in a heavy woolen robe under the heavy blanks. Slowly I got better. This time I had utterly no worry about the office; not that I had heard from them but I was so happy to be alive I didnt care.
Finally, mercifully 25 lbs. lighter (that was the only good part) I returned to the job. This time when she said the nine words I raised my arm and gesticulated the familiar one-finger salute which secured applause all around from people outside my office who were studying my reaction and took my own sweet time about walking down to see him. After hearing him, I gave the same impossible physical rejoinder so he shrugged and went off grumbling. Test passed.
That attitude re-joined me then and never left again. When you get the Last Rites twice within two weeks, you never worry about workaday corporate politics again. Had I been fired by temperamental outburst, I would have gently left mourned by others on senior officer row but the order of command would not be interfered with and the termination would stick. But a sweet insouciance took over which, thank God, never departed until years later I walked out of the place under my own power, the honoree of a lavish retirement party.
Slowly, I gained strength, returned and was able to sit and joust with my colleagues in the interminable meetings that constitute corporate America. And joust with politicians on talk radio and public TV.
Life returned to what it had been. My activities outside the company were exciting and allowed me to take my mind off the corporate environment something not available to most of my confreres. I was also running the City Club of Chicago, the citys most prominent activist civic group which was sponsoring debates between mayoral candidates. I was also running Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts), the bane of regular city Democrats. And running a pro-life organization as well. And going to Washington once a week to lobby. And doing an occasional university lecture for which I would get paid. Thus the struggle with my immediate boss passed unceremoniously. But the corporate culture still amazed me.
Thirty years laterearlier this year--sitting in his mansions front room with the patrician retired chairman sedate and relaxed as he toyed with a drink following his 90th birthday, he said:
Ill never figure out how a rebel like you survived with the tyrant you had as a boss in those years.
I felt like saying: not that you lifted a finger to intercede for me, knowing the struggle all the while. Not done! De rligeur rah-rah-rah, the old corporate game and all that. At the topmost strata, second guessing a CEO, even an unworthy one (as it proved) and his favorite just wasnt done.
But had I not survived by my wits, the corporate culture was such that theyd say sorrowfully bye-bye to old Tom and all that but on to another government relations veep as the MBA-CEO with no principles or philosophical ballast obeyed pragmatism to the fullest as he toyed with the rudder. Ultimately when I turned 63, counting up my pension, full benefit package and stock, I waited until there was another predictable blow-up with General Patton. It had to do with a woman who was working in our agricultural division who for some reason wanted to move to Washington and get a job with the Agriculture Department. She had importuned me to get her the job. I told her I dont do that sort of thing, dont intercede with cabinet officers, least of all the federal government to get someone a job like thatno policy job, a GS 11.
She was mad, took her beef to Patton and I was ordered summarily to call the Agriculture people at the topmost level and get her the job. Passively I called a special assistant to the secretary (then Illinois Ed Madigan, a former congressman with whom I had been friendly) and recommended her. He said he would consider her resume when he received it. I called her, told her to send the resume and she responded with a note of high triumph meaning so I trumped you, huh. Big Guy?
Then I called Patton who by that time had calmed down and told him I had taken it up with the highest staff person to the secretary I could find. Patton was very cordial.
Following which I said, I have determined to retire, visited with him quietly on the phone as he said he was sorry to hear that, etc.
Hanging up from him, I called the chief of staff to the Agriculture Secretary and told him that when the resume came in, to dump it. He said he would.
I said, Pete, promise me that no matter how many other letters you may get from here youll not honor that resume.
I got ya, he said.
And that was the name of that tune.
My career at Quaker was excellent. Had I been a notch of so higher, I would like to have been fired. Tell you why. When youre in the rarified air of the executive suite and you earn a lot of dough, being canned is salutary. Youre eased out with an enormous largesse to make up for his getting fired. The board of directors nods in recognition thus ratifying the axiom we told ourselves in the trenches:
I want to go as high up in this company as I canpossibly become CEO or COO--ride the corporate plane, collect all the perks and then be fired paid lavishly for not becoming competitive and not having to look around elsewhere to go to work. In other words, the high-point would be fired with all the trimmings.
My health restored after the strep throat and asthma attack, I returned to Quaker, I continued doing what I loved: serving as the government relations guy and expanding extra-curricularly even more: free-lancing a weekly political newspaper columns in the Sun-Times; later the Tribune, occasionally The Wall Street Journal, guest-commentating with a conservative opinion on Chicagos liberal public radio and showing up frequently as a token conservative on the citys public television station fighting with the Dems on vote fraud, challenging the city with my civic organization and to be more outrageous picketing abortion clinics on weekends as the head of a pro-life organization. Being involved with right-to-life is the absolute worst thing you can do in the corporate culture. Especially with a corporation whose foundation supported Planned Parenthood (over my objections).
Since then I have been asked many times, how did you inveigle a blue-chip corporation to allow you to comment on politics so freely without being muzzled, which is usually done in the corporate environment if youre not a CEO? I can honestly say there was only one mention in all the 30 years or so that I wrote Op Eds and commented on the radio where there was even a small quibble over what I said. Of course, there was never a mention of my corporate affiliation: that was the only proviso struck for this freedom and a necessarily good one. My corporate colleagues in other businesses would first become petty and carp. Then they would ask: how do you get away with it?
The answer to the question was I just did it without asking anyones permission. By the time news got around, I imagine there was some discussion at the highest levels but nothingutterly nothingcame down. You just do it without asking permission. You show up at the radio and TV stations and blat your guts out on any issue you wish, showing up the next day insouciant sort of implying that if they were to ban me from doing this Id scream that my 1st amendment rights were being violated. I rather think they imagined I would and my insolence would be a hassle. After all, I had fought Richard Nixon and Maurice Stans to a standstill and got away with a pretty good record.
We always had a deal, the company, the radio-TV people, the newspapers and me, that Id be identified as either president of the City Club of Chicago, or a businessman, or a conservative or, when things necessitated, a corporate lobbyist. But one night on WTTW-TV it came too cute. A guy who didnt like my views identified me as a corporate lobbyist whose work can not be identified other than his office is in Quaker Tower. I told him thanks, buddy; now Ill be on the job market. But no.
For a time when the newspaper columns kept coming every week along with TV and radio appearances Id find some people musing thoughtfully as I stirred my coffee in the M & M Club which served as a kind of elegant company cafeteria. As if to ponder what sort of strange bird is this in an environment where individuality is regularly shucked for corporate anonymity.
One day after studying me across the room at the Club where I was lunching with Billy the Kid (former governor Stratton). The night before I had stood off a panel full of liberals on public television and the exchange had gotten angry, loud and fairly ungracious. A very-very senior big shot walked over, board member and all that, and I thought: well, here it comes. Shortly Ill be in an inter-corporation dog-fight to keep on being a journalistic commentator. And all in front of Billy the Kid. But no.
He said, say, my college daughter is major in communications at Wellesley. Would you mind having lunch with us when she comes home? I mean tell her how newspapers, radio and TV work? We watch you every week. Damn. I dont always agree with you but youre different than the others. Meg, my daughter, wants to do what you do.
Billy the Kid laughed and said, say, doesnt she want to take lessons from a former governor, former Congressman, former state treasurer?
He said: Im sorry? Didnt catch the name.
Billy had been out of office for two decades which calmed him down somewhat. Thats when I knew my gamble to overthrow corporate anonymity had been won. Somehow the corporation including my immediate boss had determined that this guy Roeser is crazy but he has some value so we better let him do what he wants so long as he does his job okay during the day.
But all the same, my round jowls, the grey in the hair, the two serious bouts of ill-health, caused me to decide to pack up my duds and move out while there was still time before the company got acquired or before I really lost my cool and did myself in.