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'And Tell Me, Mr. CEO, Did You Buckle Your Seat Belt?'

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 5, 2008

The Big Three were looking awfully small as they rolled into the Senate yesterday for their second attempt to beg money from the federal government.

Since their debacle last month -- when they flew to town on their corporate jets and arrogantly demanded a bailout -- they had all agreed to work for a dollar a year. And they had abandoned their air fleets to make the 520-mile trip to Washington by car -- a display of contrition that could not have been more obvious if the executives showed up in sackcloth and ashes.

Yet even that was not enough.

"Did you drive, or did you have a driver?" demanded Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate banking committee, which questioned the lowly threesome. "Did you drive a little and ride a little? And secondly, I guess, are you going to drive back? And, if so, if some of us wanted a ride to Detroit, could we ride with you?"

The chairman, Chris Dodd (Conn.), tried to ease the tension with some levity. "Where'd you stay?" he asked. "What did you eat?"

But Shelby was having none of it. "Mr. Chairman wants to make light of this, but I can tell you this," he growled. "Are you planning to drive back?"

"Yes, sir," Chrysler's Bob Nardelli promised. "And I did have a colleague ride, and we rotated. We drove, left Tuesday night and drove until midnight and then got up at 5:30 the next morning and drove the rest of the way in, and we did rotate, and I do plan to drive back."

Shelby glowered at Ford's Alan Mulally. "What about you?"

"We carpooled," the CEO said. "I drove, and I'm driving back."

Shelby was not impressed. "You didn't carpool with him, did you?" he demanded, referring to Nardelli.

"No, carpooled with our Ford people," Mulally assured the angry senator.

"Okay, what about you?" Shelby said, turning to General Motors's Rick Wagoner.

"I drove with a colleague," he explained. "We split it up about 50-50. We drove down yesterday, and I'm going to drive back myself Friday or Saturday."

And Wagoner didn't even mention that he stopped for lunch at Quiznos at a Pennsylvania rest stop.

It seemed clear that the feds would have to do something to keep the automakers from failing, a development that Mark Zandi, co-founder of Moody's Economy.com, told the committee would be "cataclysmic." But the public remains adamantly opposed to a bailout. So the lawmakers settled on a solution: subject the executives to a ritual humiliation before giving them the money.

"If you made this presentation to get a bank loan, I suspect that any sensible banker would summarily dismiss your request," Shelby lectured them.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) demanded to know: "Are you all committed truly -- and you'll have to be committed, because as far as I'm concerned, there are going to have to be conditions placed -- to the type of fundamental transformational change that is necessary for you to survive?"

And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was so testy that he mixed up his geography. "If we allocate this money and two weeks from now you guys announce expansion of a manufacturing plant in Michigan, I'm going to be unhappy," he warned.

"In Mexico," Wagoner assisted.

"In Mexico," Tester repeated. "What'd I say? I said Michigan, didn't I?"

The executives were elaborate in their displays of contrition. Wagoner, in his prepared testimony, allowed that "last month's hearings were difficult for us, but we learned a lot." Ford's Mulally, in turn, said he had "thought a great deal about the concerns that you expressed. I want you to know I heard your message loud and clear."

The trio tripped over themselves to be agreeable, answering the senators with cheerful calls of "Yes, sir" and "Fine, sir" and "Senator, absolutely" and "Sir, if we are fortunate enough to get the funding."

It must have been difficult for the once-proud CEOs to hold their tongues in this manner -- and to sit obediently as lawmakers who had enough trouble running the country dispensed advice on running their businesses.

"You all made buses at one point, didn't you?" Dodd asked Wagoner.

"Yes, we made buses," the GM chief said.

"Any thoughts about getting back into that line of work?" Dodd proposed.

Other senators played corporate dealmakers and tried to order up a merger.

"You want to hang around long enough so that you can date somebody and hopefully get married soon before you run out of money," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) taunted Chrysler's Nardelli. "Look, there's not a human being alive in the automobile world that thinks that Chrysler is doing anything other than finding somebody to marry and that this cash is here long enough for you to do that."

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) went further, informing the executives that "a merger between General Motors and Chrysler is a good idea. It's not a shotgun wedding. . . . It's a marriage that makes sense."

Corker, returning for more, told Nardelli "you're going to be going to spas and getting facials and hopefully finding someone to marry you, okay?"

Finally, Nardelli could take no more. "I've been married 38 years," he said.

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