As luck would have it, I had to decline an invitation from General Motors. A giant blowout at the Waldorf-Astoria yet. I'm sure I wasn't missed among the 14,000 other guests on the list. The affair was a kind of ultra- spiffy dog-and-pony act, wherein the corporation tried to restore its tarnished reputation as America's leader in automotive technology.
Friends who attended told me it was spectacular, laden with computer graphics and multi-media extravaganzas (one wall had no fewer than 240 flashing, leaping, walking, talking, zooming, roaring, skidding, screeching images of autos simultaneously battering the senses) and some impressive products, including the new Quad-4 engine and examples of the $5 billion GM-10 cars (Buick Regal, Olds Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix) that the company hopes will be big successes.
The luxurious show, reminiscent of the old General Motors Futurama exhibits at the Waldorf in the 1950s, was designed to stem the spate of "General Motors bashing" that has accompanied such gaffes as the Ross Perot buyout and the distribution of millions in executive bonuses while the hourly employees received nothing, not to mention GM's radical decline in market share, from 53 percent before the import invasion of the 1970s to 32 percent in 1987.
I was surprised to receive an invitation. I have been not just guilty but positively felonious in my "GM bashing." Worse yet, my transgressions can be traced back to the 1960s. My cries were drowned out in screaming gales of optimism, although the inbreeding of the executive staff, the smugness, the isolation and the emphasis on profit, not product, were evident 20 years ago. Back then, no one within the confines of the great gray headquarters on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit looked up from his ledger long enough to listen to such talk.
Now General Motors is approaching a Dunkirk, but the corporate generals are seeking to regain the offensive before they are driven into the sea. Predictably, their first response was a public relations light show. I have seen this act before. I was there when General Motors pledged that the Vega represented an epiphany, that the corner had been turned and that new devotion would be shown to product quality and buyer satisfaction. I later heard the same song when the disastrous X-cars were offered up, and then again when we were offered the patently awful J-cars.
Each time, the refrain was the same: General Motors was discarding its old ways, shucking the antiquated and the fusty, replacing them with the cleansing action of revolution. GM had seen the light. Unfortunately, with it came more of the same shoddy, badly designed and badly executed machines, always dolled up with gimmickry and surface glitz.
As the criticism increased in intensity, the GM hierarchy, as isolated from reality as the Politburo or the College of Cardinals, smugly counted bonus checks while the empire crumbled outside the windows.
The latest blowout at the Waldorf will not bring back the good old days or restore lost credibility. Only better products can do that, and GM has a great deal of ground to recover before its "Mark of Excellence" is anything but a hollow slogan. This will take time.
We need not be reminded that the Sonys and Nikons and Hondas and Toyotas of Japan were in the marketplace for years before they overcame the image of cheap products that had dogged pre-war Japanese industry.
So, too, must General Motors (as well as Ford and Chrysler, who are in better shape) slowly climb the mountain.
I applaud the Waldorf party, certainly not for the mandatory light show and bloated rhetoric but as an act that seems to acknowledge on the part of the General Motors leadership that radical corrective measures are finally necessary. Up to now, the tactic has been to mouth platitudes and proceed with business as usual, but this time management seems finally to have recognized that the cars GM builds must be improved if the company is to survive. The best indication we have yet of a renewed seriousness are the new GM-10 vehicles -- high-technology, contemporary automobiles that ought to be competitive.
The party is only a first step in heralding changes, but a good one that does hark pleasingly back to GM's glory days. If management can continue to maintain the sense of urgency it has voiced of late, then America's largest and proudest automaker will probably survive. But before salvation is assured, more radical surgery on the overblown manufacturing facilities, the too-fat labor force and the senselessly coddled organization men who infest management must be completed.
There also must be a revolution at the top, beginning with Chairman Roger Smith, whose recent blunders have more than offset his contributions to the corporation. (His latest: informing a press conference at the Waldorf that the best GM alternative to the low-priced offerings from Chrysler and some imports is a two-year-old used Buick!)
As an act of penance for the old ways, if nothing else, Smith ought to be retired and a young lion brought out of the ranks to run the corporation. This would affirm to the consumers, the dealer body, the work force and the financial community that General Motors means business.
When that happens, I will eagerly attend subsequent parties, because it will mean good things for the economic health of this nation, in which GM, like it or not, plays such an integral role. For that, I'll even bring a funny hat and a kazoo. ::