Bethany McLean likes to say that Enron is not a story about accounting, but a story about people.
It’s a nice little tag line that means nothing. Aren’t all stories about people? Even Old Yeller was about the kid’s job to put down the rabid dog, not the dog itself. But anyway, I’ve been thinking about what she was trying to say, and I’m puzzled why, if it’s a story about people, she spends so little time getting to know them. I watched The Smartest Guys In The Room again last night, alone with the lights out and a glass of cold white wine in my hand. Trying to watch it with a third-person’s eyes, to see it fresh.
As a story about people it makes no sense at all: it is an abstract music video, disjointed, and incoherent. It reminded me of a criticism I received from my company’s legal department about a report I wrote. I had just started my new job and I was given the task of summarizing a company’s holdings. I went crazy with this project, searching, researching, over-searching… I was trying so hard to make it the most comprehensive thing anyone had ever laid eyes upon – though I knew absolutely nothing about the company or its business.
Legal asked me if I’d plagiarized it. I emphatically denied plagiarizing even a single word or idea. I handed over all my research to prove it. In the end, the attorney came back and said, “The problem is you sound too authoritative on this. You’re not a petroleum engineer or an investment banker. There’s no reason you should know this much.”
I looked at her stupidly, trying to understand what she was really saying.
“You’re trying too hard.”
As I watched Smartest Guys, I think I figured out what happened to Bethany. She had no idea what happened at Enron. She didn’t understand the company or its business or the people. Other people told her what happened, including her premature ejaculator husband, Sean Berkowitz, Jim Chanos, and who knows who else. All her knowledge was second-hand. She did as I did on my report – went crazy with the research, using other people’s knowledge as a substitute for her own, and ended up with a product that she still really doesn’t understand.
It is a story about people and yet all she can write about is Jeff Skilling’s Lasik eye surgery and Ken Rice’s busted lip. As a story about people, it emits very little light about the people. In fact, it does the opposite, it cloaks them with unverifiable details and distracts us with flashy graphics, hoping we don’t notice that the important parts have been glossed over.
One Enron executive said something to me that caught me completely off guard. He said, “We all have these roles we play…”
I froze – it was as if he was reading my mind. I’ve said before that the DOJ sort of forced people into roles. Ken Rice was the sexy insider, “Jeff Skilling’s best friend” which was meant to give weight to his testimony, and Cliff Baxter was the “brooding, guilt-ridden insider” who could not live with the knowledge of Enron’s malfeasance any longer. Jeff Skilling was the smart but fatally arrogant executive.
Bethany says Enron is a story about people, and yet she only noticed the roles the people were playing. She never bothered to actually find out what they were like, and had she known I am sure she would have covered it up with more graphics.
It is difficult enough to know the people in our lives, even those we love. But when you attempt to know people who hold in contempt, your thumbprint will begin to obscure the facts. Bethany McLean hated Enron. She hated Cliff Baxter, Jeff Skilling, and I think she even hated Amanda Martin, who appeared in the movie. I think the producers manipulated her and made her appear to be saying things she wasn’t actually saying. She hated all of them, but she needed them. Case in point: if Enron had never happened, would you even know the name Bethany McLean?
Enron is a story about people. Take away the soundtrack, the graphics, the fancy charts. Look at the people.
The people who pleaded guilty are not guilty. As my friend says, they’re playing a role. These are people who have spent their whole lives being productive and honest. They’re not criminals. And they aren’t the roles that they were assigned by the Department of Justice in their crazed witch hunt. They are kind and polite. And they’re smart. And funny. And witty. And good kissers.
They are the kind of people who would never do to Bethany McLean what she did to them.