Monday, October 29, 2007

The 'Thousand Clowns' Principle

I call it the "Thousand Clowns Principle," based on the Herb Gardner stage play and movie of that name from the 1960s. There's a famous line in that movie about apologies, which I have modified to the simple, "The most that you can expect from life is an apology."

That brings me to the corporate clown, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, who is being roasted alive in Utah for not apologizing for his comment that he thinks minority kids who don't graduate from high school should be "burned."

That was an incredibly dumb comment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his own marketing director was a high school dropout. (Of course, her being Caucasian, I guess that doesn't count.)

There are two possibilities:

1. He meant it.
2. He didn't mean it.

If he meant it, then, well, forget about an apology. But if he didn't mean it, if it was just hyperbole or rhetorical excess, then he should have no problem apologizing.

The third possibility, that he didn't say it, is not possible because he did. Here is a video of him saying it.

Byrne being Byrne, he takes the position that he didn't say it. As in the old Groucho Marx joke, "What are you going to believe, me or your own two eyes?"

No surprise here.

Byrne has always lied when backed into a corner or even when not backed into a corner. His lies and deceptions have been chronicled by Sam Antar. Also, he has never apologized for his company's stalking and smear campaign against critics (which came with his blessing, so he could hardly apologize for it), or for his nutty "Sith Lord" comment, or for being a generally lousy CEO.

Nor has he apologized for calling Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a "cracker" and a "gangster."

Or for the mud he has slung at every member of the media, ranging from Bethany McLean of Fortune to Joe Nocera of the New York Times to Roddy Boyd of the New York Post to Herb Greenberg of Marketwatch to moi, who hasn't covered his butt with kisses.

Most CEOs would have long since been discharged for behaving like such a buffoon, but most companies don't have quite so supine a board of directors.

Time and time again, he has proven that he is precisely the kind of person that you want on your side in a campaign: by speaking out for the other side.

What's different from the past is that this time Byrne's target is not his critics or non-existent conspirators but the people of Utah, the majority, who don't like school vouchers.

One blog's reaction, entitled "You May As Well Burn These Bridges," was typical:

I'm no expert, but you'd think a sliver of humble pie would go a long way to retain the trust of your shareholders, not to mention keep you from looking like an unapologetic executive who answers to no one. That is not the way to become a trusted, influential company.
The problem is just that: he is an "unapologetic executive who answers to no one."

No one, that is, except his customers. Here's a comment from one of them:

You know, I’m pleased that Patrick Byrne refused to apologize for his comments. Many times whites apologize for racist comments to merely apease the black community; however, he has shown that he really doesn’t care what we want. Thanks Mr. Byrne, continue to stand firm in your convictions, as will I. I will no longer shop on your website, nor will my friends.
© 2007 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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Wall Street Versus America was published by Penguin USA on April 6.
Click here for its Amazon.com listing and here for more information on the book, from my web site, gary-weiss.com.

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