Entries from June 2003

What’s In A (company) Name

David Frum June 30th, 2003 at 12:00 am Comments Off

A little while ago, I received an e-mail from a man whose grandfather had owned a
company called (let me scramble the name slightly to protect privacy)
“American Plier and Wrench.” The company made (again scrambling
slightly) — guess what? — pliers and wrenches.

How old-fashioned such a name now seems. Since the stock-market boom of the 1960s,
we have gotten used to the idea that a company’s name should tell us nothing at
all about the business it does. Andy Rooney — or was it Russell Baker? — used
to make amusing geezerish sport of names like Exxon and Citicorp. It’s gotten
to the point where a name that clearly conveys what a company does seems
somehow unambitious or stuck in its ways. Even the tradition-minded jettison
the full name in favor of initials: UPS or IBM or BP.

During the Internet bubble of the 1990s, though, corporate naming jumped forward into
a brave new postmodern world of irony and self-mockery. Hence Yahoo! and
Google, OneMain.com and CreativeCow.net. Or maybe you remember Red Herring
magazine? Liquid Audio? The half-dozen companies with Hedgehog in
their name — all now dead and buried?

At one point I joined the gold rush myself and spent a miserable weekend trying to
register a domain name. As I struck out again and again, I tried increasingly
absurd names — and found that they were taken, taken, taken. I was finally
reduced to the childish act of trying BarfingDog.com. That I could have.

Whatever else you say about it, the Internet is certainly a fine way to burn hours.
After the BarfingDog fiasco, I became curious about naming trends, and started
typing one name after another into the online registry.
AmalgamatedIronandSteel.com? Available. ContinentalRubberandTire.com? Available.
AcePetExterminators.com? Available. UnitedSteamshipLines.com? Also available.

For a brief mad moment, it occurred to me that UnitedSteamshipLines.com might make
a very clever title for an online travel magazine . . . and then I caught
myself. I realized that I was being ironic about the irony of the Internet age.
I was being ironically ironic. I was being post-postmodern. This nonsense had
to stop before I fell off the edge of the world.

In time, the nonsense did stop, although I can’t help noticing that one of the
favorite advertising firms of the Internet boom still markets itself under the
cuter-than-cute name “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” In slower economic
times, the business world reverts to basics — maybe not quite so basic as Amalgamated
Iron & Steel, but basic enough.

Last month, Vice President Cheney presented the 2002 Baldrige awards, the country’s
highest recognition of business quality. One of the three winners had a
nonsense name so old that it practically counts as English: Motorola. (Motorola
began life as the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. It introduced the first car
radios in the 1930s, and combined the words “motor” and
“Victrola” to create a brand name. The company then took the name as
its own in 1947.)

The second winner goes by an acronym: SSM Health Care. SSM happens to be short for
Sisters of St. Mary, the Franciscan order that originally sponsored the
hospitals that have grown into the SSMHC chain. The acronym is a thin disguise
for an organization that forthrightly dedicates itself to “reveal[ing] the
healing presence of God.”

The third had the most stolid name of them all: Branch-Smith Printing. Believe it
or not, Branch-Smith Printing is a printing company. It was founded by a Mr.
Smith in 1910. His daughter and her husband, a Mr. Branch, took over the
company in 1954, and Branch-Smith Printing has been the name ever since.

Dan Henninger, the Wall Street Journal’s wry cultural-affairs commentator,
warns that this turn toward sobriety in the naming of businesses may be an
indication of the leaching of all the fun out of the work of business.
“[B]ack in the early days of what came to be known as Silicon Alley, teams
of very bright 20- and 30-somethings assembled new businesses in downtown
Manhattan, more or less hooked to the Internet, and worked insane hours to make
it go. And they worked those hours before the valuation poison hit. . . . So
what if much of it failed? What those infant entrepreneurs brought to the
economic culture was nonstop chatter about creation, problem-solving, stamina
and winning. The thrill, for now, is gone.”

If Henninger is right, then the revival of corporate names that Andy Rooney and
Russell Baker can understand is an expression not of plain English but of a
glum marketplace. And yet, the new literalism may after all yield its benefits.
Years ago, I rented an apartment in New York City from a psychiatrist who kept
his office on a lower floor. He had a very swank clientele: Limousines would
idle in front of his stoop hour after hour as their owners spilled their
anxieties inside.

I once asked my psychiatrist-landlord whether his rich clients came to him with
similar problems, and he said that they all came to him with the same problem:
They all felt like frauds. The world looked at them and saw corporate titans
and geniuses of finance, but when they looked inside themselves, they had no
idea who they were. Very sad, but maybe just a little bit of the problem was of
their own making. I mean, if I were CEO of Accenture, I’d have no idea who I
was either. But I bet the late owner of American Plier and Wrench never
suffered from the “Who am I?” problem. He was an American who made
pliers and wrenches — and isn’t that answer enough for anybody?


Originally published in The National Review

Capers, Tapers, &c.

David Frum June 16th, 2003 at 12:00 am Comments Off

"Well,
I’m just a simple country lawyer . . ."

For
Americans above a certain age, that one phrase can conjure up a season of
political memories. Thirty years ago this summer, Sen. Sam Ervin took the gavel
of a congressional committee to investigate the growing Watergate scandal. The
committee’s proceedings from May 17, 1973, until August 7, 1973, were the
most-watched political drama of the 1970s. By some counts, as many as 85
percent of U.S. households tuned in to some portion of the hearings.

Then
again, the hearings were almost impossible to avoid. Each of the three
commercial networks took turns broadcasting five hours of committee coverage
per day; PBS rebroadcast the footage each night. Ervin’s cornpone accent –
Howard Baker’s earnest performance of his role as inquisitorial sidekick — the
whisperings of committee counsel Sam Dash — were as ubiquitous that summer as
Archie Bunker’s grimaces.

Americans
understandably do not care to relive Watergate — the 30th anniversary of the
break-in at the Democratic National Committee on the night of June 17, 1972,
received relatively little media attention. But the anniversary of the hearings
deserves attention: Much more than the original burglary, the investigation
marked a new epoch in American political life.

All
these years later, Richard Nixon remains a demon figure in American history,
the symbol of villainy and corruption. Yet the remarkable fact about him is
that he did almost nothing that one or the other of his predecessors had not
done before him.

Did
he wiretap his political opponents? So almost certainly did Lyndon Johnson in
1964 and 1968.

Did
Nixon try to obtain his opponents’ tax returns for political purposes? So very
probably did John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. Richard Nixon was audited
three times in the mid 1960s and believed to his dying day that the audits had
been ordered by the White House.

Did
Nixon accept illegal corporate campaign contributions? So did Lyndon Johnson
(as Robert Caro teaches us) — and so very probably had every president since
the ban on corporate money was passed in 1907.

Did
Nixon attempt to use the FBI and CIA for political ends? So, Nixon believed,
had Johnson and Roosevelt. In fact, Nixon created his bumbling "Plumbers"
unit inside the White House precisely because he feared that J. Edgar Hoover
was too partisan a Democrat to be trusted to serve him as he (Hoover) had
Johnson and Roosevelt.

The
use and abuse of state power for partisan ends by presidents from Roosevelt to
Johnson was not public knowledge — but it was not exactly a secret either.
Like Roosevelt’s wheelchair, these practices might be called "non-secret
secrets": facts that everybody interested in politics knew, but that were
not to be mentioned out loud.

Nixon,
in other words, was not caught breaking the rules — he was caught following
them. He was doing unto others as had been done unto him; and many of the
solemn figures who sat in judgment over him in the summer of 1973 knew it.

But
Watergate was different in three important ways from the political dirty tricks
of the past. First, Nixon had gone further than any of his predecessors: While
each president since FDR (with the possible exception of Dwight Eisenhower) had
done some of the things Nixon did, none of them had done all of them.

Second,
Nixon was caught — and that mattered. It’s one thing for political operatives
to whisper stories to each other in dark Washington bars — quite another for
those stories to be told under oath in open court and rebroadcast on the
evening news. Watergate brought the clandestine into the open and forced the
American public to decide whether the old rules of politics were acceptable or
not.

Third
and finally, the Watergate burglary became a national scandal precisely because
it occurred at a time when Americans were already junking all kinds of old
rules in all areas of American life. Nineteen seventy-three was a year when
"It’s always been done that way" stopped being a good justification
for anything, from barring women from all-male golf courses to burning trash.

Still,
you can understand why Nixon was so baffled and vexed by the Watergate scandal.
He must have felt like the kid who gets caught with the bag of apples on the
day the local orchard-owner decides he’s not going to put up with pilfering one
day longer. His natural impulse is to wonder: "What about all the other
apple-stealers? Some of them took a lot more than I did. It’s not fair to
change the rules to punish me when you left all of them alone . . ."

Now,
it should be stressed: The change in the rules was a change for the better.
It’s good that political espionage is no longer acceptable; good that
politicians are expected not to trade contributions for favors; good that even
presidents are supposed to be held accountable if they obstruct the processes
of justice.

And
that’s why it’s important, as we observe this 30th anniversary of the
near-impeachment of one president, to remember why America genuinely had to
impeach another: Bill Clinton. The rules laid down in 1973 mean nothing if they
don’t apply to Democratic presidents too. A disturbing number of the veterans
of Watergate seemed only too willing to exonerate Clinton for conduct that
eerily resembled Nixon’s — and a disturbing number of the journalists seem to
agree. Talking about Watergate without mentioning Clinton is like remembering
the Hatfields without mentioning the McCoys: It leaves behind the suspicion
that maybe Tricky Dick was right after all — that perhaps, for the inquisitors
and those who covered them, Watergate was all politics after all.