In a scene from the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, Johnny Iselin is shown seasoning his steak with ketchup from Heinz - a company long identified with the slogan "57 varieties." In the next scene Iselin informs a Senate hearing, "I am holding in my hand a list of 57 Communists who work in the Defense Department."
That semi-fictional incident has parallels with a present-day tug-of-war over lists of purported villains' names. At least one congressional committee chairman and two state attorneys general this month demanded names of bonus recipients from first Bank of America and then AIG. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was the first to hit paydirt. After a judge ruled he could obtain and publish individual employee names and compensation amounts, Cuomo used the threat of publication to frighten employees of AIG Financial Products into agreeing to hand back about $50 million of retention payments they'd received under contracts signed a year ago.
A bevy of headlines illustrate why that threat proved so effective. Even without any broad release of personal information, some AIG employees who received retention pay have been harassed by news reporters and protesters near their homes, and their children reportedly were verbally abused in school. Executives received anonymous death threats. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) even publicly suggested that AIG executives should commit suicide.
AIG May Be Just the Beginning
Meanwhile in Scotland, a house and car belonging to Royal Bank of Scotland's former chief executive were vandalized. An anonymous email to Scottish newspapers claimed credit and said, "Bank bosses should be jailed. This is just the beginning."
Now that the key players at AIG have bowed to Cuomo's demands, he and others who seek to exploit the financial crisis for political gain might circle back to their first target, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. That firm was widely vilified for dispensing $3.6 billion in bonuses to some 39,000 employees at the end of 2008. And who's to say some ambitious politician won't try to force still other institutions that received bailout aid to "name names"? It's safe to assume that AIG and B of A aren't the only big U.S. firms whose corporate staffs are suddenly shifting attention from investment securities to personal security.
To be sure, tempers do seem to have cooled over the past week or so. The 90 percent tax on mid-level employee bonuses the House of Representatives approved on March 19 looks to get watered down, after both President Obama and Senate leaders indicated it's too harsh. Bank-related chatter on public comment boards of major news Web sites reveals less rage and greater balance lately as well.
CNN Correspondent Gets Taken For a Ride
On the other hand, it was only four days ago that CNN deposited a fresh load of tinder around the AIG stake by airing a segment titled, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless" on Anderson Cooper's AC360 program. It featured a bus tour with stops at two AIG executives' homes and the Wilton, Conn. headquarters of AIG Financial Products. Low-income individuals assembled by union-backed Connecticut Working Families read protest messages at the perimeter of each executive's property, under the watchful eye of security guards and dozens of reporters. CNN Correspondent Randi Kaye dutifully filmed the proceedings and provided running commentary plus an uncritical post on the AC360 blog the day the segment aired. (Well, look on the bright side: If Kaye hadn't volunteered to broadcast this publicity stunt, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Barney Frank or even Sen. Christopher Dodd might have been drafted to attract still more "news" coverage.)
The "Rich and Shameless" tour's theatricality evokes another scene from the era portrayed in The Manchurian Candidate - this time, a real-life scene.
Get Ready For the Pumpkin Papers
In a moment that defined the ensuing decade, a man who would soon become vice president displayed microfilm that had been hidden within a hollowed-out pumpkin retrieved from a Maryland farm. Although insignificant in itself, the microfilm was linked to other documents packed with state secrets. Unearthing those so-called "Pumpkin Papers" sealed the fate of former State Department official Alger Hiss....and supercharged the career of the 35-year old congressman who staged the dramatic revelation - one Richard M. Nixon.
Many years ago I met a man who claimed to have asked Nixon point-blank, "Why did you put the microfilm in a pumpkin?" Eyes twinkling, the future president allegedly replied, "A nice touch, don't you think?"
I wonder what Andrew Cuomo is preparing to plant in his pumpkin...