The Numbers Game

There's no accountanting for taste as changing times and high-profile scandals turn bean counters from no-accounts to celebrities.

March 06, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

"I am not an accountant." Jeffrey Skilling, Chief Executive Officer of Enron, speaking before Congress

That's what they all say. First sign of a little trouble, and Mr. Important Enron Guy tells the Senate Commerce Committee about a million times that he is not an accountant. No, not him. You want the accountant - the other guy.

Never have accountants been so prominently featured in the news. What accountant ever dreamed that he would grow up to one day take the Fifth on national TV? Since the Enron and Allfirst debacles, accountants have been front and center and cringing in the wings. This can only mean one thing: Time for a Story about Accountants and their Historic and Cultural Role in Society. And our story begins with Frank Wilson - an accountant's name if ever there was one.

In the 1930s, Frank Wilson was working as an accountant for the U.S. government. News stories described him as "nondescript." Why are accountants always described as nondescript or mild-mannered? For all we know, "Frankie Boy" Wilson might have been a hot-head who drank Jim Beam on the job and chased female accountants.

Anyway, Wilson nondescriptly noted that a certain ill-mannered Al Capone of Chicago owed $215,080 in back taxes and perhaps the federal government should be apprised of Capone's civic omission.

As anyone knows who saw the movie The Untouchables, Capone was sent to Alcatraz not because he made Tony Soprano look like The Beaver but because of good, old-fashioned tax evasion. And what did Frank Wilson get in return? Adjectives such as "nondescript." We don't even remember the actor who played Wilson in the movie. Wait - wasn't it the same nebbish actor who played the character Toad in American Graffiti?

Nebbish. Nondescript. Antisocial. Dull. Subordinate. Male. How does a profession survive such flaming typecasting? It does and has because without accountants, we'd all be pleading the Fifth or re-populating Alcatraz post tax-time. The Ravens would be so far over the salary cap they wouldn't be able to afford travel jerseys. Without its accountant, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board might have gone over its $1.3 billion budget and would have had to scrap the performance by Kiss during the closing ceremonies. The Olympics - the world - would have suffered.

Without accountants, who would tally the votes for the Academy Awards? Trustworthy podiatrists? Don't think so. The annual presence of Pricewaterhouse Coopers accountants gave birth to the catch phrase, "and the envelope, please." More importantly, the presence of accountants gives legitimacy to the voting process; so if black actors are again overlooked, at least the public can be assured the ballots were counted correctly. A public trust is maintained.

Yet, accountants don't even rate a spot on the Synchronized Marching Briefcase Drill Team in California. Spoofing Pasadena's Tournament of Roses parade, the "Doo Dah Parade" has featured over the years briefcase-toting bankers, consultants and lawyers. The drill team was created in 1978 by businessman James Kemp, who trained the team to march in orderly lines and snap briefcases into position on command.

"I think we had an accountant once, but he was out of step," Kemp says. "We're not accountant types."

Perhaps no where else are accountants dissed more than in the comic strip Dilbert. Creator Scott Adams once had Dilbert punished by forcing him to eat lunch with the accountants. Usually, though, Adams portrays accountants simply as trolls - stooped, misshapen beings toiling anonymously in darkened cubicles.

Before launching Dilbert in 1989, Adams worked at a bank, where he occasionally had to deal with the bank's accountants. These were not joyous encounters. "I was a little scared of them," Adams says. Accountants know the buck really stops with them. "They were the meanest people. They didn't need to be nice, and they weren't."

Any intelligent discussion about the profession of accounting must take into account Monty Python. In a choice Python sketch years ago, Michael Palin seeks advice from career counselor John Cleese. Palin's character longs to be a lion tamer, but he's advised against the career change for reasons both numerous and sound.

"You are an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humor and irrepressibly drab," Cleese's character says. "In most professions, these would be considered drawbacks. In chartered accountancy, they are a positive boon."

Accountants are only stars when they are, well, stars. Matthew Broderick has made a name for himself playing the "nebbish" accountant Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks' colossal Broadway hit, The Producers. When Ben Kingsley played accountant Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, at least the actor's character was called "reserved." Kingsley's portrayal was spared the haunting nebbish tag.

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