No Honor In After-the-fact Regrets

July 12, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

I get press releases about new books all the time. This one arrived the other day: "A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers ... a fly-on-the-wall, insider look at the mad house that Lehman became. It will reveal never-before-told stories about the dark characters who ruled Lehman, refusing to heed warnings that the company was headed for an iceberg."

The author is Lawrence G. McDonald, until its collapse "one of Lehman's most consistently profitable traders" and an "eyewitness" to the brewing mess inside the investment bank. He saw disaster coming. (The disaster ended with Lehman Bros. filing for bankruptcy, the largest such filing in U.S. history, followed by a general financial meltdown, followed by billions in government bailouts and the recession we're all enjoying.)

The press release says Mr. McDonald's book reveals "three major warnings starting in May of 2005 that could have pulled Lehman back from the madness of the housing market."

Mr. McDonald, the press release screams, is "now telling ALL about what exactly happened - straight from the belly of the beast!"

And I say: Big whoop.

If this guy saw disaster coming, what did he do about it? Why didn't he blow the whistle on the "dark characters who ruled Lehman" before it was too late? Why didn't he resign and call the cops?

I suppose tell-all books are instructive. I suppose they tell us what went wrong and, from that, what men and women with power should do to avoid such extravagantly costly mistakes in the future. Yeah, yeah, and blah, blah, blah.

Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense in the Kennedy-Johnson years, died last week at the age of 93. He was chief architect of the Vietnam War and, though he left the Pentagon in early 1968, he did not admit mistakes about U.S. military strategy in Southeast Asia until nearly 30 years later.

Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost in the war Mr. McNamara knew to be futile, the majority of them (about 42,000 Americans alone) after he resigned as defense secretary and moved on to the leadership of the World Bank. He never added his significant voice to the chorus of opposition to the Vietnam War when it was needed, as the war still raged.

In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, Mr. McNamara said the war was "wrong, terribly wrong."

Life being full of struggles and challenges, we like to be able to say, "Better late than never" about a lot of things.

But Robert McNamara's expression of regret over Vietnam was not one of them.

Truly worthy of admiration are the men and women who take a stand at the moment it will do some good - particularly when they do so at personal risk.

It so happens that George Tarburton called me the other night. He had nothing to do with Lehman Bros., nothing to do with the Vietnam War. His story is not of that scale, but it resonates with the right thing.

Mr. Tarburton, a former U.S. Marine, was an officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police for 17 years. He lost his job a couple of years ago because he blew the whistle on security lapses in the port of Baltimore - dilapidated fences, malfunctioning alarms, busted surveillance cameras, unattended gates. His superiors took no action on his reports about these problems, so Mr. Tarburton helped a Sun reporter with an expose about them.

The story appeared on a Sunday front page and embarrassed the port police and the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Transportation Authority brass conducted an inquisition to identify the Sun's source for the story. They came up with Mr. Tarburton, accused him of violating departmental rules and offered him a choice of resignation or dismissal.

Mr. Tarburton chose resignation, but he's regretted that ever since.

"Still looking," he said the other night when I asked if he'd found a new job in law enforcement. He's working as a security guard in Baltimore County, patrolling office buildings, responding to alarms. It's not what he wanted to be doing at age 47.

Mr. Tarburton says he asked for his old job back after Martin O'Malley, a champion of port security, became governor. But he was turned down.

That's a shame.

The O'Malley administration should reconsider the case. Reinstating George Tarburton would be a relatively easy gesture, and a decent reward for a guy who tried to do the right thing at the moment it mattered, before it was too late. He didn't make us wait for the book.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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