Last week, London’s tabloidy News Of the World broke the story of a handful of AIG executives who dropped a bundle on a cushy partridge hunting retreat, of all things, at a tweedy English country manor. The newspaper sent "undercover investigators" to catch the eight "fat cats" fiddling while the rest of the world burns:
"The recession will go on until about 2011—but the shooting was great today and we are all relaxing fine."
Another, AIG chief Alvaro Mengotti, who later repeatedly LIED that he hadn’t been on the trip of shame, slurped fine wine as he kept pace with the world crash on his Blackberry mobile.
"It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better," he sighed before heading off with the eight-strong AIG party in tweeds to gun down some birds.
Ouch. Hardly a glam junket, but still not smart, what with NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on the case. Plus, it’s just a little creepy.
And with the largest government bail-out in history still unfolding, does a campaign accusation of socialism really make sense?
All this leads me to a question: When was the last time you witnessed a genuine act of penance? Not the auto-generated Catholic school confessional kind that made virtually no impression on anyone, but an actual expression of remorse?
While hiking on Saturday, I literally stumbled upon an interesting tale of penance – which got me thinking about all this. On an early morning walk through the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, my friends and I came upon a sign leading us off the trail to something called the "Leatherman’s Cave."
The story turned out to be as tragic as it is romantic. The Leatherman was a man who wandered through Connecticut and Hudson River Valley in the mid 1860s. He trudged a 365 mile circular route, sleeping outside in as many as 100 different caves (some of which, like the one we found, still exist) and occasionally visiting homes along the way for a bit of food. After he mumbled his thanks, he pressed ahead on his appointed rounds. He wore, as the story goes, a suit of heavy leather. The extraordinary thing – he arrived in the same location every 34 days, and traveled his clockwise route for nearly 30 years.
Here is what we think we know: The Leatherman was actually a man named Jules Bourglay, who had been driven to a life of penance from a failed business and a broken heart.
Originally from Lyon, he had fallen in love with a young woman of a higher station; his pleas for for her hand in marriage were sniffed off by her parents. Finally, they relented: If he proved himself worthy by working in their lucrative leather business, they would consent.
Bourglay did well, and was given more responsibility, including a bit of nineteenth century arbitrage – supervising large purchases of leather in the open market. But, after an unusually large purchase, the market price of leather dropped precipitously overnight. The reason was technology – a new chemical compound had been developed that could tan leather more quickly, cheaply and easily, and Bourglay didn’t know. Suddenly, he was stuck with leather that could only be sold at a loss. His intended’s family business in ruins and his prospects for love destroyed, Bourglay left their estate in shame. How he ended up in Connecticut is anybody’s guess, but in short order he began his penance trek, becoming an odd, if sympathetic, fixture every 34 days.
These days there are so many people "to blame" for the mess we’re all in: Wall Street, Main Street, ratings agencies, Congress, regulators, liars loan-makers and the liars who lapped them up. Maybe you and me. Although it would be hard to imagine Alan Greenspan, Christopher Cox, Angelo Mozilo, AIG pheasant hunters or Stan O’Neal, just to name a few, casting themselves on an endless trek, it might be satisfying, or at least comforting, to see someone at least look penitent. Even if it was just public relations for our own broken hearts.