Board Stiff

Would you let a historian run your airline?

Odds are that if the redesign of the century hadn't just shortened Doug Grow's column to a blurb-length 500 words, Grow would have asked a few more questions in today's ditty about plans Northwest's striking mechanics have to take their battle directly to members of the airline's corporate board. They're starting with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Grow reports, and plan to dog her on a book tour she's about to launch.

Pity poor Grow. It appears that simply recovering the journalistic basics--who is he writing about, why, why they're striking, etc.--consumed about 350 of his allotted words.

Thirty-five were used to note that Kearns Goodwin was at the center a plagiarism scandal a couple of years ago. The other 115, one can surmise, were Grow's trademark noble effort to put some emotion, re: labor's plight, into the column.

So is this tactic just a last-gasp, mean-spirited effort to bring down board members with the mechanics?

"There's nothing mean about it," said Ted Ludwig, president of AMFA Local 33. "It's just facts. The members of the board need to be held accountable for what has happened. The people in charge have wrecked this company."

Rogers scoffed at the idea the plan is mean spirited. "She and others on the board set policies that have done real harm to thousands of workers and whole communities," Rogers said. "They're inflicting despair and they don't care."

It would have taken at least a couple hundred more words to get at the next obvious question: What's a historian doing on Northwest's corporate board? Besides reaping $25,000 a year for the appointment, $1,000 per meeting attended, and free air travel for herself and her family, that is. Northwest press releases from the time, archived on Nexis, say only that having a non-buisinesswoman--and she was the first woman--brought the board diversity.

If my little research foray is correct, it would have busted Grow's monthly word count to lay out the most promising hypothesis: Kearns Goodwin is a longtime friend of former NWA board member Al Checchi, onetime Northwest takeover artist, seller of Northwest stock with impressive timing, and, during a brief and amusing stint as a candidate for governor in California in the late '90s, the subject of recipient of Kearns Goodwin's public support. In 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle used 170 words to connect the dots.

Hard not to notice those recent TV ads that have Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stumping for her friend, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi.

It is a nice play for women voters.

Well, leave it to Gray Davis' campaign folks to provide us with a little truth in advertising. They pointed out that Goodwin was appointed to the board of Northwest Airlines in November just as Checchi, the airline's former chairman, was starting his gubernatorial campaign.

We beg of you a few more words. In 2002, Slate published a brief examination of the historian's ties entitled "The Many Boards of Doris Kearns Goodwin: A Corporate Chieftan Who Moonlights as an Historian."

The most puzzling of Goodwin's board assignments, of course, is Northwest Airlines. Goodwin, who was trained as a political scientist, has no business experience and probably doesn't know how to read a spreadsheet. Indeed, the only relevant expertise Goodwin likely brings to the Northwest board is her extensive air travel to and from other board meetings and to the numerous speeches she gives to corporate gatherings.

The online magazine has also carried pieces on Kearns Goodwin's plagiarism troubles and subsequent efforts to rehabilitate her, but we dasn't write too long, now, so you can go there and search for yourself. We'll just leave you with one more thought the corporate culture of copy massage might or might not have allowed Grow: If a business is bankrupt, and laying off thousands of lifelong, skilled employees and introducing the survivors to a standard of living that most of China has eschewed, is larding a board with friends good business practice?