High, Low Jack

I realize nothing matters more right now than Iraq. But one can take only so much of that story. Ceaseless contemplation of global conflict and mass death can drive you right around the bend. Which is why it's nice to live in an age of media profusion. There are a million other stories to escape into, from the highly consequential (it's hurricane season) to the highly not (what's really up with Rosie O'Donnell?).

Lately my escape valve is Jack Welch. I've never met the man, didn't read his bestseller, and have no strong opinion on his contributions, or lack thereof, to civilization. I'm just mesmerized by how quickly he's gone from being the undisputed King of America, adored by the news class, to our favorite goat and laughingstock. The sidewalk is littered with smashed business idols, but none of them—not Ken Lay, not Dennis Kozlowski, not even Martha Stewart—has fallen from a place as lofty as the deluxe media penthouse once occupied by Welch.

Just cast your mind back to the summer of 2000, when Welch, then the chairman of General Electric, sold his book proposal for an advance of $7.1 million. It was a publishing-industry record, more than the sums that had been paid to former presidents, to the pope, to Colin Powell in his war-hero days. To hear people talk about him then, Welch wasn't just an unusually sharp, aggressive business guy, but a kind of wise man or shaman. David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times' publishing reporter, snagged a telling quote from Maureen Egen, the head of the Time Warner publishing unit that bought the book: "He is an amazing teacher. Just in the time we spent with him we learned so much."

Several months later, The Times itself adopted this theme in a 1,750-word piece that was not so much about Welch's book—it hadn't yet been published—as about the thrilling idea of a book by this extraordinary man. "Book Planned by G.E.'s Chief Generates a Must-Read Buzz," said the headline. And the buzz said this wasn't going to be just any book. "It is a measure of his reputation as a teacher that his book, which is scheduled for publication next year, is already being hailed as the most important management text since Alfred P. Sloan's 1964 classic, My Years With General Motors," wrote Andrea Gabor. Among those quoted on the much-anticipated excellence of the not-yet-published book was Walter B. Wriston, the former head of Citibank: "Jack Welch is blessed with an extraordinarily inquiring mind." The closest the piece got to criticism was a line that could have been lifted from a profile of Einstein or Mother Teresa: "Not all of Mr. Welch's ideas emerge with a flash of blinding light." Only some do.

The Times was not alone. From practically every corner of the media establishment came the same awestruck take. Questioning it seemed pointless. This many savvy, skeptical people just couldn't be wrong. Jack Welch really was the Light of World.

Until September 6, when the divorce-suit affidavit of Welch's wife, Jane, became public in The Times. As everyone now knows, that document revealed the goodies Welch had been enjoying at GE expense—the $15 million apartment, the car and driver, the jets, the food. (Jack Welch disputes some of these claims.) In the two years since Welch hit his apex, the public had lost its tolerance for corporate greed. Meanwhile, in a stunning coincidence, the media found themselves in complete agreement with the public. Suddenly, a lightbulb went on over the culture's collective head. This peerless savant, this visionary, this great teacher of important truths was ... just another pig.

The New York Daily News put Welch on its cover with the headline "Greed!" Money magazine named him, in its October issue, as one of those "responsible for the market's nosedive" and deserving of punishment. A USA Today piece on "CEO greed" opened with Welch, and noted a poll in which people "cited the greed and corruption of corporate executives as the top reasons for a weak economy."

Newsweek quoted one expert who said he was surprised GE didn't pay for Welch's toilet paper. "In fact, they did," said the magazine with obvious delight. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman opened a piece with a reference to Welch's limited physical stature, and it ran in The Washington Post under the headline, "Downsizing Jack Welch." After Welch penned a piece for The Wall Street Journal announcing he was giving up many of his perks, The Post ran this headline: "GE's Former CEO Cites 'Perception' of Retirement Package." The quote marks around "Perception" said it all.

The savagery extended beyond the big cities. Froma Harrop, a columnist for The Providence Journal, wrote witheringly of Welch's "mating rituals" and his "current squeeze," Suzy Wetlaufer. An acid editorial in Virginia's Roanoke Times was headlined, "The Sad, Sad Tale of King Jack and the General Electric Gruel Pot."

But perhaps the most memorable little moment in the Welch reversal happened on the Today show of September 11, when New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said, "I think bin Laden is a uniquely dangerous character. He's a bizarre combination of Charles Manson and Jack Welch." Katie Couric protested: "I'm not sure Jack Welch would really appreciate that." Friedman said he meant "no insult" to Welch. He was just trying to say bin Laden has "the organizational skills of a corporate Fortune 500 manager."

They're both great teachers, too.