Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's your money

Photo: courtesy Time Magazine

When I got an email on Monday with a video about John McCain’s complicity in the Savings and Loan crisis, it was like seeing a ghost. The Savings and Loan crisis? If you weren’t of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, chances are you never heard of it—and not because it was a small event. One of the biggest financial meltdowns this country has experienced, involving wrongdoing by Republican and Democratic congressmen alike and requiring a multi-billion dollar “bailout” comparable to the current one, the S & L crisis slipped through a black hole in history, never to be mentioned in the news nor brought up in political campaigns (ever hear of Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George W? I didn’t think so)—until now. I’ve always been acutely aware of its absence, because I was present at the exact moment the story died.

It was January, 1991, and I was working (as I occasionally still do) as a consultant at TIME. The magazine has a history of commissioning gallery artists to create its covers, and my job has been to match artist with subject—such as Christo, whose globe wrapped in plastic and twine, we commissioned for “The Planet of the Year” in 1989. This time it was the S & L crisis, and the story, which up to that point had never been the subject of a cover feature in a major news magazine, had been building for several years. When I asked the art director at the time, Rudy Hoglund, why this massive issue hadn’t yet been addressed in this way, he said, rightly or not, that he thought it was because it was almost too complicated to be adequately explained in a mere article. But now we were doing it, and I tapped New York artist Barton Benes, who had made many pieces with genuine paper money, to create the cover image: a gold-plated meat grinder with sheets of money going in one end and shredded money coming out the other. The headline was “It’s your money.”

Like all the artists we've worked with, Barton was thrilled at the opportunity, and as we sat going over the details in Rudy’s corner office on the 24th floor of the Time-Life Building, he asked, “Is there any reason this cover wouldn’t run?”—and Rudy, being somewhat facetious in order to underscore its importance, said, “Only if there’s a war.”

Well there was a war, and as U.S. forces bombed Baghdad, the cover of the next week’s issue featured the face of Saddam Hussein. The S & L story appeared in the back, as a three-part “Special Report: Crisis in Banking” in the Business section. Barton’s artwork was relegated to the storeroom, and after that it was as if the S & L debacle, which we’re probably still paying for, never happened.

No one has ever been able to convince me that the two incidents were not related.

4 comments:

ericgelber said...

I am shocked! The American media buried a really important story that would impact all of us and focused our attention on some side issue that mattered far less?

ericgelber said...

By the way my comment was not meant as some sort of wise ass swipe at you. I was just commenting on how frigging lame the media is. Sorry if it came across the wrong way.

Carol Diehl said...

I thought of it more as the government having found a convenient way to distract the populace from a gigantic financial scandal in which the president's son was a major player. Whatever it was, it worked to that end. And with both Democrats and Republicans involved (of the Keating 5, McCain was the only Republican) everyone was happy to let it be forgotten.

ericgelber said...

All I can say is Argh! at this point in time.