Corporate Martyr

Kenneth Lay’s final PR coup.

Kenneth Lay died Wednesday at age 64

After watching him self-immolate on the witness stand, I was sure that Ken Lay, Enron’s former CEO who died early this morning, had lost for good one of the skills that made him famous and successful—an unerring sense of PR. It was a gift that saw him through his early years at Enron but then seemed to vanish as the company imploded and the legal case against him proceeded to its Shakespearean end. As has been often noted in the press, Lay was so bad on the witness stand—testy, arrogant, imperious, and that was with his own lawyers—that many believe that he not only did himself in but also took former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling down with him. Now it appears that in death he has redeemed himself, at least as far as spinning his own story is concerned.

Lay was always a cipher to those who knew there must be more to the man than his public persona as a folksy, jovial optimist—the one who, after the guilty verdict, insisted that God was on his side and would watch over him during this difficult time. (Was he an idiot or a crook? I repeatedly asked myself this as the Enron story unfolded.) Here in Houston, Texas, he always managed to inspire more ambivalence than his co-defendant Skilling. Before Enron’s collapse, Lay lived lavishly—renting a yacht called the Amnesia for a special-occasion cruise, paying tens of thousands to reserve just the right ski trip months ahead of time—but he still managed to keep his reputation as Mr. Houston, raising money for good causes like the United Way, nudging the Greater Houston Partnership toward modernity, and forging compromises between local feuding fiefdoms.

Few managed to catch sight of any arrogance in company business deals, except some grumbling energy competitors, who never figured out how he maintained the public mien of a devout small-town mayor who only wanted the best for everyone. That crackling, semistentorian voice still tinged with his Missouri accent; that politicianlike memory for personal details; his penchant to do the right thing, which he sometimes demonstrated with an African-American minister or two in tow (the latter he was still doing at trial)—these were qualities and gifts and shrewd choices that made it hard for locals to see Ken Lay as a bad guy. That is until prosecutor John Hueston plastered Lay’s American Express bills on an overhead projector for all the world to see.

The guilty verdict seemed to settle things around here, temporarily, at least. People talked about “getting closure” on Enron, being ready to turn their attention to the next big news event, like the Andrea Yates retrial or the possibility of another shuttle disaster. But, within a few weeks, the grousing about the presumed draconian Enron sentences began. Yes, there were those who longed to see Lay and Skilling locked behind bars for the rest of their lives—they looked forward to Ken Lay’s Prison Ministry—but there were others who saw a waste of talent, energy, and expertise. The two CEOs should be put to use solving the city’s problems for free, I was told on more than one occasion, as certain members of the populace softened toward the two men. Why should we pay to incarcerate them (except, of course, that the law demanded it) when they could be put to work doing good for the community?

Now, the news of Lay’s death will, most likely, give credence to his latest identity—that of corporate martyr. Questions about a potential suicide were all over talk radio this morning, as well as crazier theories, like one that the Bush administration was responsible for his death and one that he had faked his own demise. By lunchtime, legal theorists were already wondering about the value of  his life-insurance policies and how the family would use proceeds from his newly matured $6 million private equity fund. If he died before sentencing, what did that mean in terms of fines that were to be imposed in the criminal case? Most likely, they’d go “poof,” along with Lay himself. (An autopsy has been ordered, which may or may not provide any definitive information, other than the fact that Enron seems to have the same compelling staying power as, say, Survivor.)

So, Lay manages to pass into history as a semitragic figure instead of a laughingstock—the family man, devoted husband, and all-around good guy he always claimed to be. As of this writing, his Web site,, had not been updated. “My family and I believe that God is in control and, indeed, He does work all things for good for those who love the Lord,” he wrote.

Nice going, Kenny boy, is all I can say.