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Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme by Calvin Trillin


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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Fans of Calvin Trillin and readers of the deadline poet column in The Nation may enjoy the current collection of his columns titled, Obliviously On He Sails. Most other readers will feel there’s too much at once on these pages. After a few pages of laughs, it got harder for me to turn the pages. I encourage adventures readers to take this one poem at a time to savor the experience. Here’s an excerpt, all of Part 5, “Big Shots on Crime Spree; Billions Looted; Few Arrests Made,” pp. 41-48


George W. Bush and Dick Cheney Lecture CEOs on Corporate Responsibility


“Creative accounting” is something we hate.

From now on your numbers will have to be straight.


No taking of options for stock you contrive

To dump when insiders can tell it will dive.


And loans? If you want one, then go to the bank.

These sweetheart loans stink! They’re disgusting! They’re rank!

This type of behavior we strictly forbid.

Just do as we say now, and not as we did.


—AUGUST 19, 2002



The corporate scandals early in the Bush Administration— the collapse of the Enron shell game, the revelations of stock manipulations and accounting frauds, the spectacle of overpaid CEOs clinging to their private planes and corporate boxes like little boys trying to hoard all the Legos in the day-care center—involved a number of people close to the White House. Enron’s CEO, Kenneth Lay, who had been intertwined with the Bush family for at least twenty years, even had one of those prized nicknames handed out by GeorgeW. Bush— although at least it wasn’t something like Books Cooker.

Bush distanced himself from the malefactors. At one point he even said that Lay “was a supporter of Ann Richards in my run in 1994.” Lay and other Enron executives had indeed contributed to Richards’s campaign, but had given several times more money to the Bush campaign. (I once suggested that the corporate practice of donating to both candidates in an election could serve as a one-question admissions examination for political science graduate school: Explain this custom in a short essay without using the word “bribe.”)

In fact, both the President and the Vice President had themselves been associated with precisely the sort of finagling that was being revealed, Cheney as the CEO of Halliburton while some dicey accounting practices were going on and Bush as a director of Harken Energy who managed to dump his Harken stock just before it collapsed. When Bush spoke soberly on how confidence in the free market required corporate honesty and transparency, he sounded a bit like Claude Rains expressing shock while closing down Rick’s Bar for gambling.



A Spiried Defense of George W. Bush Against Accusations That He Dumped His Harken Stock Because of Inside Information


He says he had no clue the stock would tank.

About the details he is still evasive.

Though “on the board but ignorant” seems lame,

With Bush, a clueless claim can sound persuasive.


—AUGUST 5, 2002




The Sinking of the U.S.S. Enron—A Free Market Metaphor



The pirate ship has sunk beneath the waves.


The swabs who haven’t gone to wat’ry graves

Row desperately, though all of them now know


Their water and their food are running low.

They row their wretched boats, and curse their lot.


Receding in the distance is a yacht

That carries all their officers, who knew

The ship was doomed, but didn’t tell the crew.

The officers stand tall. They saw their duty:

Desert the ship by night, and take the booty.


—February 4, 2002



Oh, Kenny Boy


(A Houston Version of the Irish Folk Song)



Oh, Kenny Boy, your friends are disappearing.

They don’t know you, much less your kvetchy wife.

Yes, it’s so sad when pols that you’ve been schmeering

Now hope that you’ll get twenty years to life.

They sang your song: they pushed deregulation.

They passed your laws. They bent the regs your way.

But now they track your every obfuscation.

Old Kenny Boy, their Kenny Boy’s now Mister Lay.


—MARCH 4, 2002



The Ballad of Harvey Pitt

(With apologies to Stephen Sondheim and his demon barber)



Attend the tale of Harvey Pitt,

Who many thought was quite unfit

To choose who’ll be the referees

For people who’d paid him those fabulous fees.

It didn’t seem a perfect fit

For Harvey Pitt,

The fox who guarded the henhouse.



John Biggs was set to head the board,

But big accounting firms abhorred

The thought of someone so severe.

So little birds whispered in Harvey Pitt’s ear:

“Hi, Harvey.

Yes. Harvey Pitt,

Our fox who’s guarding the henhouse:



Rid yourself of Biggs, Harvey. Biggs might know too much. What we need’s a guy who’s just a bit out of touch.”



But who instead would Pitt recruit?

He’d need a man of high repute,

A man whose reputation’s grand— Accomplished, but not in the matter at hand.

‘Judge Webster’s it,” Said Harvey Pitt, The fox who guarded the henhouse.



The judge was hardly a CPA.

Pitt, though, managed to win the day.

He had the votes. He didn’t tell:

Webster’s boards also emitted a smell.

Harvey’d shot himself in the foot.

This meant Harvey was done—kaput.

Saying the truth wouldn’t have been brainy:

“Webster is cleaner than Bush or than Cheney.”

Harvey, Harvey, Harvey, Harvey, Harvey



Attend the tale of Harvey Pitt,

Who thought he needn’t be legit

To regulate the SEC

For people as fond of the foxes as he.

Bye, Harvey,

Poor Harvey Pitt,

The fox who guarded the henhouse.



—NOVEMBER 25, 2002

If you’re hankering for more of the same after reading this excerpt, go ahead and enjoy the rest of Obliviously On He Sails. Most readers will find there’s more here than will bring enjoyment and will want to take a pass, despite an attraction to Trillin’s fine writing.

Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: On He Sails.htm


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