At AIG, we're all about people

When I resigned from the board, right after my bonus was approved, there were hugs all around and cries of "We're leaving too!"

Published March 18, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

As a member of the board of directors of the American International Group, I am pained by the hailstorm of fecal matter raining on our company for the $450 million in bonuses we are paying out to the traders in credit derivatives after receiving billions from the U.S. Treasury to rescue us from going over the cliff that the derivative traders were driving us toward.

I was in Greece when the storm hit and got a call from Marie, my assistant, saying, "We're sending the jet," and came home to find a stack of anonymous letters in the solarium, saying, "Bonuses? To the jerks who totaled a corporation? Where did this idea of rewarding failure come from? Are you living in a fairy tale in which wealth is generated by following owls into underground caverns?"

Many of these missives were written with black felt-tip pens in big block letters and words snipped out of magazines, words such as "fraud" and "skunks," "San Quentin," "die in hell" and "eat glass shards," and a picture of a naked man chained to a rock and a bird pecking out his liver.

To cancel bonuses because of a bad year is like refusing to water the greens just because a golfer has hit into the rough. It would be counterproductive.

And in the end, AIG is not about credit default swaps or derivatives. It is about people.

People like Megan, who suffered a painful case of shingles after a $4 billion default swap dropped to $234.15 and whose mission is to save the endangered grommet. That's where her bonus is going, to create a grommet habitat in Vermont.

I wish that the politicians lining up to drop cherry bombs in our toilets could meet the AIG family, including its wonderful board of directors: Peter Lorre, Louie Louie, Larry King, the Duke of Earl, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ralph Stanley, Morgan Stanley, Stan and Ollie, Alley Oop, Rupert Murdoch, Dr. John, John Roberts, Judge Judy, Rudy Giuliani, Sweet Leilani, Sleeping Beauty, Buddy Guy, Si Newhouse, Rufus Wainwright, Wayne Newton, Newt Gingrich, Richard Cory, Lorrie Moore, and did I mention Peter Lorre? He's there too.

Their friendship is all the reward I need for my service, although I will receive a bonus myself for having a perfect record of attendance for three years running.

Last weekend, we held an emergency meeting in Antigua at one of those resorts where men can walk around freely and not be accosted by embittered stockholders or their lawyers. We agreed that the first priority is to reestablish confidence.

These are difficult times and we will need to think positively to work our way through them and reach the other side. Recrimination will get us nowhere.

It's just like in sailing a yacht. If your crew neglects to secure the lanyard and the yardarm swings loose and knocks the martinis off your tray and spills a thousand dollars worth of beluga caviar on the deck, do you curse the silly buggers and perhaps distract them so that the Windermere lands on the reef and is reduced to splinters in waters populated by hammerhead sharks?

No, and neither do we at AIG.

It's easy to look back and say what should have been done, but that is not our style.

I have never heard an iota of acrimony in a board meeting. The level of civility has never wavered. My bonus was approved unanimously, and when I announced my resignation, people came around to give me hugs. They cried, "If you're leaving, then we'll leave too," and so they will, and as of Monday we'll be replaced by Dick Cheney, Lil Wayne, Jane Smiley, Miley Cyrus, Don Imus, Iris Murdoch, Dr. Phil, Lil' Kim, Jimmy Kimmel, Homer Simpson, Lil Simon, Simon Cowell, Carl Kasell, Russell Banks, Ben Bernanke, Frankie Avalon, Lon Chaney, and did I mention Dick Cheney? He's there too.

It's painful for me to leave AIG, but I am not comfortable with the government owning 80 percent of our company. Call me old-fashioned, but that is just plain socialism to me, and this latest frenzy of plain old class warfare fomented by an anti-business administration has convinced me that it's time to move on. And so I am leaving for Costa Rica and a settlement on its Pacific shore where one can enjoy the ocean breeze far away from discord and bitterness. It is a new residential development called Tierra de Gracias and homesite sales are limited to persons who are profoundly thankful.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty," published by Viking.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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