Friday, August 07, 2009

What Howie Said

Everybody knew what Howie said. Though the media seldom had the temerity to print it, let alone to say it, his words had infected the public consciousness like a virus. Young, old, men, women, every race and creed. The taboo was so powerful and universal that its violation had a democratizing effect. Now it was the secret everybody shared. No one could repeat it. But they knew.

There were those who sat home thinking Howie never should have said it but were secretly glad he did. Among those were those who were glad he did because they had fantasized about saying it themselves, and among this subgroup were those who had fantasized perversely about saying it, knowing it was wrong to say, and a smaller group who had fantasized purely about saying it, because it was what they believed and what they thought should be said. There was another group among those who were secretly glad he'd said it: those who were entertained by the misfortunes of others. This group was large but also rather unimpassioned. They did not clamor in the streets or on the Internet. They watched it all play out from afar, happy to see a cross be borne by anyone but them. Of course, there were also those who thought he never should have said it and that it was an abomination that he did. The quiet, pious mothers of the world. They were steadfast in their uncelebrated view, lowering their gaze when they saw differing ones paraded on TV. And on TV there were those who proclaimed their outrage at what he'd said and sought to rouse others into fits of venomous fury whose target extended far beyond the original statement itself or even the sentiment, such as it might be, that lay behind it. Many of these people seemed to be leveraging the simple offense felt by the civilized in order to – for unclear reasons – disrupt civilization itself. It might be said that this group was angry that he'd said it but glad he did, for his saying it finally rallied their forces from their slumber and focused their disparate objections on a single point, a single statement, a single man. There were two other constituencies in public view, the first one minor and the second major: First, those who heartily endorsed what he had said. For them, the statement breached a long-weakened barrier and allowed the full force of their grievances to flood our common ground at last. Second, there were those who objected keenly to what he'd said but were willing to defend ("to the death," they liked to claim) his right to say it. This last group and the one consisting of those who objected and sought to forever stifle such speech were the most antagonistic pair of all, for they were brothers on opposite sides of the war.

There were rumors that children – mischievous, uncomplicated – had adapted Howie's words into a skipping rhyme.

And then there was Howie, barricaded behind his door. TV trucks in the yard. On day three his longtime girlfriend, Hannah, emerged from the house clutching her terrier, suitcase in tow. She fought her way through the frenzied pack of reporters to her car. How's Howie? she was asked. Did he hurt you? What did he do to you? I have a lawyer, she replied obscurely. Are you suing him? No. Are you leaving him? Did he rape you? No comment. No. Then, How could you have sex with someone who was capable of saying that? No reply. Another reporter followed up. What was sex like with Howie? I'm not going to answer that. What's he doing in there? Does he have a gun? Not to my knowledge. Let me go.

Howie had made no statement to the press, but occasionally a camera pointing through the window would catch him darting from bedroom to kitchen, a furtive ghost haunting his own home. He was presumed to be suicidal, a deranged loner in a standoff with himself as hostage. His only contact with the rest of the world consisted of phone conversations with three people: his mother, a high school friend back home, and his boss, Ron. Soon the media surrounded his mother's apartment building and his friend's house, and hounded them from the moment they exited their doors to the moment they reentered. Howie's mother ended their last conversation by saying she loved him but she could no longer speak to him. "I can't take it anymore the people bothering me, Howard," she said. Then Howie's friend abruptly changed his number. Now only Ron, his mentor, the epitome of reason and professionalism, remained. Howie began their conversations with pleas to retain his employment and ended them with anguished self-recriminations, prolonged crying jags and shudders of despair. Finally Ron was advised by legal to "discontinue all contact with Howard Landerman unless at the direction of the legal department." Howie was cast adrift.

Only a week earlier, Howie was a relatively happy, highly valued project manager in a product development team buried deep within his company's byzantine organizational structure. It was Wednesday morning, status meeting time. They were all sitting around the conference room table waiting for the meeting to begin when he said it. No one was sure they'd heard him right. Maybe they were hoping they hadn't. (But was it not a worse thing to imagine than to hear?) There was an awful silence around the room as everyone tried to inhabit the new reality his utterance had produced, each mind reeling, struggling to adopt the proper stance. At first it seemed as though he'd be forgiven. Rachel, sitting to his right, emitted a momentary bark of laughter, mirthless and tense. A couple other people chuckled somberly in turn. But then she put her face down in her hands and seemed to sob.

"Howie... Howie... Howie..." said Ron. His voice contained a curious combination of reproach, pity and concern, a response that strove without success to reflect the vile enormity of the offense.

Howie stared blankly out the picture window to the parking lot. His mouth moved with a slight quiver. There were no words to unsay what he'd said.

"Good God," he finally exclaimed. He hung his head, then lifted it up and looked imploringly around the table. "I am so, so, so sorry, everyone," he said, his voice breaking. Everyone lowered their eyes now, knowing he was lost. Knowing he would be condemned.

Suddenly Jordan pushed her chair back and stood up, noisily gathering her laptop and cord.

"That's fucked up!" she shouted.

Ron held up his hand to try to calm her down. "Jordan, please," he said. She brushed by the back of his chair and strode out the door.

"Everyone, we obviously have a bit of a problem here," Ron declared. "Let's break for now, get back to work and settle down a little. I'm going to have a word with Howie."

They filed numbly out of the conference room, exchanging spooked expressions, and went back to their cubicles. Later in the afternoon, they all received an e-mail:


Words cannot express how sorry I am for saying the thing I said today. I don't know what happened – I guess I thought I was making a joke and it came out wrong. I don't really know why. What I do know is that I would give everything I have in this world to take those words back.

I am not that kind of person. I have never been that kind of person. In fact, I detest the kind of attitude and mindset that would ever make or endorse such a statement. I hope you know me well enough to know that, and I hope you find it within your hearts to forgive me.

I have some deep thinking to do personally, and some discussions with Ron and with H.R., before I know what my fate will be within the team and the company. For the moment, please just accept my deepest, most sincere apologies. If I offended any of you more than any others, let me especially and most deeply apologize to you.

Again, I hope we can all put this behind us. If not, I will understand and I will find a way to go on and be a better person for it.



Ron's boss's boss, Steve, flew in from out West that night to address the entire office in the morning. Apparently the affair had spun out of control overnight. Someone – or several people – in the group had spread what Howie had said throughout the company. Word had leaked to the outside; now the quote was ricocheting around the Internet, multiplying, distorting. Stories appeared in the mainstream press – with the quote heavily redacted, of course – as well as on countless blogs. There seemed to be a sense of glee among the media that such a stunningly foul thing was said within the walls of such a powerful and well-regarded company. In the meantime, Jordan hired a lawyer and initiated a hostile workplace lawsuit. She circulated an invitation to the rest of the team to join it; several did.

The message from Steve was conciliatory and calming. He read a prepared statement expressing his wish that "we all learn what we can from this episode and move forward," then invited a round of questions. Will anyone be punished for leaking Howie's remark to the press? Steve said he couldn't speak for legal but that it was his personal wish that no action be taken on that count. How is the PR department handling this? He said there were a number of initiatives on the table and PR was working aggressively with legal and with upper management to formulate a response that befit the circumstances. What's going to happen to Howie? Here Steve paused before responding.

"I've had conversations with Ron and with other parties, and I will continue to have those conversations. I can't say precisely what Howie's situation will be moving forward. I know that he's home right now – isn't that right, Ron?"

"That's right."

"He's home right now. Resting. Isn't that right, he's resting?"

"He's resting."

"Howie is at home resting."

Steve closed with a warning to stay mum to the media, to refer all inquiries to public relations. As the employees dispersed and resumed their distracted work, he and Ron disappeared into Ron's office with the door closed – an unusual and eerie sight. Over the course of the afternoon, the company's stock price plummeted by over eight percent.

By the end of the day it was clear the situation was getting worse. The TV news cycle was completely preoccupied with the implications of Howie's statement, its reflection upon the company, upon corporate culture generally, upon capitalist culture and upon the world. A guest on one show, a dubiously credentialed pundit, had finally said what many were thinking: "I don't disagree with what he said! I wish I'd said it myself. It needed to be said."

"Then say it," interjected another guest.


"If you wish you'd said it, then why not say it now?"

"It's been said. I don't need to say it."

"That's hypocritical. You just want to say you'd say it. But you'd never really say it."

"Listen, we all know what was said–"

The host of the show interrupted the spat. "Stay with us, folks. Lots more to say about what Howie said. Back after these messages."

Over the weekend, a small but very determined Christian sect set out from Idaho. They had come to believe that Howie had spoken the unspeakable name of God, the sacred Tetragrammaton. This could only mean he was the Christ returned; this was the end of days. In fulfillment of Revelation 14:1, they had tattooed Howie's odious words on their foreheads. They were headed east in a heavily Bondoed Econoline van.

Several groups that had drawn different conclusions were also gravitating toward Howie. Among them were extremists of various stripes, including self-described Landermanians who planned to tunnel into Howie's basement, kidnap him, and make him the king of their secessionist commune in Western Massachusetts. Many who wished to sacrifice the scapegoat were on the road as well. Most of them had slapdash, poorly conceived designs.

On day five, there was great excitement on TV as Howie finally made a statement of sorts. It consisted of twelve sheets of paper, each with a single magic-markered letter on it, that he taped one at a time to the inside of his living room window. With each sheet posted, there was a flurry of renewed speculation as to what he might be saying.


I? I what? I'm sorry? I love you?


I don't care?


I die? I die for you? I die for your sins?


I did it?


I didn't do it?


Meanwhile, the company's ad hoc emergency task force worked around the clock to establish a strategy for the containment of the situation. It was comprised of senior members of the legal, human resources and public relations divisions as well as an elite team of outside consultants with expertise in crisis management, branding catastrophe, media engagement, communications, linguistics, philosophy, comparative religion. After about ninety consecutive hours of work, spanning the weekend and the beginning of the week, they emerged and presented the CEO, James Frost, with a two-point plan. He took the next flight out to meet with Ron. The following morning, they sat together in the very same conference room where it had all begun a week before.

"Ron, first of all, let me tell you how grateful we are for your work with your team and the way you've handled this thing so far. And all the work you've done in the past. You're a terrific asset."

"Thank you Jim. It's good to hear that."

"I really mean it, Ron. I really mean it. You're on the radar at corporate, I can tell you that."


"So let me show you what our little geniuses have devised," Jim said, opening the PowerPoint presentation on his laptop. A slide appeared on the wall:

Unacceptable/Offensive Speech Incident #47273, Code Name "Maserati"
Crisis Management Plan

Strictly Confidential

"Why Maserati?" Ron said.


"Why Maserati? Code name 'Maserati.'"

"Oh," said Jim. "All our offensive speech incidents are code named for sports cars."

"That's interesting."

"It doesn't mean anything, Ron. It's just a thing."


"Here's where it really gets interesting," Jim said as he flipped to the next slide. On the screen appeared the following text:

Incident Data

                    Type: Unacceptable/offensive speech
                    Perpetrator: Howard Landerman
                    Witnesses: Product Development Team B-207
                    Team Lead: Ronald Martenson
                    Media Exposure: Potentiated
                    Litigation Exposure: Potentiated
                    Severity: 5
                    Priority: 0

"Tell me when you're ready," said Jim.

"I'm ready."

Jim flipped to the next slide, which in fact ended the presentation. It said:

Two-Point Crisis Resolution Plan

  • Howard Landerman's manager, Ronald Martenson, to take full, unequivocal responsibility for said speech
  • Ronald Martenson to resign

Jim paged forward anyway. There was a sort of postscript slide, a non-slide, at the end. It was entirely blank save for the following words:

This slide intentionally left blank.

"Ta-daa!" said Jim.

They sat in silence for a moment.

"Any questions?"

"Why that slide?"


Ron pointed to the screen.

"Oh. Legal has mandated that all decks from corporate end with that slide."

"I see."

"They gave us a template."


"So we wouldn't have to, you know, insert it ourselves."

"Right, right."

"Any questions about the previous slides, Ron? I want to make sure you're on board with this."

"What about Howie?"

"We're gonna bump him up. We see a lot of potential."

"To my job?"

Jim nodded. "It's the counterintuitive play. Our advisors from Taoism Today came up with it."

"Who's Taoism Today?"

"Consulting firm. We really feel like this is the most effective way to contain the situation," offered Jim.

"It has a certain clarity to it."

"That's why we pay these folks the big bucks," said Jim. "By the way, you'll be compensated. Don't think you won't be."

"I understand."

"Julie from press relations will contact you about how, where and when to make your statement. We're striving for maximum impact. Ever been on television before?"


"It's a breeze. Remember to look into the camera. Try not to sweat too much."


"Julie will have a packet of information for you."

"Great, great."

"Gotta race back to the airport, Ron," Jim said as he disconnected his laptop from the projector. "This has been good. Let me reiterate what I said before."

"I appreciate it."

"Glad you do."

When Ron returned to his office there was a manila envelope from inter-office mail in his inbox. It contained a folder of instructions for his impending mea culpa. The entire cover was printed with a soft-focus photograph of a dapper, professional black man smiling and holding a cup of coffee. At the bottom it said: What you need to know about your first press conference.

The phone rang. It was Julie. She told him he was to hold a press conference that evening at seven o'clock in auditorium B.

"Let's review the talking points," said Julie.

"OK." Ron set the single sheet before him and stared at the bullet-pointed list.

"Read them to me, OK Ron?"

"OK. I, Ronald Martenson, accept full responsibility for what has been widely reported to be the offensive words words that my employee, Howard Landerman, is alleged to have spoken."

"Good, good. Continue."

"I hereby offer my resignation, effective immediately."

"Good! Now what do you say if you're asked whether you, in fact, spoke the words?"

"I accept full responsibility for the words that were alleged to have been spoken."

"Good, Ron. And what do you say if you're asked whether the company forced you to accept responsibility?"

"I accept responsibility of my own free will and volition."

"And if you're asked whether we forced you to quit?"

"I am resigning of my own free will and volition because I am fully responsible for the words that may or may not have been spoken. Also, I wish to spend more time with my family."

"Perfect, Ron! You're a pro. Keep studying until go time. Good luck."

A few hours later, Ron stood at the podium, waiting for the press conference to start. Spotlights shone on his sweating face. In the darkness beyond the bank of microphones, he perceived a roiling frenzy of reporters, TV cameras, still cameras with telephoto lenses.

Suddenly, Ron's cell phone rang. It was Jim.

"Ron! Have you started?"

"No. I think we're about to."

"Change of plans, Ron! Plan B. Contingency plan. New strategy."


"We've made a negative assessment of Howie's capability in terms of integrating with the current construct," Jim explained.

"He can't handle it?"

"He's out to lunch, Ron. Sleeping in his shoes."

"I could have told you that."

"You should have been forthcoming. Anyway, listen. New plan. Don't quit. Blame it all on Howie. Tell 'em he had some kind of breakdown. You'd long suspected it."

"I don't know if I–"

"Tell 'em you were concerned that he had a substance abuse problem. Make it specific. What are those pills, oxy-vice? Something?"

"Jim, I don't feel comf–"

"Plane's about to taxi, Ron. Think on your feet. I trust you. You've been great. Looking forward to continuing to work with you."

"I don't like this, Jim. What about H–"

"Flight attendant approaching with a scornful air. Signing off!"

"Jim, what about Howie? Is he OK?"

"I'm reprimanded, Ron."

"What about Howie?!"

"Can't make out what you're saying over the wails of a terrified baby."

"Just tell me he's alive!"

"Mustn't interfere with the plane's electronic controls. Knock 'em dead, Ron."

Ron put away his phone and blinked into the lights. The conference had officially begun. He stared down at his obsolete prepared statement as the crowd stirred restlessly, straining for a better view.

"Good evening, everyone," he said. "I... I have a statement to make."

The room grew quiet now, though flashes went off madly. Ron leaned toward the microphones and paused a moment. Then he said the only thing there was to say. He said what Howie said.