SYNOPSIS: Cautions people that even self-deprecating humor can easily be used against you by petty people who might disagree with you
A bit more about the Enron board nonsense: I've just learned that self-deprecating humor is a very dangerous thing.
It seems that some readers read whole volumes of interpretation into what I said, both in the original disclosure in my column of my role on the Enron board, and in the NY Times piece almost a year later. Most of the problems seem to stem from a bit of levity, amplified by confusion (and willful misunderstanding, I'm sure) into something I did not mean to say.
First things first: I gather that some people have taken the wording of my statement that I withdrew from the Enron connection because of the NY Times conflict of interest rules as an indication that I wrote for the Times for a while, then was forced to leave the board. No, that's not what happened. I unwound all my potential conflicts of interest as soon as I agreed to work for the Times, back in the fall of 1999. The only reason I stressed those rules was to compliment my employer, which has admirable policies about this kind of thing (and much stricter, it seems, than the Weekly Standard, where William Kristol apparently did exactly what I would never have considered doing: accept pay from Enron while holding down a major journalistic position.)
Now, on to the dangers of humor. I originally wrote that the Enron board turns out to have been a hatchery of future Bush officials, then added: "What was I doing there? Beats me." Now what I meant by that was that I seem to have been a fish among fowl, someone who was clearly a liberal among conservatives. I did not mean that I had nothing to do. To repeat what I have said in other postings, Enron proposed to rent 4 days of my time, and I was also expected to put work into presentations. The payment for that time and effort, on a per day basis, was if anything somewhat lower than the payment I was getting for other business presentations. I certainly wasn't getting something for nothing.
Recently, when I spoke to the Times about the board's role, I said that it had "no function" I was aware of, and that "all in all, I was just another brick in the wall." Maybe I should stop listening to Pink Floyd. What I meant, again, was not that it was pay for no work; I just wondered, in retrospect, whether the real work I did was something valuable to Enron. It seems possible that the real goal from their point of view was to bring in some people who might in future have influence, and shmooze with them. But then again, maybe they thought I would alert them to the next currency crisis. In any case, I prepared for the one meeting I attended as if it were really about telling them about the world: I prepared charts, did simulations of alternative scenarios, and in general did exactly the same things I would have done if making a presentation to Citibank or CSFB.
So to repeat this one more time: I was scrupulously correct in this affair, all the way. You might do better to examine the motives of people who are determined to find an ethical problem where none exists.