'You're (Not) Fired!'


Los Angeles Times

December 8, 2004

What does it take to get fired these days? Donald Rumsfeld's continued tenure at the Pentagon, basketball fan-attacker Ron Artest's too-slight punishment and the idiocy emerging in the trial over the breakup of Disney's two Michaels all raise that question.

Start with Rumsfeld. It's almost laughable in light of President Bush's ambitious Cabinet overhaul that Rumsfeld is among the few getting a second tour of duty. Rumsfeld should have resigned months ago, when he pledged to take full responsibility — a meaningless gesture, apparently — for the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. We've since learned that prisoner abuses encouraged by the administration's disdain for international law were more widespread, reaching from Guantanamo to Afghanistan.

What's more, the Defense secretary has shown a disastrous lack of judgment in the conduct of Iraqi operations. Rumsfeld once mocked Iraqi insurgents as "dead-enders," but a year and a half after entering Baghdad, the U.S. military cannot even secure the road between the city center and its airport. Just this week, Rumsfeld regretted not having been forewarned about the strength of the resistance, but he himself played a role in ushering out the Army's top general, Eric Shinseki, for his warning before the invasion that the U.S. would need at least 200,000 troops to occupy Iraq.

It's a big leap downward from sending Americans into battle to battling spectators. But bad judgment is everywhere. Artest is the Indiana Pacer player/rap artist who started indiscriminately beating up fans after being pelted with a plastic cup. The National Basketball Assn. suspended Artest for the rest of the season. Sports commentators rushed to applaud such "toughness," and the players union — in the kind of move that gives organized labor a bad name — is appealing the suspension as overly harsh. We checked with Tribune Co.'s human relations department: If an L.A. Times employee assaulted customers on the premises, he or she would be terminated for more than a season.

Over at the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz, hired in 1995 as Disney president and heir apparent of then-Chairman Michael Eisner, was let go a year later, but not really fired. After his disastrous and short stint — during which he did manage to spend $2 million redecorating his office — Ovitz was eased out with $140 million, a severance amounting to the full value of his contract. In the face of a shareholder suit, Disney and its directors are now trying to persuade a Delaware judge that this was money they couldn't avoid spending because they didn't have sufficient reason to fire him.

Evidence at the trial shows that Ovitz, who when touring a company amusement park rode in his own limo instead of joining fellow Disney executives in buses, had a hard time getting along with his peers. But the company apparently maintains that's not a necessary skill for the president of a global media conglomerate, so he was paid off as if he'd been a success on the job.

Donald Trump may have popularized the phrase "You're fired," but it seems that once you've reached certain rarefied strata in American life — far, far removed from a mere apprenticeship — there is little danger of being held accountable for your actions.