AIG CEO Compares Bad Publicity Over Bonuses to Lynching

“You’re gonna sound like an a**hole. I guarantee it.”

Scoring an interview with The Wall Street Journal‘s Money Beat blog is obviously a little different than going on the Today show, but some rules still apply:

  • Don’t try to turn billionaires into victims, because that doesn’t work
  • Never compare suffering bad publicity to being kidnapped and murdered

Robert Benmosche, CEO of real estate insurance giant/big time bad guy AIG, discarded both of these rules last week when he sat down with WSJ. In case you don’t recall, AIG was one of the prime movers blamed for the mortgage crisis because it trafficked in worthless credit default swaps before collapsing and receiving the largest government bailout of a private company in history. And the terrible PR Benmosche describes concerned the fact that employees continued to get eye-opening bonuses after they ruined their own company and, by extension, the entire American economy. Here’s the quote that’s pissing everybody off:

“Now you have these bright young people [in the financial-products unit] who had nothing to do with [the bad bets that hurt the company.] … They understand the derivatives very well; they understand the complexity. … They’re all scared. They [had made] good livings. They probably lived beyond their means. …They aren’t going to stay there for nothing.

The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

“We wouldn’t be here today had they not stayed and accepted … dramatically reduced pay.

We aren’t going to get into more details of the story because they don’t matter. If a CEO’s true goal is to improve his company’s reputation, then he will never compare himself or anyone like him to the victim of a lynching, because no single statement could better illustrate his disconnect from the world the rest of us live in or his own outsized sense of entitlement (to great press and a sycophantic public). We’d say this is especially true of a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, lives in Boca Raton and read about the Mason-Dixon line in history class one time. But shouldn’t that be painfully obvious? This guy needs to fire himself only after he fires whoever serves as his media relations advisor.