WASHINGTON POST CARS COLUMNIST
September 19, 2010
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Warren Brown, you’ve written about automobiles for over 30 years for ”The Washington Post.” First question, how involved is the U.S. government in determining what we drive in this country?
WARREN BROWN, WASHINGTON POST CARS COLUMNIST: Very involved if you look at it from a regulatory viewpoint. You have safety, you have emissions controls and that sort of thing. Most of those things are determined by in terms of the goal of reaching you know an emissions point on our fuel conservation point, those things are determined by the federal government.
Now, how the car companies reach those goals is pretty much up to them as long as they reach them. And so safety affects structure you know interior you know development, emissions controls affects what happens on the you know at the treatment of exhaust. And the whole fuel economy thing affects everything from the shape to the overall size and mass of the car. So the government is really very involved.
LAMB: How did you get started reviewing automobiles?
BROWN: I had a very wise colleague at ”The Washington Post” who told me that if I wanted to make it at ”The Washington Post,” I had to develop a franchise, find something that no one else was doing and do it and live with it try to love it if I could.
And so that’s what I did. When I first I was on the national desk at the ”Post” when I petitioned to join the business staff, much to the chagrin of my national desk editors who thought that I was throwing away my career you know by doing that. But I also was lucky enough to have friendship with Frank Swoboda, who thought I was crazy, but he gave me space to be crazy. And so that helped.
LAMB: But when did you then first get interested in automobiles?
BROWN: I’ve always been interested in automobiles. I mean, I grew up in New Orleans in the late 1940s and ’50s and ’60s when I had to sit at the back of the bus certainly in the ’50s. And that always bothered me. It always bothered my father, you know boarding the bus and having to sit behind a sign saying ”No Colored Beyond This Point.”
Freedom came my parents and black neighbors who bought their own cars. That way they couldn’t always sit up front, but they could drive the things. And that, to me, was power. You know that, to me, was freedom.
Cars have always meant more to me than the sum of their parts. They were a way to escape you know see other worlds. They were also a way for me to see my parents in charge of something rather than sitting behind a sign.
LAMB: How did your parents explain to you, back in those days, why this was there was a division between white and black?
BROWN: They didn’t, really. I’ll tell you an interesting story about our parents you know reared us. We went to Catholic schools in New Orleans mostly Josephite and Blessed Sacrament schools in New Orleans. And I came home from high school, from St. Augustine High School, one day complaining to my father, who was you know a scientist and a researcher for the National Science Foundation, also a teacher in New Orleans public schools, complaining to him that the priest one of my priests was a racist.
This happened to be a priest who taught me my geometry and chemistry. And so my father didn’t say anything. He just told me to get my chemistry and my geometry books. And he says, ”Well, show me where you are, you know in these books.” And I showed him. And he in the chemistry book, he wanted me to work some formula. I couldn’t do it. He didn’t say anything.
He said, ”Show me where you are in geometry.” And I showed him. And I couldn’t I wasn’t not up to snuff you know in geometry. And he looked at me, and he said, ”The priest might be a racist, but you’re stupid. And as long as you’re stupid, it doesn’t matter if he’s a racist. So don’t every come home and tell me that he’s a racist unless you know how to do the work.”
And that was a lesson that has just basically stuck with me. And that sort of sums up the entire way my parents dealt with you know race in New Orleans. It was, ”Yes, it exists, but it’s not excuse. And we don’t care if somebody calls you you know the ”N” word and any of this kind of crap. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you’re behaving improperly, or if you aren’t trying you know your best.” And so that’s how we were reared.
Some people might call that you know bourgeois or close-eyed. You know I call it you know I called it a blessing, because it’s how we reared our children as well, not to base your life on what someone else thinks of you, but to base your life on what you think of yourself and what you want for yourself and what you are doing for other people you know as well. It’s how we were reared.
LAMB: What did you do differently after your father said you were stupid?
BROWN: One thing, I never came home and told him that somebody was a racist. Or if I had a complaint, I made sure that I had researched the complaint thoroughly before bringing it to him. It was sort of like the best defense was to know what the hell you’re talking about before you start talking about it in his house.
And so I studied, that’s what I did. You know I studied. I stopped worrying about how the what I thought the priest thought of me or didn’t think of me, and I started trying to figure out what he was actually trying to teach me in the academic subject matter you know at hand. So I studied, that’s what I did.
LAMB: Did I read and I don’t know whether I read it about you or not, but you that blacks couldn’t take communion in the same church as the whites?
BROWN: There was a it’s amazing how this church has changed. We used to live in the Lower Ninth Ward. And the there was a church there, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, I think around Roman Street or one of those streets down there.
And we could attend that church, but we normally, by tradition, had to stand in the back of the church, you know behind the whites. The whites would have communion first. I always thought that was wrong. And so I was a cheeky little fellow, and so I would go up to communion with the whites.
And sometimes, the priest wouldn’t serve communion until the whites were served. My late brother Daniel Thomas Brown, Jr., would clunk me in the back of the head at the mass, saying, ”You trying to get us killed? You trying to get us in trouble?” You know doing that kind of stuff.
Normally, to avoid that, we went to black Catholic churches, which were are true parish churches, now defunct in many cases. Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, just right outside of the French Quarter, you know we would go there. Those were black Catholic churches, mostly run by Josephite priests and Holy Ghost nuns Blessed Sacrament nuns, Redemptorists, and people like that.
LAMB: Did you ever ask any priest, or confront anybody in that church as to why you had to stay in the back and then why you had to take communion after the whites?
BROWN: Yes, I did. And it was kind of like, you know it’s just basically it’s custom, and you have to learn obedience. And I said, ”I don’t have to learn any kind of obedience.”
But you know unlike and I don’t mean this by as a putdown. Understandably, a lot of black who grew up with me, who were baptized Catholic and who grew up with me, left the Catholic church. Largely, even people in my own family. You know I never did, and married a woman who never did, because we never really identified the teachings of the church with the way some people practice you know the teachings. So we were able to separate that.
And we also had I had you know good training. I mean, I remember once I think it was on a Good Friday, as a matter of fact, at Holy Redeemer, and we had I think the nun was a Sister Mary Vincent (ph). And we had you know gone to morning mass you know before going you know back to class. And we were following out of following out of the church in our you know Holy Redeemer uniforms.
And white kids in the park across the street, which was a white-only park across the street from this church, started calling Sister Vincent (ph) a nigger-lover, seriously. We took offense to that. And you know several of our number charged across the street and got into fisticuffs with this thing, and it was a kind of knock-down thing.
We thought we were heroes. We got to the classroom, and she told us how disappointed in us you know she was, that we had learned none of the teachings of the church, nothing about forgiveness, you know nothing about you know turning the other cheek, that we behaved as hooligans first and Catholics second. And she would have none of that.
LAMB: I’ve got to tell you, when we first asked you to come to the interview, I thought we’d talk about two things mostly the automobile stuff or two, I might as well throw this into the mix right now, the kidney operation.
BROWN: Yes, well, you know it’s like I tell I’ve had two kidney transplants one from my wife, and one from a very good friend, a wonderful colleague of mine, Martha McNeil Hamilton. Both transplants have now gone kaput, as sometimes happens with you know transplants. Martha’s is still functioning in me, but now well enough to keep me off of dialysis, and that’s going on about maybe nine to 10 years.
What it’s taught me is that you’ve got to try to take advantage of life now. You’d better try to figure out what’s important now. Would I have learned this lesson another way, without going through all of the you know pain and you know suffering of you know end-stage renal disease? Yes, probably. But I don’t regret it, not one bit.
LAMB: Well, go back. When did you have the operation?
BROWN: The first one was in 1998, and that was my wife’s transplant gift to me my wife Mary Anne. And the second one was in 2001, which was from Martha Hamilton, who’s a you know one of the funniest, but at the same time, sternest people you’ll ever meet.
You know she just came up to me you know we worked together for a long time. We were friends. And she says, ”Look, dummy, you need another kidney, right?” And I said, ”Yes.” And she says, ”Well, I have two. You can have one.” It went on like that. That’s typically Martha.
We did a book. I think you may have a copy of it there.
LAMB: I do, yes.
BROWN: You know, ”Black & White & Red All Over.” We did that book together in 2001 at the behest of ”The Washington Post,” as a matter of fact. And we probably we’ll have to revisit that, and I suspect that we probably will.
LAMB: You mentioned now, how long have you been back on dialysis?
BROWN: Almost two years now almost two years now.
LAMB: Did the other kidney fail?
BROWN: It stopped functioning as well as it should be functioning, primarily and that of course can create other problems. And so to avoid those other problems, we chose to go back on dialysis.
LAMB: So are you going to have another transplant?
BROWN: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s I have my youngest daughter, Kafi, who’s a medical reporter for New York 1, who wants to give me her kidney. I’m now 62 years old. I’m doing quite well on dialysis you know this time around.
I don’t know if I want to put another life of someone I love and I love both of those women my wife Mary Anne and Martha of course I love my daughter, you know Kafi. I don’t know if I necessarily want to put another one of them you know at risk when I’m actually doing OK.
LAMB: How often do you have to go for that?
BROWN: I go three days a week. But you know it’s manageable. The only thing the only thing that going to dialysis has meant for me is that I had to do something that Martha and my wife Mary Anne and Louann Hamilton (ph), who’s a friend of mine out in California, have always criticized me for not doing, which is planning.
I’ve for example, like I’ll be at the Paris Auto Show. I’ll probably do dialysis at the American Hospital you know in Paris. In order to do that, I have to plan now, you know. And so the only thing this disease has done is make me grow up, really. You know before, I mean, I have you know an assistant, you know Ria Manglapus, who just basically shakes her head because I never really tell her anything. She just kind of like figures it out.
And so now I’ve begun to tell people things. It makes life easier for me, for them, for everyone else.
LAMB: I can’t I read your book, and I can’t go without asking you the something I learned in the book is that, if you have kidney transplant, they don’t remove your other kidneys from your body?
BROWN: No, I’m a four-packer right now you know all atrophied, for the most part, but I have four kidneys somewhere in me, yes.
LAMB: Did that surprise you when you learned that?
BROWN: No, because it’s a removing anything you know from the body involves another you know piece of surgery, and so the medical profession, in its infinite wisdom, would prefer not to have to do an extra bit of surgery if it’s not bothering you. And they don’t bother me. They apparently have shrunk, and they’re atrophied or something, so ...
LAMB: You know as long as we’re talking about this, we have a clip from a Politics and Prose talk that you and your donor had back in November 17 of 2002. Why don’t we run that ...
LAMB: ... And see what you look like back then?
BROWN: I no longer worry about dying as much. If there’s one thing you worry if there’s one thing you learn when you go through something like this is that you’re going to die, you know regardless of whether or not the operation is successful or not.
And so then question, of course, becomes, you know how well do you live? And that’s a much harder question to answer. And so I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to answer that. And the shorthand that I come up with is, basically you try to you try to love and live and work as hard as possible in the time in the time you have, and you know you don’t make a big deal out of it. You know you just basically you know you go on.
BROWN: Yes, that’s still I don’t know if I look the same, but that’s still my thinking. As a matter of fact, I believe it even more now than I did back then.
LAMB: So the book, as you said, is titled, ”Black & White & Red All Over.”
LAMB: For those that have never heard that, where does that title come from?
BROWN: It’s a it’s a joke that we used to have in Catholic school about nuns. You know you know it’s awful you know nun hit by a car, black and white and red all over. But we just changed the black and white and you know red all over, meaning that Martha’s white, I’m black, but we’re our internal organs are all covered by the same you know colored blood, if not you know the same type.
LAMB: They also used to say that about a newspaper.
BROWN: Yes, black and white and read all over.
LAMB: Black and white and read all over.
LAMB: What impact did either the whole experience from the race standpoint have on your life, and for that matter, Martha’s life, and the book?
BROWN: Well, the impact of race was that my siblings and I certainly we had I had six brothers and sisters. We now have we’re now a sibling group of four we could not have had better parents. We could not honestly, I think about this every day. We were lucky in our choice of parents.
I had a father who had every reason to be angry to be an angry black man. He served in World War II, fought in World War II, was a medic a U.S. Army medic. Came home, tried to get into medical school Tulane University, LSU, those schools down there then were not you know accepting you know blacks in their classrooms.
Went to Xavier University you know pre-med, what have you. Then she’s now called St. Katharine Drexel, what Mother Katharine Drexel took him you know under her wing. He became a teacher in Catholic schools in Louisiana, teaching science.
I think I could recall him telling me that what she told him, that if he couldn’t become a doctor now, maybe he could train future doctors. And he took that to heart. You know he taught you know science in Catholic schools in Louisiana, then he taught science for a long time in the black New Orleans public schools.
And the funny thing now is that, even now, even when I’m overseas, and I may wind up somebody’s pharmacy in Belgium or France or something like that, and I see a black person behind, and I wonder if they came from the U.S. And in one or two occasions, you know in France they had actually came from the United States. And I said, ”Well, where’d you grow up?” And he says you know, ”In New Orleans.”
And I said, ”Do you know a Daniel Thomas Brown, Sr.?” And he said, ”Yes, he taught me at Coin Bothrell Coin (ph) senior high school down in New Orleans.” And it’s just the greatest amount of pride that he chose not to hate. He chose to take St. Katharine Drexel’s Mother Katharine Drexel’s you know guidance, and he did train you know the black doctors and pharmacists of the future. And that’s a very special thing to me.
LAMB: So you’re sitting at a dinner party, and somebody sitting next to you has an opportunity to talk to you. Do they ask you what your favorite car is? Or do they ask you about your kidney operation?
BROWN: Usually what my favorite car is. And my response is, I don’t really have a favorite car. My favorite car I’m an automotive gigolo. My favorite car is the car at the moment. Right now, I’m extremely interested in alternatively powered you know electric cars you know gas-electric models. I love diesel.
So my favorite car is one that can give you the most horsepower, the most torque, with the least fuel consumption. And you know you give me a car you give me a car like that, and you know and I’m happy.
LAMB: Who builds the best cars?
BROWN: Everybody now builds very good cars, honestly. I don’t know if you can say ”best.” People were getting on Toyota’s case recently past you know during the summer primarily because Toyota well, they discovered that Toyota was human. They discovered that Toyota can make mistakes.
I had known that all along. I have been saying that for the past 10 or 12 years. They makes mistakes. You don’t believe me? Look at what Toyota consumers say in Japan. But in the United States, we somehow had given Toyota the mantel of infallibility, that somehow it didn’t make any errors, which was nonsense.
Toyota’s problem isn’t that it just started losing a grasp of its quality. Toyota’s problem is that it started losing grasp of its myth of infallibility. It had always made mistakes. The media had always ignored them, by and large, and so, as a result, did our government.
You know Toyota is as good as Toyota has always been. It’s also makes as many mistakes as Toyota has always made. General Motors, which was always the bad boy of quality, they did have bad quality. They made you know lots of errors.
The error wasn’t the physical error. The error was the management error of pretending that you weren’t making mistakes when you had consumers out there suffering, and being arrogant about it. It makes people angry. And when they become angry, they remember that for a very long time.
The current GM is not at all you know the old GM. And the current GM wasn’t just born in 2008 or when we had the financial fallout. The current GM actually started coming about in the late 1990s when they actually started paying more attention to quality. They started paying more attention to basically how to please you know their consumers.
The cars that everybody the GM cars that you see now that everyone is you know that people are raving about, it didn’t just happen in 2008. That started happening 10 years ago. The question is that, now that they’ve learned they being GM now that it’s learned that painful lesson, you know will it continue under the new management? Will it understand that the car is the thing? Here’s hoping that that’s the case.
LAMB: How many people do what you do in American newspapers?
BROWN: It’s hard to tell, honestly. I wish I could I could give you an answer.
LAMB: I’m not looking for a number so it’s there are not very many, are there?
BROWN: No, not very you know I’m an odd fish. Dan Neil I guess he’s at the ”New York Times” is an odd fish and Healey at the ”USA Today.” If they you know we’re all you know the three of us have this idea of the car industry is not just the sum of its parts. It’s not just the latest new thing. There’s a you know a movement you know you know going on here.
I bring all of my historical baggage you know you know to coverage. People say, ”Well, why are you so willing to give General Motors and Ford a break?” Well, I mean, and it’s personal. But I have no problem admitting it. I’m willing to give GM and Ford a break, because they were the companies that gave my people a break.
You know I mean, it is arguable, I think justifiable, to have an argument to say that we would not have a black middle class had we not had General Motors, Ford you know and Chrysler. You go to Detroit today to the old automotive neighborhoods. The difference in those neighborhoods and say 1950s, 1960s, is that the blacks who were working in the plants then, they did have a dream. They wanted their kids to run the plants. You know they wanted their kids to design the cars and to be lawyers and so forth and so on. And that’s what their kids became.
One of our chief foreign correspondents at ”The Washington Post” now is a guy you know who grew up in a UAW family. You know it’s so did I have affection for those companies? Yes. Now, does that affection translate to turning a blind eye to their failings? No.
As a matter of fact, I think I was probably more harsh on them you know for their failings than people who fancy themselves as being you know so-called you know objective and not having any feelings for those companies, because, to me, they were throwing away our legacy not only our legacy as you know you know black Americans, but our legacy as American, period.
I mean, the idea that you would throw away manufacturing superiority because you’re you know you’re just chasing bucks, and you don’t really care what you’re producing you know the idea that you would throw away leadership and innovation infuriated me. I mean, it I was angry with those companies for you know for a long time.
But at the same time, I was also willing to give you know give them a break once I was convinced, as I became convinced, that you had people that who actually cared about turning out you know top products.
LAMB: I tried to find all kinds of numbers, and I’m not going to trust any of them, so I’m going to ask you if you can help on this. Which country in the world today manufactures the most automobiles?
BROWN: I think you’ll have to say you know Japan, but mostly for mostly for export. China is coming up very fast. You know we’re still you know in there, but you know not nearly as much as we used to be.
LAMB: How do we relate to China? In other words, how many Americans are over there or companies are over there building automobiles?
BROWN: Practically every with the exception of Chrysler certainly Ford and General Motors are there. General Motors is one of the, if not the, biggest company you know in China right now. Buick is the best-selling nameplate you know in China.
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I went to Shanghai you know that I realized that there could actually be something called a ”good Buick.” You know I’m over there, I’m looking at these Buicks, and I’m going, ”I don’t get it. You know why are you guys making great Buicks here, but you’re making Buicks at home?”
And it all had to do, from their telling, what the Chinese market demanded what the Chinese buyer demanded. I mean, if you could afford to buy any kind of a car I mean, it says something about you. There was a whole face thing. And saving face, or honoring face, is a very was a very important thing. And oddly enough, GM of China stepped up to it, while GM North America was sitting on its tail not doing that.
So now, what happens is that GM North America and GM China, at least in mindset, are one, which is a good thing. Because now we’re getting Buicks like the like the new LaCrosse and the you know the new Buick Regal, which is an excellent you know mid-size car. And I all credit GM China for somehow transferring its culture to GM North America and reinvigorating GM North America.
LAMB: How far have you traveled to see the automobile being manufactured?
BROWN: I’ve been all over the world. That’s one reason I love this job. I’ve been all I’ve been to Kazakhstan. And you know I’ve been all over Kazakhstan looking at cars. You know all over at least, not all over Russia, but certainly you know Moscow and you know St. Petersburg and places like that, you know looking at their automobile industry you know Brazil, looking at production and the car industry down there.
It’s a fascinating industry. You know western Europe is kind of like a second home you know Germany you know Germany and France Japan. It’s a fascinating industry. And all of that travel, whoever said that travel is the best way to eradicate your biases knew what he or she was talking about. It’s the best way to eradicate your biases.
LAMB: You know right after the wall came down, we traveled over the Germany, and the first thing you saw in East Germany were those Trabants. And I don’t remember exactly, but I think you had to wait something like 13 years, and it’d cost you 10 grand to get one of them. And they were two strokes and they’d ...
BROWN: They were awful.
LAMB: Five years later, you went we went back there, and they were gone.
LAMB: And they had the Ladas from Russia.
BROWN: No, you see a lot of the Ladas in Kazakhstan, obviously, and in Russia. But there an interesting story about the Trabants.
About two years after the wall came down, I went to Munich to do some interviews with BMW. And there were about maybe three or four little white Trabants Trabbies, I guess you call them, you know outside of the you know BMW you know headquarters.
And so I asked one of the execs at BMW, I said, ”What’s you know what’s with the Trabants?” And he says, ”Oh, those are people from East Germany who are coming for are applying for a job” at the you know BMW in Munich. And BMW the exec said the BMW exec said he could not the company could not hire many of them, because it was really just culture shock.
I mean, BMW’s just constantly just going all the time. I mean, you don’t stop, you know you don’t fall back, you know if something breaks, you fix it. I mean, that’s just the way I mean, it’s just constant pressure that apparently some of these guys from East Germany you know weren’t accustomed to. If something broke, something fell down, you know you know shut down the line and come back the next day. Didn’t happen at BMW.
LAMB: So, in your job though, how do you protect yourself from being schmoozed to death by all these car people?
BROWN: People like you you know readers, seriously buyers. I see myself as a servant, not as a journalist, per se. I see myself essentially as a servant. And I am serving those people out there who are buying cars and trucks. I am their servant.
And that basically means you know I have to keep them happy. A good servant basically keeps the people being served happy. I have to keep them happy. I have to look out for their interests. And they tell me what their interests are. I can’t be anybody’s boy you know from the manufacturing viewpoint. I am you know their person. I have to serve them.
And so that keeps me honest. If they don’t like something, they are not the least bit shy (ph) about letting me know they don’t like something. If I run a whole bunch of expensive cars, say three or four in a row, ”Hey, knucklehead, do you realize it’s a recession? We can’t afford those cars. What are you doing? You know write about something that we can afford please, like tomorrow, you know do it already.”
And so I listen to them, and so they keep me honest. My readers keep me honest. The buying public keeps me honest. If they don’t like it, they let me know. And if you’re smart in this business, you’ll listen to them.
LAMB: What’s your take on General Motors as 60 percent owned by the American people?
BROWN: Well, if they weren’t 60 percent owned by the American people, we wouldn’t be talking about General Motors, would we? So, it was a shock you know to see you know the company going to bankruptcy, but it was a shock that it got over with you know over really quickly.
I wasn’t really worried about GM going into bankruptcy, because I knew the work that GM had been doing on new products the past five, six or seven years. And I liked those products. I liked that you know that product schedule.
It was a different General by the time by the time GM’s sins caught up with it to put it into bankruptcy, it was a completely different General Motors. And this is what I mean by that. The spirit at the place had completely you know it had completely changed.
There was a time, when Frank Swoboda was working with me, covering the automobile industry, you know we would go to you know to Detroit to do interviews at you know GM, and you could hear the shutters coming down. ”Hey, those guys from the ’Post’ are in the building, you know cut it down.” We couldn’t speak to engineers or stylists without having the feelings of GM public relations people you know around us.
Nowadays, the stylists are calling you. The engineers you know are calling you. ”We want to show you what we’ve got you know what we’re doing.” There’s a sense of pride at the place. You know they really believe in what they’re doing. Management finally has gotten common sense enough to understand that if you hire someone to be an engineer, maybe you ought to let her be an engineer. You know let her do her best work, you know, and pay her for it, encourage it.
So that GM that’s the GM that actually went into bankruptcy, but that GM was actually paying for the sins of the former, paying for the sins of the old GM.
Poor Rick Wagoner, G. Richard Wagoner, the guy you know he really did everything he could possibly do, and I’m not saying it because he’s now on the board of ”The Washington Post,” but he did everything he possibly could do, putting most of his emphasis on improved product quality, improved products, pouring billions of dollars into it, you know taking lots of loans for it.
And that part of Wagoner’s reign was successful. The part of Wagoner’s reign that was a failure was, he was too nice a guy. He just couldn’t bring himself to shut plants as quickly as they should have been shut. He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of divisions that should have been gotten rid of. He couldn’t bring himself to fire people that he probably should have fired. And so he got fired. Not a fair life.
LAMB: What’s your take on why Ford didn’t have to get money from the government?
BROWN: Because when you are already head over hills in debt, which Ford was at the time of the financial collapse, you’re not exactly going to rush out to put yourself in more debt. Ford had mortgaged everything, including its blue oval. So that’s one reason why they didn’t do it.
The other reason is that Ford had the good fortune of failing before GM and Chrysler. And it had the common sense of listening to whoever said, ”OK, we have to bring in new management.” And they brought in Alan Mulally. And the company then had the common sense to leave Mulally alone and let Mulally be Mulally.
And he cut what Ford management didn’t want to cut. He threw out what they didn’t want to throw out. He borrowed lots of money, poured it all into new product. That new product is good product excellent product. And it was just beginning to come out just as the recession hit.
And so, one, Ford couldn’t borrow more money. They were too heavily in debt. They had actually fixed the problems that got them into trouble. And could they have used the government’s money? Yes, but they were wise enough to say, ”No, we didn’t we don’t want to do that.” And so they got the favorable blow-back on that, which is, ”Oh, look, you know Ford can do it.”
The problem was, Ford had almost gone into bankruptcy long before General Motors. They were in turmoil long before General Motors. They had fixed all of that. They had borrowed their way into new products, couldn’t borrow more money and were smart enough not to take the handout that was offered to them.
LAMB: Looking back on Chrysler, why did Daimler first buy it? And then why did Cerberus, the financial operation, take it over? And then why did Fiat get into it?
BROWN: Ego is the one answer to all of those questions.
LAMB: Just plain ego?
BROWN: Plain ego. Look, when Daimler bought first of all, Chrysler had been trying to shop itself around almost since I started covering the beat at ”The Washington Post” back in the 1980s. Chrysler had been shopping itself around you know looking for a part (ph). Eads (ph) Eaton, rather, Bob Eaton and Iacocca had done I should say Iacocca and Eaton had done a good job of making Chrysler saleable, bringing Chrysler back, you know using the bailout money the first bailout money in the 1980s bringing Chrysler back and developing a good portfolio, making Chrysler a renewed money maker.
Daimler-Chrysler, the management at Daimler-Chrysler then, thought, ”Oh, yes, we can use Chrysler to you know to expand in the United States and you know put our mark you know everywhere.” Except that you had the same thing that happens in a dysfunctional family. You know sisters A and B, you know they go off and you know they go off and you know they’re doing everything they should do. Chrysler is the is the problem child. But now you’re bring Chrysler into the family.
You had people at Mercedes-Benz who swore, ”We will have nothing to do with them. You know we will not give them our engines. We won’t give them anything. We won’t we won’t let Chrysler near anything that says Mercedes-Benz.” And so it was a dysfunctional family, and it was just all purely you know purely ego.
Now comes Fiat I’ve always said, and I still contend, that the only reason Fiat wants Chrysler is because of Dodge, you know because of Chrysler’s trucks. You know Fiat doesn’t really have entry into the truck market, and the truck market is going to start growing again as the economy starts growing again.
Fiat’s entry into Chrysler gives it some of the best pickup trucks in the world. Yay for Fiat. You know the media looked at it as you know Chrysler now needing small cars. Well, yes, Chrysler needs small cars, so great, you know Chrysler gets the Fiat 500. It gets the Fiat 500 when gasoline prices in the United States have done this again. They’ve come down. It makes the Fiat 500 a little bit less of a deal in the United States for Chrysler. But it makes those big Dodge trucks a great deal for Fiat.
LAMB: So 10 years from now, project from what you’ve seen about oil, gas and the electric car. And I know you’re I’ve seen you write not so many great things about the Prius, it’s a lot of puffery there.
BROWN: Well, put it this way. The Prius is not so much puffery as is the idea that Prius technology gas-electric technology is the answer you know to our energy conservation problems. It’s not. When you look at you know oil when you look at beginning to end of what it takes to make a Prius and put it on the road and maintain it, you’re actually spending more in terms of energy than you are on a Hummer, OK? So I mean, that’s the reality.
You know electric cars, I love them, you know particularly you know if you could get something like a you know a Tesla going (ph). But even a little Mitsubishi i-MiEV, I-M-I-E-V, it’s a great little neighborhood car no pollution what have you, you know all electric but that energy has to come from someplace. You want to know where the energy comes from, go to West Virginia and look at those mountainsides you know that have been that have been stripped.
So what are we looking at in 10 years? We’re looking at, to me, a matrix, or a combination of things. You’re looking at electric, gas-electric. I’m hoping you’re looking at more intelligent use of compressed natural gas you know and propane. But you’re probably still looking at a majority market of fossil fuels, a more intelligent use of those fossil fuels you know direct injection gasoline and you know diesel engines, you know computer-controlled gasoline and diesel engines, you know lighter-weight materials and that and that sort of thing.
There’s no silver bullet out there. If you want a silver bullet, and you wanted to scare people, you know why not nuclear? I mean, why not? It works. I mean, you go you go over to France, I mean a lot of their electricity is nuclear-powered you know electricity, and it works. You know why not put it in a car? I know, never mind.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the days in this personal stuff here, when you were in seventh grade and you started writing Governor Jimmie Davis, the singing governor, the so-called author of ”You Are My Sunshine.”
LAMB: What was it in your life in Louisiana in the Ninth Ward that moved you to write Governor Davis?
BROWN: The public schools in New Orleans were being integrated you know at that time. And as punishment for you know the federal government saying the schools had to be integrated, the governor stopped paying black school teachers. He stopped you know he basically kind of like shut down paying the school teachers, you know particularly the black school teachers.
BROWN: I wish I could I never had the opportunity to ask him.
LAMB: Well, he came from a he was poor as a ...
BROWN: Thank you.
LAMB: ... You could be when he started ...
BROWN: I just thought it was this racial spite. It was and I never could understand that.
LAMB: Was he playing for votes? Is that what ...
BROWN: I think he was playing for votes, yes, probably. It was it was you know strictly political. He obviously wasn’t caring about black school teachers. He obviously wasn’t caring about my father who was a very proud man. And this was right around Christmas as I recall.
And my father’s a very proud man very, very, very proud man.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
BROWN: Oh, no, he died about maybe 10 years ago. And he was not a person you know to ask for handouts. I mean, were he GM, he probably would have just gone bankrupt, you know.
And I could see the pain and the hurt in his eyes, and I knew that he wouldn’t say anything about it. So I took it upon myself to write Governor Davis, you know a nasty letter, calling him a racist and a bunch of other things and telling him how he was hurting our family with his stupid policy and stuff like that.
The mistake I made was, I mailed the letter without letting my father read it first. And he said, ”Are you trying to get us killed? Are you crazy? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand how the real world operates?” But he was also proud. He was ...
LAMB: Did you ever get an answer?
BROWN: From Governor Davis?
BROWN: No, no, I never got an answer from him or any of his cronies.
LAMB: Here’s a column that you wrote in July of 2007. I just want to read this first paragraph.
”I’ve often been accused of stridency, of thumping my chest and shouting, ’I’m right.’ The charges comes from spouse and children and friends and acquaintances and from more than a few of my fine editors at ’The Washington Post.’ One of them wondered about my affection for diatribe.”
Was that admitting too much?
LAMB: In truth I don’t know whether you remember that column.
BROWN: Yes, yes, yes.
LAMB: What led to you starting a column?
BROWN: Well, because I probably went into another diatribe and beat somebody up. I forget who I beat up in that column, but it was probably it was a diatribe prelude to a diatribe yes, yes.
LAMB: Is that you?
BROWN: Yes, yes, it’s I did that. I say it both with pride and contrition. That’s me.
LAMB: Why with pride and why with contrition?
BROWN: Because I’ve often been accused of opening my mouth when I should have kept it shut. And I stand guilty. And you know sometimes with contrition, because maybe sometimes I should have kept it shut. But as they say in the Catholic church, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.
LAMB: You in your book, you dedicate the book to a lot of women.
BROWN: Yes, yes.
LAMB: And your son.
LAMB: How many kids you got?
BROWN: Three I have three kids. Two daughters and my son.
LAMB: And what are they doing in their lives?
BROWN: Well, the girls are OK. The girls are you know the oldest girl, Binta, she’s a partner with Kirkland & Ellis law firm. Kafi is chief medical correspondent for New York 1.
My son has chronic epilepsy and a lot of brain damage as a result of that. And so we’re trying to work with him to get him into an independent living program so that he can have more of a life for himself, yes.
LAMB: And your wife, Mary Anne, she gave you that kidney back in the late ’90s.
BROWN: Yes, she gave me my first kidney back in 1998, yes.
LAMB: It was 19 ...
BROWN: I think it was 1998, the first one.
LAMB: What impact did that have on her, giving up a kidney?
BROWN: You know she’s a funny woman. She was very, very happy, as a matter of fact, insistent on giving me her kidney regardless of the pain, medical inconvenience or anything it would cost her. It didn’t it didn’t cross her mind. You know, she loves me, here’s my kidney, take it.
The impact was on losing the kidney. I never saw anyone so devastated. She was absolutely devastated that her transplant only lasted for two years or so. I mean, she was depressed you know for a long time.
LAMB: After you after it didn’t work.
BROWN: After it worked for two years and then stopped working. The hardest time in my life was coming home and telling Mary Anne that I was losing her kidney. Because I knew how devastating that would be to her, and it was. It was devastating you know for her.
That told me a lot about her. You know so and then she was funny, because there were several other women friends who were going to give me a kidney. One I can’t mention, because she’s I can’t mention her by name, because she’s an official with the you know Organization of American States, but anyway, she’s from Chile, so she’ll know who she is.
And so she’s you know she’s in our kitchen you know with Mary Annee, and they’re cooking something. Mary Anne turns to Lydia (ph) I can say the first name and says you know, ”Lydia (ph), I’m really happy that you are giving Warren your kidney.” ”Oh, Mary Annee that’s if that’s OK. You know Warren is my friend, you know I love him and ba ba ba.” And then, ”Lydia (ph), you do understand that your kidney is all you’re giving Warren.”
LAMB: Well, what about the impact on Martha McNeil Hamilton when the second kidney then failed.
BROWN: Well, you know Martha is one of you know God’s children, really, truly. Martha’s kidney was like this. Martha and I were working together for at least you know a couple years after she gave me her kidney. And it was like having a second wife you know in the office. You know I’d go out to lunch, ”What are you going to eat? What are you going to eat? What are you going to drink? And you can’t have any of that, you know because you have part of me in you.”
And honestly, I took that seriously. You know when somebody gives you, physically, a part of themselves like that, they’re more than giving you physically a part of themselves. The recipient has a moral obligation to live up to that. The recipient has a moral obligation to do everything in his or her power to take care you know of that gift.
And so that was another part of helping me to grow up, you know understanding that not only that Mary Anne, not only that Martha gave me a physical part of themselves, they give me something else of themselves, and I owe them. And it’s not owe as in a dunning note. It’s owe as in, I have to return that gift of love with how I behave and how I take care of myself.
So to people who are receiving you know the gift of a transplant, you know the one thing I wish they would understand is that it is far different from receiving a car part. You know I mean it’s not like changing a filter. You are receiving a part of a life, be that life now snuffed out, and you’re getting a cadaver you know transplant.
Ours is a living transplant. You’re receiving a part of a life. And as a recipient, you have to honor those people with how you live. And that’s very real to me.
LAMB: Another interesting note in the book that when your end of life renal failure, that Medicare has to pay for it, or they will pay for it (INAUDIBLE)?
BROWN: Yes, yes, it’s a complicated thing. You know the insurance companies are going through that with me right now. You know all of the insurers want to know, ”Well, how long have you been on dialysis?” Because apparently I guess after a year or so, your private insurance company cuts off, and Medicare takes over.
LAMB: Even if you’re not 65.
BROWN: Even if you’re not 65, and it doesn’t matter how rich you are or what you are doing. All of this hypocritical talk, we talk about a public health care plan, well I am on a public health care plan. Everyone not everyone, but certainly I would say 95 percent of the people who are receiving dialysis, and I think you’re looking at oh, 40,000, I think. Anyway, I should stay away from numbers.
But 95 percent of the people who are on dialysis right now are on a federal health care program. You know I go to dialysis three days a week, 3-1/2 hours per session. That’s $800 per session. Medicare, for the most part, pays that or will be paying it, once my private insurance runs out.
You have numerous other people who are not nearly as fortunate as I am to have an employer like ”The Washington Post” you know to have you know fairly you know we’re not rich, but you know we’re not, by any stretch of the imagination, poor. We’re Obama rich, under (ph) $250,000, you know who have private insurance or have employment that would take of private most of the people, I’m willing to hazard, who are on dialysis you know today, are funded by the federal government.
And I doubt seriously that you’ll find one of them who says, ”I don’t want the federal government you know paying for this. Because without it, we’d die, you know? I mean, it’s now become dialysis is now routine. It is so routine that you can just basically schedule your life around it. You know but without it, you die.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier that you were thinking about updating this book.
LAMB: What do you want to do?
BROWN: Well, the question that is frequently asked me by I was kind of the kind of a poster child for kidney transplants, is, ”Are you cured?” And my answer is, no, you’re not cured. If you read the Bible, you remember that Lazarus, you eventually die, and so will I.
And so the question is, you know what happens after the transplant you know doesn’t work out? Do you hang your head and feel bad about it? Or how do you think about it? And how I think about it, and what I want to write about, is that you have to look at every moment, particularly every gift of love, as an ultimate gift.
I’ve had two major gifts of love. And it extended you know my life. And it’s extending my life now. The question is, what do you do with the extension? You know how do you use the extension to make a difference? If it’s just an extension, and you don’t make a difference, then what value is the extension?
And so I’m going to write about that in the next book. And I may do it with Martha, if she’s willing. And if not, I’ll try to do it alone. But I but I hope I can do it with Martha, yes.
LAMB: Warren Brown has been our guest. His book is ”Black & White & Red All Over” with Martha McNeil Hamilton. It’s 2002, I believe?
BROWN: Yes, correct, yes.
LAMB: And you can still get it, I assume.
BROWN: Yes, you can still get it on Amazon. And you can still anybody can still get it on Amazon, yes.
LAMB: Thanks for your time.
BROWN: Thank you, appreciate it.