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March 30th, 2009
12:45 PM ET

Astonishing day for GM, America

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/03/30/gm.ceo.resigns/art.gm.gi.jpg caption="General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner's resignation statement is on the GM Web site."]
Bob Greene
CNN Contributor

The phrases have become part of the national lexicon:

"What's good for General Motors is good for America."

And:

"As GM goes, so goes the nation."

Both are inexact translations of what GM's president in the middle of the 20th century, Charles Wilson, once said. His true words, according to many sources, were:

"For years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."

So the meaning was the same, even as Wilson's sentences themselves were paraphrased. And perhaps the most instructive part about it - during this week in which the current head of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, is leaving the company under pressure from the White House - is the context in which Wilson was praising the power and the patriotic symbolism of GM.

He was appearing at a congressional hearing because a brand-new president of the United States - Dwight D. Eisenhower - had selected him to become secretary of defense. Wilson, who still had significant holdings in GM stock, had been asked, as he sat before Congress in 1953, if he would be able to make decisions for the country that might not be in the best interests of his old company; his instinctive response was that the question was largely irrelevant, because the welfare of the United States and the welfare of General Motors were in essence the same thing.

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Filed under: 360º Follow • auto bailout • Economy
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Kay

    If Wagoner and his company are taking my tax payer money via bailouts and coming up with plans that aren't going to save the company beyond two months, damn straight the president gets to step in.

    It was a *request* to step down; Obama couldn't have forced him out any more than he could stop AIG from passing out millions in handouts to fat cats. No doubt this was a blessed welcome for Wagoner: a free pass off the ship for the captain before it's sunk.

    March 30, 2009 at 8:35 pm |
  2. Julie

    I am just as scared and confused about all this. I live in metro detroit and have see the hardships first hand, and can not even imagine what is yet to come. I have a comment to add to that. Didn't GM ask for this money and agee to the terms? I would like to know what they, meaning they the government and the auto industry aren"t telling us.

    March 30, 2009 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Melissa

    Sounds good to me. Time for the govt to get guts with the corrupt selfish CEO's. And they AREN'T taking away freedoms people, they are stopping the rich from taking advantage of the less fortunate. Stop making stuff up.

    March 30, 2009 at 5:35 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Having the government tell a CEO he has to resign bothers me – I've always thought government needed to play a larger role in socio-economic situations such as helping the homeless, or people who can't buy food, etc. I've never thought it was the governments place to administer the big companies in the US.

    March 30, 2009 at 5:30 pm |
  5. Vi, WA

    I bet Wagoner is so glad that someone gave him to step down, take the money and retired.
    I know some people must say that's not fair to auto not getting a bailout since banking/finance got that. Auto and banking/finance is NOT the same since US auto has limited export (almost NONE!) and it does not affect the auto industry in the world like banking/finance does.
    That's opportunity cost. Why the government spend so much in a dying industry and not spend it on an industry with prospect?!

    March 30, 2009 at 5:30 pm |
  6. Mark, Canton OH.

    Does this mean the President has the right to fire us if we put the money from the first stimulus package in the bank. I am not sure I spent it the way former President Bush wanted me to.

    GM asked for the President to get involved.
    The President did what he was asked to do.

    We as American need to realize that tough times are here. We, as a nation, cannot last if we are going to continue to keep the deficit at just over 11 trillion dollars. Obama is now saying that it might be best for GM to declare bankruptcy. May be the United States of America is bankrupt.

    March 30, 2009 at 4:53 pm |
  7. Daun Alta Loma CA

    This just blows my mind...I guess it's easier now to get rid of a high-powered CEO of one of the Big 3, than a US Post Office employee. That's a lot of power!! What happened to the stock-holders of Chrysler? Don't they have a say? Isn't there a process in removing Mr. Waggoner? Why isn't anyone being removed from the banks, who by the way, received tons more money than the Big 3 and caused a lot more damage to the economy. Why so imbalanced? There's way too many questions. One being, who gave Obama the power to remove an employee of a private corporation?

    March 30, 2009 at 4:27 pm |
  8. Terry Sams

    My question is why only Waggoner? Is his "sin" more aggregious than any of the other bailed out CEOs? Such passionate yelling in some of the posts. Perhaps it is the frustration of being an American at a time when it appears our economic power and influence in the world is on the decline. Maybe we don't wish to admit we all are to blame for this mess. We borrowed beyond our means to pay, and we insisted on buying those gas hog SUVs and trucks GM wasn't supposed to be selling us. In reality we all should be "fired" for not doing the right thing to begin with. Blaming AIG, Citi, GM, or Waggonner is the easy thing to do. Its like I'm reliving the 70's all over. Same problems, different scapegoats. Question is, can Americans suck it up and do the right things now? Based on my 4+ decades on Earth, I have my doubts.

    March 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
  9. Sharon S

    Funny how the President can get rid of the CEO of GM but can't seem to get rid of the overpaid pompous Union that has been dragging GM down for years with overpaid employees and over done benefits!!??

    I think if Congress wants to do anything they should let these companies FAIL!!! Then take responsibility for their actions to rebuild a company that is competible with other car companies!!!

    Nissan and Toyota and Honda DO NOT HAVE UNIONS!!! yet their employees seem quite happy and the quality of the cars prove it!

    GM needs to fail! I could care less about the CEO he is the least of it!
    if Obama states over and over on TV so often how he listens to Americans, Well then he must be blind or deaf to the fact WE DON'T WANT TO BAIL OUT GM or ANY CAR COMPANY!!!!!!

    March 30, 2009 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Neo

    Hmmm. Seems like there's more to this story .... will stay tuned. Funny that he didn't fire Geithner or Dodd however.

    March 30, 2009 at 2:13 pm |
  11. Henry A. White

    Please take this opportunity to speaki ENGLISH when dis the domestic automobile issues. Isn't it true that GM has to reduce cost significantly to be viable again? Why not lo0o0k at the cost breakdown and let the pulic know what the true issue facing these companies. It isn't about price of the vehicles, it's wages, health care, dividends being paid and other cost. Let us know the specifics!

    March 30, 2009 at 1:47 pm |
  12. JC- Los Angeles

    "Baseball (steroids), hot dogs (pigs), apple pie and Chevrolet (?)"; aside from apple pie, our nation is in a world of hurt.

    Thanks to cheats, lousy diets and horrifc leadership in the automotive industry, it may be time for a new slogan.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:44 pm |
  13. Chris, Ohio

    I find it truly amazing that Pres. Obama can request/require/demand Rick Wagoner resign as CEO of GM, yet the CEOs of Wall Street are rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses and allowed to keep their jobs. Wall Street has received and will continue to receive incredible amounts of taxpayer money, with no stipulations on change or how the money is to be used, so they can continue "business as usual". The auto industry is required to give back – concessions such as health care, pay, jobs, even the heads of the companies. Why does Washington fail to understand that Wall Street, with their business practices, has caused the current financial meltdown, the auto industry is another one of it's victims.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm |
  14. xtina, chicago IL

    I have mixed feelings about the GM "firing".

    No President or Congress should have the power to say "you're fired" to anyone except a public servant.

    But in a way, GM was a public servant, as they have taxpayer money.

    After reading this guy's reaction, the "firing" is OK w/ me because if the country "goes the way of GM" , it would be badly managed and unprofitable.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:31 pm |
  15. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Bob Greene says the idea the U.S. government could force out a GM chief once would have been unthinkable--when you accept the bailout funding and don't delliver--it not unthinkable-–it is expected. There is a subtle difference between a mission and a promise. A mission is something that you strive to accomplish; a promise is something that you are compelled to keep. One is individual, the other is shared. Only when a mission and a promise are viewed as one in the same--then mountains can be moved.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  16. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Bob Greene says the idea the U.S. government could force out a GM chief once would have been unthinkable--when you accepted the bailout offer-and could not deliver--it is not unthinkable---it is expected-there is a subtle difference between a "mission" and a "promise,"-–a mission is something you strive to accomplish--a promise is something you are compelled to keep--one is individual and the other is shared. Only when a mission and promise are one in the same--can mountains be moved.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:18 pm |
  17. revolution

    It's outrages that Obama can ask, hint or suggest a CEO step down.
    He has no Constitutional power to do so.
    This is getting way out of control
    Prepare for a war from the people.
    Gov has no business in business

    March 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  18. Mari

    I am glad that Wagoner ......... RESIGNED........ ! The far-right keeps harping that Obama fired him...... which is a ........ lie. Wagoner resigned!

    What's funny about the GOPers, is that they are always crying "socialism! socialism!" But when FREE Market Capitalism is at work, and a CEO is asked to consider resigning, because his company IS FAILING, the GOPers complain!

    In the REAL world if a company or bank is not profitable the Board will fire the CEO & his/her team and bring in new blood! That's the way its suppose to work!

    The Big Three came to the government ASKING for BAIL OUTS! The government agreed to help them! Once the Big Three asked for help and got it........... guess who OWNS THEM??? THE USA!

    So, President Obama has every right to suggest that Wagoner RESIGN....... no one held a gun to Wagoner's head!

    WAGONER........... RESIGNED! Good. Detroit needs new management.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm |
  19. bob

    I wonder how long it's going to take to find out what kind of golden parachute that Wagoner's going to get for resigning?

    March 30, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  20. Michael C. McHugh

    I'd say that the 1950s are definitely over, along with any idea that America and American big business are still running the Free World. In reality, those days have been long gone for many years, as we're finally starting to realize.

    By the way, President Eisenhower once said on "Engine Charley" Wilson that he could not believe someone so shallow could become boss of a major corporation. I can believe it.

    March 30, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  21. The Patriot

    I am Sick and Tired of the government taking away more and more liberty from us! The last time I checked the CEO works on behalf of the shareholders and they have the power to remove him, not The President. If you gauge his performance on GM's stock price, yes he needed to go, but to be dictated too by President Obama as a stipulation for receiving taxpayer bailout money is nothing short of extortion! We have to stop this NOW!

    March 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm |