Monday, January 15, 2007

Literature: Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron by Mimi Swartz and Sherron Watkins

Six years later, the downfall of Enron still reverberates. Important principles in the story are either in prison (Andrew Fastow, Jeff Skilling), dead (Ken Lay, Cliff Baxter), very rich (Lou Pai, Rebecca Mark), or somewhere between these states. This historic event that was Enron has made for excellent reading, even for the layman. Wiz kids Skilling and Fastow employed business and accounting methods so complex than only an MBA from Harvard or Columbia could understand them. I am sure that this was their entire point…baffle them with bullshit.

To date, somewhere between 10 and 20 books have been penned about Enron since the company tanked in late 2001. These books can be broadly divided into micro- and macro-scopes. Books devoted to the nitty gritty business-related topics include Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind and Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story by Kirk Eichenwald. These books are well researched and demand a bit of education on the part of the reader. While not impossible to understand, they require a bit of business wood shedding to understand what is going on. The macro-scope books, which include Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron by Robert Bryce, offer a view from 30,000 feet of the rise and fall of Enron. Pipe Dreams is a down right social satire skewering the swaggering specter of greed and gluttony.

Add to Pipe Dreams, Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron by Mimi Swartz and Sherron Watkins. Swartz, like Pipe Dream’s Bryce, is a Houston-based journalist who wrote widely on Enron during its formative years. Watkins was the Enron vice president responsible for the now famous August 2001 memo to Ken Lay expressing concern for the health of Enron:

“Has Enron become a risky place to work? For those of us who didn't get rich over the last few years, can we afford to stay?”

While Watkins had the title of Vice President, the reader must question its veracity due to the constant restructuring and reorganization typifying Enron’s human resources during the 1990s. She was definitely not part of the upper echelon executives bilking the company for millions. Robert Bryce, in Pipe Dreams, titled Chapter 40, “Sherron Watkins Saves Her own Ass” prompting this reader to wonder what illegal activities Ms. Watkins was involved in. Unfortunately, Power Failure does little to clear up this question. The book does provide a grounded view of the company and personalities but lacks the intimacy one would expect from a book co-authored by a person close to the principles. It is almost entirely Mimi Swartz’s voice heard recounting Watkins’s reflections about Enron. In spite of the fact that Ms. Watkins apparently had a personality as big as her native Texas, none of that gives fragrance to this otherwise confused and clinical account.

The story of Enron is mythic in the respect that it possesses all of the elements of an Everyman morality play. There are larger-than-life characters, lust, greed, gluttony, and all of the requisite waste and conspicuous consumption. With this much literary meat, Swartz could have infused the story with loads of pathos, making the book a barn-burning page turner as was Pipe Dreams. Instead, Power Failure comes off a bit bland. Swartz’s tone is also uneven when compared to the admittedly over-the-top sarcasm of Pipe Dreams. One minute, Swartz relays Watkins’s use of course language, including “dickweed” and “buttfuck” and the next she is feigning propriety and not using the full allusion to the James Bond antagonist Pussy Galore when quoting Yahoo! Bulletin Board references to Enron Executive Rebecca Mark. Swartz’s prose fails to create the tension and dread of impending doom that other books on Enron do.

However, Power Failure is not without its merits. Sherron Watkins’s insider position does allow the reader a glimpse of Enron from the trenches up. It also well portrays the corporate excess and waste characterized by Enron. Watkins’s own circumstances are well explored as are her emotions regarding those circumstances, though these are presented in shades of gray rather than in living color. These are the true values of Power Failure that make it necessary Enron reading. A single book devoted to the depth and breathe of this historic corporate scandal is simply not enough to present a complete picture of the graft and extortion perpetrated on the Enron shareholders. Swartz and Watkins opt for the middle ground tone-wise when they could have profited from just a wee bit of anger.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006