Commentary

To borrow a phrase from former President Nixon, Washington won’t have Rick Wagoner to kick around anymore.

That’s too bad, because not many American business titans have the integrity, smarts, energy and dedication Wagoner possessed in abundance as he tried during his eight years as General Motors’s CEO to turn the big ship around.

He didn’t quite make it, and now he’s toast – forced out at age 56 by the Obama Admin., while the brilliant minds in the nation’s capital have yet to torch the feet of bankers and Wall Street financiers whose billions in bailouts make GM’s loan requests look like chump change.

Yes, Wagoner made mistakes. He and his peers at Ford and Chrysler were woefully unprepared in their first appearance before the U.S. Senate in December. Blame their lobbyists and public relations people for that debacle.

They didn’t have a plan for long-term viability and they allowed a pair of southern Republican senators – Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bob Corker of Tennessee – to treat them like school kids: Put on your dunce caps and sit in the corner. And even though you head huge international companies that actually need jets to efficiently manage your far-flung operations, get rid of them.

What wasn’t mentioned at the hearings was Shelby and Corker both represent right-to-work states that have poured billions in subsidies to attract foreign-based auto makers that potentially stand to gain substantially if the Detroit Three go belly up.

Yes, Wagoner could’ve done a better job. But what he faced was much more complex than most folks understand. He couldn’t force the United Auto Workers union to make substantial concessions on agreements made long before he took GM’s reins.

However, he did make considerable strides, especially on health-care and pension costs. He also closed plants and sharply trimmed the hourly and salaried workforce. And by recruiting Bob Lutz in 2001 to shape up GM’s product lineup, he effectively led – yes led – GM’s product renaissance in recent years.

But Wagoner was in no position to dictate U.S. energy policy. Check that. We have no national energy policy. So when gas soared to $4 a gallon last summer, the wheels fell off the wagon – and Wagoner.

Sales of high-profit pickups and SUVs sank with a thud, but not only in Detroit. Toyota and Nissan, which followed the Detroit Three into these markets with big vehicles, likewise were hit hard. And it wasn’t long before industry car sales throttled back as well.

When fuel prices finally dropped below $2 last fall and the market seemed primed for a revival, enter the Wall Street and banking meltdown. Once again, Washington must share the blame. Congress and the regulatory agencies were asleep at the wheel, and the wheel was not attached to a GM car.

Still, the impact on GM, Ford and Chrysler was incalculable. Unemployment soared and credit was shut off, hurting consumers, dealers and, ultimately, the U.S. auto makers and their suppliers.

Rick Wagoner had no control over these events. The strong restructuring strategy he had in place went poof! Just like that. And now the onetime Duke University basketball player has been benched.

But maybe that’s not all bad.

Even though Duke didn’t make the Final Four, at least Wagoner now can enjoy some time watching the March Madness finale this weekend at Detroit’s Ford Field, only blocks from GM’s world headquarters, where he’s no longer the boss but rightfully should be remembered as the guy who left it all out on the court.