Friday, July 29, 2005

"The Public Be Damned"

... a while back I got the idea of doing a word search in newspaper databases on the phrase, "The public be damned". To see how the phrase was used in news stories over the years. The results were fascinating to me.

As I recall, going back to when Vanderbilt uttered it to a Chicago reporter in the early 1880s, the phrase 'caught on' for a bit. But used in a somewhat joking context, usually at the expense of Vanderbilt[s] or the New York Central. Such as, "Local flooding caued long delays for passengers yesterday on 'The Public Be Damned' route." Then the usage seemed to die out. It was revived somewhat during the 1920s when the railroad industry was much in the news - thanks to efforts by government and others to consolidate it into fewer companies. The phrase was presented mostly as a historical footnote. A way to illustrate the industry's less than idylic roots. Then it died out again. Sometime in the 1950s, or so I remember, the phrase began regaining usage. But as a generic phrase. Not necessarily having to do with railroads but applicable to any business or industry who seemed guilty of disregarding the welfare of the "public". One example I recall vividly, concerned a power consortium asking for a large rate increase during the recession of the early 1980s. A New York State senator told the NY Times that for power companies to want to raise rates at a time the local economy was struggling was about the clearest evidence of their 'Public Be Damned' attitude that he could think of.

The irony is, Vanderbilt didn't seem to mean the phrase the way it was taken. He had been asked if the public didn't deserve faster limited trains, whether they made money or not. Implying that above all else it was the public interest a business had to be concerned with. You know, ahead of things like investment strategies, paying down bond interest, cordial labor relations, maintaining a competitive edge. It seemed to me what Vanderbilt REALLY said was, "The Public? Be Damned!" In other words, he wasn't ridculing the notion that John Q. Public's welfare was any of his concern, he was really questioning the reporter's common sense quotient. He could've just as easily have said, or so it seemed to me, "What a novel idea, young man. Don't ever go into business -you'll starve!" Had he lived in a later age, a PR flack would have undoubtedly been present to stop the interview and "clarify."

And railroad history would've been the poorer for it.

—Tommy Meehan

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The history of ["The Public be Damned"] is rather more complex ... and from contemporary newspaper accounts it is clear that he did not say it or mean it in the manner suggested [above]. With the help of some kind members of this Society I have researched this in some detail for a forthcoming book. The problem with the words is not only that they were uttered, but also that they have been taken out of context on several occasions over the years since Vanderbilt said them in 1882.

... other expressions have been taken out of context. Second only to Vanderbilt's "The Public be damned" is the expression "What the traffic will bear", which has for years been mischeivously interpreted as All that the traffic will bear, which was neither said nor intended. ...

Andrew Dow

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

8/02/2005 7:59 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

I ... forwarded ... a letter to the editor published in the NY Times about 80 years ago by someone who was present during the 1882 interview with Vanderbilt.

...I can't swear as to where I read it, but my interpretation – that Vanderbilt was chiding the reporter, not 'damning' the public to an eternity of miserable travel - was something I read...somewhere. In other words, it's not my theory. Though I agree with it.

... I "think" the reporter (Chicago Tribune?) KNEW Vanderbilt didn't mean it the way it sounded but it was just too good not to use that way. And so he did. ...

Tommy Meehan

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

8/02/2005 8:05 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

As I recall reading the versions, If Mr. Vanderbilt had responded in proper English what he should have said (but didn't) was "The Public Good be damned" In response to a reporters question that even if the Fast Mail didn't make money (Mr. Vanderbilt had previously stated he only ran it because of the competition) shouldn't he (Vanderbilt) be running it for the public good.

Perspective is also important. We live in the post-depression era. The depression was blamed on a failure of the business cycle and business barons were seen as the cause of this countries woes leading to a belief that capitalism was inherently flawed and that the alternative then newly being tested in Russia was a superior model. A number of writings from those supporting those views in the late thirties loved to elaborate using the actual quote from Mr. Vanderbilt. Writers that believed capitalism was fatally flawed included most prominently: Matthew Josephson with his book The Robber Barons.

It is fascinating to see how perspective changes. Did you ever pick up that Frank Baum, writer of the Wizard of OZ was a William Jennings Bryan supporter? In the book Dorothy wears Silver Slippers as she travels the Yellow Brick Road. And Oz is the abbreviation of ounces. It has been suggested that the Scarecrow was the American Farmer that didn't believe he had a brain, the Tin Man – the Northern industrial worker that didn't have a heart, and the roaring cowardly lion? Why it was Bryan himself. The emerald city is the color of green (money), who has a wizard pulling all the levers, but not really doing anything at all. So in the mind of this democrat (Baum) one hundred years ago, Washington was full of humbug wizards. Within two generations when the movie was produced (post-depression) the theme was changed in the movie to: of course we have wizards in Washington, but we need a kindly wizard in Washington. It has been said, I cannot verify, that the voice of the wizard in the movie would have reminded some of FDR's fireside chats. And needless to say, there are far more powerful things to learn from the story than these lesser considerations.

And if you read Milton Friedman, the real cause of the great depression, among other factors, was that with the establishment of the Federal Reserve, the federal government reserved certain powers to itself and the collusive ability of banks to ban together to withstand panics was diminished. And the primary cause of the great depression was the failure of the Fed to act and apply powers reserved to it. Notice in 2001 the crash of the Nasdaq very closely paralleling that of the Dow in 1929-1930 yet no great depression.

And Mr. Greenspan is considered . . . . . . . a wizard?

Those who learn not from the past are doomed to repeat it? Not always so easy to ever figure out what those lessons are!

—Crew Heimer

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

8/02/2005 8:34 AM  

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