The Elderberry Statement

by Paul Hond
Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life
By James S. Kunen
Lyons Press, 245 pages, $24.95
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Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life“I’m like Jonah in the whale,” James Kunen ’70CC writes in the October 27, 2000, entry of his diary-style chronicle of midlife redemption Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life. The whale was the newly merged entity of AOL Time Warner, and Kunen, a celebrated scribe of the 1960s student antiwar movement, had become its director of corporate communications. “How the hell am I going to tell you the inside story?” he says to his imagined readers. “I can’t see a fucking thing! I’m in the belly of the beast.”

Kunen ends up telling a different inside story: that of his own spiritual rebirth after eight years in a job that he doesn’t believe in but performs exceedingly well. His duties include writing speeches for AOL Time Warner chiefs Gerald Levin and Steve Case and a column for the house organ Keywords emphasizing employee uplift in the face of mass layoffs. When he comes across a muckraking website’s attack on Keywords headlined “Internal AOL Time Warner Newsletter Rallies the Troops by ‘Humanizing’ Leadership,” which calls the journal “old-fashioned hucksterism, mixed with lessons from management seminars,” Kunen writes, “I can just picture the angry young man writing these scathing criticisms. He looks a lot like me twenty years ago.”

Or longer. For those familiar with Kunen’s first book, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, a wise, funny, dazzlingly precocious account of the Columbia student uprisings of 1968 written when Kunen was nineteen, the spectacle of the fifty-something author trembling inside the whale feels like a cosmic joke. “How did a youthful idealist end up as a corporate flack?” Kunen writes at the outset, speaking for many an educated, middle-class radical, just as he had done in The Strawberry Statement. “God, I don’t know. It’s not something I planned.” There is real despair here, but the simple answer is that Kunen, who had once toiled as a public defender and later as a public-interest journalist, and who has two kids, needs the paycheck, and each time AOL Time Warner plumps his bank account with a direct deposit he is “suffused with a feeling of well-being that lasts for several hours.”

Then it’s back into the existential pit. Kunen feels guilty “spending ten minutes of the company’s time e-mailing the president of Egypt, asking him to grant clemency to a woman sentenced to hang for the murder of her husband.” He befriends homeless men on the streets outside company headquarters and admits, “I like the idea of homeless outreach work, but I don’t do well with horrific odors and running sores and bare feet with grotesque black nails.” A secular Jew, he teaches English one night a week at the Arab American Association in Marine Park, Brooklyn. He feels a “secret shame” in the face of plumbers and electricians, whose know-how he values above his own. And he has at least one awkward encounter in an elevator with a company bigwig. Here he runs into AOL Time Warner COO Dick Parsons. The men exchange pleasantries, and Parsons, upon exiting, tells Kunen to “have a good day.”

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