Up to now it's been almost impossible for us mere mortals not to be wildly jealous of William Clay Ford Jr. Talk about leading a charmed life. Bill Ford is a wealthy, personable, self-possessed and seemingly unwarped member of one of the nation's leading families. At the tender age of 41, thanks to his last name, he completed a remarkably quick rise through the ranks and became chairman of Ford Motor Co., one of the world's great industrial enterprises. Even more maddening, he seems to have a golden touch. He can talk about being a "change agent" without having people smirk and can pitch "environmentally friendly sport utility vehicles"--a contradiction in terms if there ever was one--with a perfectly straight face.
But now it's payback time. As they say in Economics 101, there's no such thing as a free lunch--and Bill Ford's just gotten the chit for 43 years of privileged existence. He's learning the hard way that no matter how much you try to be one of the good guys, there's a downside to running a company with your name on the door--people expect you to step up when trouble strikes, and they wonder where you are if you don't. So we're soon going to see this mediagenic mogul cash in his years of accumulated PR chips and his good-guy image and grab Ford's steering wheel to try and drive the company through its current crisis.
Yes, Bill Ford's problems pale in comparison with the suffering of the people killed or injured when the Firestone tires on their Ford SUVs failed and the anguish of their friends and survivors. But you still have to feel for the man, who must occasionally wake up wondering why he's worked so hard instead of taking the easy route and living as a trust-fund baby.
To understand what's undoubtedly going through Bill Ford's mind, you need a brief course in Ford-family history, a soap opera that's been playing for most of this century. Great-grandpa Henry, who started the whole enterprise, was a self-taught industrial genius who prospered wildly, helped change the world by making autos accessible to the masses, but who became a vicious crank and a notorious public anti-Semite in his later years. Ford Motor, getting clobbered by General Motors under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan (no relation to me, unfortunately), fell into such disarray that the family had to gang up on Henry and oust him to salvage the company. …