5 Forever or Forgotten: Rascals & Reprobates - Part 3

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Part 1 and Part 2 of this series speculate as to which of our current businesses icons will be remembered beyond our lifetimes (Mike Bloomberg and Steve Jobs) and which will not (Warren Buffett and Jack Welch).

Of course, not everyone wants to be remembered! Many business immortals would no doubt prefer to be lost to the mists of history. Charles Ponzi and his infamous schemes immediately come to mind.



So today we visit the dark side. Third-millennium business is not for the faint of heart. It's cursed with ill-conceived and ill-intentioned executives who create havoc for their shareholders, stakeholders and, sometimes, the world at large.

Which of these unfortunates from the fields of finance, media, retail and, yes, porn will continue to haunt our collective memories, and which reputations will be buried with the disgraced? Agree, disagree -- please post your comments below.

Martha Stewart: FORGOTTEN

It's all very sad. Smart and sassy Martha Kostyra of Nutley, N.J., furiously determines to reinvent herself as the unimpeachable taste-maker Martha Stewart. She succeeds. She makes a billion dollars and becomes the go-to source of home-making advice for millions of America's upper middle class.

Then she throws it all away on a dodgy stock trade representing 0.01% of her net worth, or the equivalent of about $10 to the average American. Stewart's obstinate refusal to cop a deal with authorities and her very public trial and conviction confirmed the heretofore rumors that sweet-as-pie Martha was actually a money-grubbing meany.



But, God bless her, Martha soldiers on. Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia is still a viable concern, though the ongoing legal battle with Macy's does not inspire confidence. And Stewart refuses to cede her role as America's (diminished) Domestic Diva. She always has some sort of cooking show in production, and she's even done a guest appearance on "Law & Order: SVU."

Punch line: While Stewart has acquitted herself well since being sprung from the pen, the first line of her New York Times obituary will inevitably underscore the fact that she's an ex-con. And then she'll be forgotten.

Bernie Madoff: FOREVER

Speaking of Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff's name is likewise destined to become an eponym. Soon-to-be-coined idioms like "pulling a 'Madoff'" or "don't 'Madoff' me" will pack a punch for future listeners.

The high-profile circumstances of Madoff's misdeeds will likewise ensure that his name lives on. He was already well-known when his wrongs were revealed. The fact that Madoff swindled bold-faced name investors like Zsz Zsa Gabor, Steven Spielberg and Elliot Spitzer in the heart of a world financial capital will also keep his name in play. Plus Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate #61727-054 is alive, healthy and remains eager to muddy the waters.



Incredibly, as reported in a recent Fox News broadcast, banks and regulators are complicit in his crimes. This action, of course, will only incense these powerful institutions to redouble their efforts to finger Madoff as the guilty "lone gunman."

Finally, the dramatic suicide of one of Madoff's sons, his own ongoing status as poster boy for "affinity fraud," endless years of litigation and an upcoming movie starring Robert DiNiro will all ensure that his name evokes strong emotions for decades to come.

Sam Walton and the Walton Family: FORGOTTEN

Andrew Carnegie befouled the landscape with filthy factories and underpaid his non-union workers, but he achieved semi-redemption by dedicating his fortune to the pursuit of philanthropy. Today, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are ongoing forces for good in the world.

Sam Walton similarly blighted suburbs with thousands of charmless stores staffed by a million penurious employees. Yet, he bequeathed his fortune to indolent family members who've done little more than shake a few shekels from their bloated piggy banks. To wit, the $2.3 billion Walton Family Foundation supports worthy, small-ball initiatives like charter schools and environmental conservation. Alice Walton started a nice, conventional museum in the middle of nowhere.

Not a bad run for run-of-the-mill billionaires, but the six Walton heirs are collectively worth more than $115 billion, equivalent to the net worth of America's 100 million poorest citizens, thousands of whom work for, you guessed it... Wal-Mart.

Thus, the Waltons enjoy a rare and wonderful opportunity to change the world. Their limitless resources could easily eradicate a disease, transform education or, better yet, place a bookmobile or mobile health clinic in every barren Walmart parking lot.

But if they fail to soon accept the responsibility of their unearned inheritance, the Waltons, and their mountain of wealth, deserve to be forgotten.

Hugh Hefner: FORGOTTEN

Hugh Hefner missed his chance at immortality. He should have died young and left a glamorous corpse at the height of his sexual and professional prowess. He should have been riding with James Dean in his Porsche or flying with Buddy Holly in his plane; he should have been shot by a jealous lover at Woodstock.

Instead, he's just become a dirty old man whose time has passed him by. Ditto the iconic magazine.

Enormous opportunities were missed while Hef shagged away the years in the Playboy Mansion hot tubs. He could have, and should have, become a virtual cheesecake zillionaire at the dawn of the Internet era. Millions of red-blooded males would have crashed servers as they flooded his proprietary brand of sanitized, mass-market porn. Instead, dedicated Playboy fans decamped to amateur, low-class sites that riddled our PCs with viruses and abused our credit card payments.

Which hot starlet has recently posed for Playboy? Which politician has given a high-profile interview to establish his common-man credentials? Is Playboy even published today? More importantly, does anyone even care?

The quaint, Cold War ethos of the 1950s are long forgotten. The same fate will soon befall the macho master of the bunny hutch.

Alan Greespan: REMEMBERED

Alan Greenspan mentioned in the same space as Bernie Madoff? Has Hell frozen over?

Five years ago, associating Greenspan with a common con-man would have been tantamount to apostasy. But it's been a tough five years. These days, there they are, Greenspan and Madoff co-habitating uncomfortably on Time Magazine's list of "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis."

In short, our dual human needs for simplicity and closure require that a single victim be scapegoated for the Great Recession. Alas, the unlucky thirteenth chairman of the Federal Reserve is simply the most obvious candidate to fill that role.

After all, Greenspan's now-unfashionable libertarian leanings, free-market fandom and aversion to regulation are legendary. His well-known speeches praising the growth of derivative markets and commending the proliferation of subprime mortgages provide an arsenal of smoking guns.

Finally, as the allure of Wall Street and the economic importance of investment banks continue to fade, their patron saint's reputation will further diminish. According to Nakedcapitalism.com, Greenspan was once known as a "hack who always gave ...his clients what they wanted instead of something actual." Sadly, this early-career assessment seems likely to also serve as Greenspan's lasting epitaph.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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