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Quick, Act Like We Give a Crap

Today the president of Toyota Motor Company, Mr. Akio Toyoda, appeared before a U.S. congressional committee to answer questions about the ongoing recall and safety/PR crisis that his company is currently suffering. My wife watched the proceedings on live TV, and as she put it, the result could only be described as “a serious culture crash.” Like a runaway Camry stuck at WOT, Mr. Toyoda ran headfirst into the unbelievable arrogance of the American government.

I will be the first to admit that I have a massive case of schadenfreude against Toyota. Over the last decade this company has proven that they aren’t infallible after all; that they are capable of the same greed-fueled mistakes and inestimable stupidity that, at one time or another, plagues almost every car company — even great ones like BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Yet the media has been blind to the slowly mounting quality concerns of Toyota vehicles, always holding them up as the good guys while demonizing the domestic automakers in the same breath. A common refrain is how much more concerned Toyota is about fuel efficiency, which is a patent falsehood betrayed by the wide swath of SUVs and trucks they sell, many of which get inferior mileage to their domestic competition. Worst of all are those hacks at Consumer Reports, who until recently were giving every new Toyota model an automatic recommendation, sight unseen, simply because of the company’s past reputation.

I guess it’s always 1989 in Consumer Reports land, because these same hacks would always turn right around and lambaste the domestic automakers for continuing to churn out crap, even when that so-called “crap” was comprised of legitimately competitive products like the current Ford Fusion or Chevy Malibu. A huge crisis of credibility has been going on in the auto journalism of this nation for so many years, I’ve almost gotten to the point where I avoid auto news on principle.

Indeed, for the last several years now, I’ve despised and avoided two things: Toyota Motor Company, and the U.S. Congress. There’s Toyota, trying to paint themselves as the self-appointed “great American car company” and our benevolent “green savior” while all the while they’re just another corporation cutting corners and stepping on toes wherever they can to get to the top as fast as possible, for little more than bragging rights. And then there’s the U.S. Congress, filled with people with so much more money than sense that it’s a wonder the House and Senate don’t collapse inwards on themselves in a vacuous singularity of wanton ignorance. Our senators and representatives are such unbridled egomaniacs that they all fancy themselves the babysitters of the entire American public who could not possibly know what’s good for them — yet, by and large, they accomplish nothing, have little-to-no private sector experience and would probably fail miserably if forced to deal with a working man’s pressures without all their perks and hired help. Today’s headlines, for example, brought news that Congress’ approval rating has dropped to a record-breaking 10%.

Now imagine these two forces — Congress and Toyota — coming together. Peter DeLorenzo of AutoExtremist predicted the results weeks ago: An embarrassment of epic proportions. Peter, no fan of Toyota himself (his book, “The United States of Toyota”, helps explain why), urged Mr. Toyoda not to accept the U.S.’s invitation to personally attend his company’s hearings — for the bloviators on the hill would only turn it into an embarrassment and further fuel the PR nightmare. After all, look at how the Big 3 bailout hearings were handled: as little more than an opportunity for our CongressCritters to beat up on auto executives, treat them like little babies and then argue (in the Republicans’ case) that they deserved no government support, when those same Republicans were already supporting the likes of Toyota to the tune of millions of dollars in tax credits in their home constituencies.

Although it first appeared that Mr. Toyoda would not be attending the hearings this week, Toyota’s problems have only gotten worse in the last week or so — including a grand jury being convened in regards to the company’s conduct. So Toyota’s president did in fact appear before Congress today, and the result was exactly the clusterfuck that you’d imagine (and which Peter DeLorenzo predicted). It truly was a case of culture shock — here was a Japanese executive taking personal responsibility for his company’s recent failings, apologizing profusely for their results, and admitting that Toyota took its eye off the ball and lost its focus on quality and safety in pursuit of the “World’s Biggest Automaker” prize.

This was, frankly, refreshing. Toyoda’s admission gets a lot of credit from me. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you see an American corporate executive doing anything like this, largely because of the legal ramifications — after all, the attorneys would immediately bring suits arguing that if you apologize for an unfortunate incident, that’s the same as admitting culpability. However, any sincerity that his words might have carried was lost on the candor-proof U.S. Congress, who — with many of them being lawyers or former lawyers themselves — were blind to everything but the opportunity to pounce upon Toyoda and Toyota alike.

Make no mistake, folks. Whatever sins Toyota has committed, whether they conspired to hide evidence of safety concerns or whether they really are just caught up in all this, our so-called representatives in Congress are not interested, primarily, in getting to the bottom of it. They’re interested in making as much political hay from this as is possible, giving their constituents the impression that yes, they actually do give a crap about a public issue, actually do want to help people and actually have the capacity to get something done. What that something is I’m not sure, but they’re all facing a serious rout at the polls come the next election, because the American people have frigging had it with these assclowns, so they have to look like they’re doing something.

And so as a result, we get truly Broadway-quality acts like this one, from our own Florida representative John Mica:

“This is indeed a very embarrassing day for NHTSA. It’s equally a very embarrassing day for Toyota to have the grandson of the founder to come before the United States Congress. I’m embarrassed for you, sir.”Rep. John Mica (R-Florida)

My wife was watching the hearings at this moment, and she said the man kept saying “I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed” over and over and over, like he was trying to establish a mnemonic.

I’m embarrassed, too. I’m embarrassed for the United States of America and our so-called elected officials who are clearly among the biggest bunch of idiots ever to hold office in this country’s illustrious history, who are so head-over-heels in love with themselves, and the money and power that their office grants them, that they resort to schoolyard bullying and name-calling in a vain attempt to generate an air of authority that, given their alarming lack of intelligence, would necessarily have to be artificial. I was embarrassed by their handling of the Big 3 last winter, and I’m embarrassed by their conduct now. In fact, I daresay that there’s not a single day that goes by when I’m not embarrassed by the hacks in Congress and, increasingly, by the entire federal government of this nation, which is apparently in a race to prove that they can be just as dysfunctional and corrupt as even the most infamous third-world countries.

I am not a fan of Toyota. Their cars are mostly well-built but boring beyond belief; their attitude is two-faced and predatory and the media treats them like some kind of messiah when they are little more than a half-step removed from their rivals from the U.S., Korea, Germany or even Japan, the rest of whom don’t receive anywhere near the same “automatic pass” when placed under scrutiny. However, Toyota is now being forced to recognize that the same fickle press that treated them like kings even as they churned out increasingly slapdash automobiles has now turned upon them in a heartbeat, proving that the same irrationality that leads men like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times to pile undeserved praise upon Toyota can also lead major news outlets to create sensationalist “runaway Toyota” pieces designed to shock viewers and boost ratings, at the expense of any and all credibility.

To be sure, Toyota has made their bed and now must lie in it, and frankly, they’re going to get their just deserts. But that does not include, in my view, this ridiculous and over-the-top posturing from the likes of the U.S. Congress — members of which, in my view, are the absolute last people who ought to be lecturing anybody about the proper way to do anything, short of weaseling out of a traffic citation.

As The Saga of Toyota continues, I think we’d all do well to remember that those who live in glass houses should not cast stones. And, at the same time, it might be prudent to borrow a page from Mr. Toyoda’s playbook and make sure we all stand behind our Toyota automobiles. It would seem, after all, to be much safer than standing in front of them.