Politics & Policy

Big Blue Civics

Wal-Mart is all-American.

As students settle in for a new school year across the non-Katrina ravaged country, Wal-Mart is offering American schoolchildren a lesson in Big Blue Civics.

The at-heart red-state discount retailer has long been a punching bag for political demagogues. Where I am in New York, there is no nearby Wal-Mart. New York City won’t have it. We’re way too sophisticated for the Big Blue.

The anti-Wal-Mart rhetoric tends to verge on the insane. One Ohio congressman running for president warned ominously that if George Bush’s America and his Wal-Mart friends weren’t stopped, the store might someday “take over” Iraq. (Heaven forbid–the Iraqis might get to buy cheap and convenient, too, one day!)

John Kerry, who would become the Democrats’ nominee for president in 2004, knocked Wal-Mart during the primaries. He threw “disgraceful” and “unconscionable” at them (even though it turned out the company–oops–had a little something to do with the money in his wallet). Kerry said of Wal-Mart, “They throw a lot of money around, they get a lot of things happening, but it ain’t necessarily good for the community.”

I think it is fair to say that the community officially begs to differ. Wal-Mart is America at its best.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, one of the largest private employers in the United States has been a model of giving. As my new philosopher for common sense, actor Matthew McConaughey, put it to Oprah Winfrey: It’s all about “service–share what you have.” McConaughey was part of an Oprah TV special in the days after the storm’s hellish destruction hit the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Rather than play up divisive issues–most notably the blame game and the shameful fanning of racism flames like others did and have–McConaughey summed up what so many Americans have been living in the days since the hurricane left countless homeless and worse.

McConaughey was talking all-American good sense. Call it “Big Blue Civics.”

And even though Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic party, is a Wal-Mart basher, former president Bill Clinton (the real power behind the party) sang the discount retailer’s praises post-Katrina. During a Houston press conference with President Bush “Sr.,” Clinton said he hopes that Wal-Mart “will give some guidance to our members of Congress,” praising its Katrina employee relocation program.

As well he should. Katrina shut down about 126 Wal-Marts. Within days the majority of them were running again on a makeshift basis–handing out products Wal-Mart knew, from its database of past purchases, hurricane victims tend to need and want.

But giving is not new to Wal-Mart. According to 2004 records, the giant assisted over 100,000 organizations “and overall, gave back $5 every second to support causes extending from disaster recovery efforts and educational initiatives to funding hospital equipment and treatment.”

Their unprecedented roll into action post-Katrina, however, has raised the bar. Whether it will cool down the Wal-Mart hate out there, though, remains to be seen. The indication so far suggests maybe not.

So why is Wal-Mart hated so? It’s an affront to workers, the “experts” say. It’s “a sewer pipe” flushing “good jobs,” as one union president has put it. (The bossmen are irked because Wal-Mart doesn’t have unions.) But, the employer of a million people has been known to provide health insurance to over 90 percent of its workers (the others covered by another family member). The exploitation card just doesn’t fly. As one spokesman has said, “It we weren’t a desirable employer, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our growth potential.” Got growth, you ask? Two-thirds of their managers used to work hour-to-hour.

Katrina, by the way, displaced more than 34,000 Wal-Mart workers. Within days Wal-Mart had been in contact with the vast majority of them to know that they were working and/or safe. An Associate Disaster Relief Fund provided immediate cash relief to employees who needed it.

In the Gulf Coast, Wal-Mart is only doing what so many Americans are doing–jumping up to contribute something, in the way they best can. Besides setting up its own people, newly displaced, Wal-Mart was all about getting beds to the Astrodome, computers to shelters to help evacuees and their families find one another, filling emergency prescriptions–in addition to making financial donations to the Salvation Army and the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

Let’s face it. Resistance is futile–and foolhardy: We’re all a Big Blue Zone now.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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