Friday, July 29, 2005

"The Public Be Damned"

... a while back I got the idea of doing a word search in newspaper databases on the phrase, "The public be damned". To see how the phrase was used in news stories over the years. The results were fascinating to me.

As I recall, going back to when Vanderbilt uttered it to a Chicago reporter in the early 1880s, the phrase 'caught on' for a bit. But used in a somewhat joking context, usually at the expense of Vanderbilt[s] or the New York Central. Such as, "Local flooding caued long delays for passengers yesterday on 'The Public Be Damned' route." Then the usage seemed to die out. It was revived somewhat during the 1920s when the railroad industry was much in the news - thanks to efforts by government and others to consolidate it into fewer companies. The phrase was presented mostly as a historical footnote. A way to illustrate the industry's less than idylic roots. Then it died out again. Sometime in the 1950s, or so I remember, the phrase began regaining usage. But as a generic phrase. Not necessarily having to do with railroads but applicable to any business or industry who seemed guilty of disregarding the welfare of the "public". One example I recall vividly, concerned a power consortium asking for a large rate increase during the recession of the early 1980s. A New York State senator told the NY Times that for power companies to want to raise rates at a time the local economy was struggling was about the clearest evidence of their 'Public Be Damned' attitude that he could think of.

The irony is, Vanderbilt didn't seem to mean the phrase the way it was taken. He had been asked if the public didn't deserve faster limited trains, whether they made money or not. Implying that above all else it was the public interest a business had to be concerned with. You know, ahead of things like investment strategies, paying down bond interest, cordial labor relations, maintaining a competitive edge. It seemed to me what Vanderbilt REALLY said was, "The Public? Be Damned!" In other words, he wasn't ridculing the notion that John Q. Public's welfare was any of his concern, he was really questioning the reporter's common sense quotient. He could've just as easily have said, or so it seemed to me, "What a novel idea, young man. Don't ever go into business -you'll starve!" Had he lived in a later age, a PR flack would have undoubtedly been present to stop the interview and "clarify."

And railroad history would've been the poorer for it.

—Tommy Meehan

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]