Did he die of a broken heart?

enron the smartest guys in the roomThe readers on the MSNBC bulletin boards are pretty shaken up by the death of Ken Lay. Here's one three-in-a-row clip, complete with ghosts and demons:

I'm confused ... Don't you need a heart to have a heart attack? -- WBernie

In the matter of Ken Lay's unexpected and sudden death, my sincerest condolences to his wife, Linda, and his beloved family. The stress and condemnation of all events for Ken Lay in these past trying years finally took its toll. Dr. Lay's faith, though, vindicated him from future sentencing and further humiliation. As always, God has the last say in everything and the courts will have to accept God's final decision in the matter of Ken Lay. -- Peggy Fadgen, Texas

May he rot in hell. -- the working man

You can hear some of this rip-tide effect in the mainstream coverage. Here are some clips from two radically different takes. First, let's hear from the basic Associated Press story by business writer Kristen Hays in Houston. This is probably the story most people in middle America would end up reading.

Just last week, Enron Corp. founder and convicted felon Kenneth Lay told his pastor he was at peace with his future, even if it included prison.

Lay maintained that he was innocent of fraud and conspiracy in Enron's searing scandal that left thousands jobless and wiped out billions from investors. The former corporate celebrity who ascended from near-poverty as a minister's son in Missouri to the pinnacle of America's business elite died Wednesday of what a county coroner said was heart disease while vacationing in Aspen, Colo. He was 64.

"I know he looked to be in good health. He looked like things were going well for him. He was in church last Sunday," said his pastor, Steve Wende of Houston's First United Methodist Church.

Suffice it to say that Henry Allen, pondering the darker side of the public psyche for the edgy Washinton Post Style pages, tapped into a darker muse:

... (Now) that he's died of a heart attack in the luxury of his Colorado getaway while awaiting sentencing for his crimes, none of his victims will be able to contemplate that he's locked away in a place that makes the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel look like Hawaii; that he might be spending long nights locked in a cell with a panting tattooed monster named Sumo, a man of strange and constant demands; and long days in the prison laundry or jute mill or license plate factory, gibbering with anguish as fire-eyed psychopaths stare at him for unblinking hours while they sharpen spoons into jailhouse stilettos.

Want some more? Allen is -- anticipating the reactions of some of his readers -- just getting started.

He will not be ground into gray jailhouse paste by listening to the eardrum-scarring symphony of 131-decibel despair that is the Muzak of penitentiaries, by gagging on the dead prison air, by choking on the deader food, by watching the blue sky taunt him with freedom over the exercise yard, and by feeling his nervous system rent by the cruel grenades of memories -- explosions of nostalgia for the days when he knew he'd be swanning forever through the comfy laps and cool lawns of luxury and infinite possibility. Sweet Gulfstreams through sweet skies, the pools, the jewels, the Maybach limousines, a life in which he didn't just pimp his ride, he pimped the entire world as he knew it.

Now, I happen to think there is a whole lot of truth in that second Allen paragraph, and anyone who followed the Enron story would have to admit that, even those who insist that Lay was -- in some way real or technical -- innocent. But what if Lay was, in some real sense, an actual mainline Protestant upscale believer who also was blind to his own sins? And then what if he came to realize his own sins? Is there any chance of that?

enronThis is one of good things about that out-of-date word "sin." It's one of the reasons why good news stories and good screenplays need to find a way to talk about sin. Sin is human and very real, and it is hard to know much about words like "repentance" and "forgiveness" without wrestling with the concept of sin.

That's why, at the end of this busy day over in Oxford -- where the tabloid pages, as always, are full of ripping good scandals and hardly anyone is talking about "Ken Lay" -- I am left thinking about today's Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan.

Is this column "soft" on Lay?

I don't think so. It is willing to be sad because a man crashed and, to Noonan, it seems the evidence is that he knew it -- deep down in his heart.

Putting aside all judgments and conclusions, all umbrage, outrage and indignation, and all debates on who was most responsible for the Enron scandal -- putting all those weighty and legitimate concerns aside -- isn't it obvious that Ken Lay died of a broken heart? We forget that people do, or at least I forget, but they do.

His life was broken and would never be healed. Or if it was to be healed it would happen while he was imprisoned, for the rest of his life, with four walls to look at. All was wreckage around him. He died, of a massive coronary. But that can be another way of saying broken heart.

Is this Shakespearian in the sense of being towering and tragic? I don't know. I think it's primal and human. And I think if we were more regularly conscious of the fact that death through sadness happens we'd be better to each other. I'm thinking here of a friend who reflected one day years ago, I cannot recall why, on how hard people are on each other, how we're all complicated little pirates and more sensitive, more breakable, than we know.

Whoa -- complicated little pirates.

Yes, that is what we are. I think the accurate word is "sinners." It's hard to work into a headline, but sometimes it's the right word to use.

Please respect our Commenting Policy