As I listened to last Saturday’s news conference about the Metrolink crash, my first thought was, “Yowza, somebody stood up and did the right thing.”
My second thought was, “Yowza, somebody’s gonna get fired for it.”
I was right on the first count and close enough for horseshoes on the second. Technically, Metrolink’s spokeswoman, Denise Tyrrell, wasn’t fired. She resigned under pressure a couple of days after she had spoken to the media a few hundred feet from where Metrolink’s most appalling collision left more than two dozen people dead. As workers were still trying to yank apart the entangled train engine and passenger car, Tyrrell said, flat-out, Metrolink was at fault.
“At this moment, we must acknowledge that it was a Metrolink engineer that made the error that caused yesterday’s accident.” Nobody in public life is supposed to speak as frankly as that. You could practically hear a million lawyers uncapping their Montblancs as she talked.
Saturday, Metrolink’s chief executive had given Tyrrell a green light to go public, she says, but by Monday, her bosses were all over her. So were the folks from the National Transportation Safety Board, who usually take the lead on saying what happened. Tyrrell felt she had to quit; the Metrolink honchos didn’t try to stop her.
But she’s convinced that she did the right thing at the right time. “I felt it was wise that we be the entity to let the public know, not the NTSB,” she told me. “I think it’s great, the work they do, but they come into town and they leave. These are our people, our passengers being taken out of the train covered in sheets -- it’s happening to our people, not the NTSB’s people. ... You just can’t spin these situations; people have lost their lives. They deserve answers, and if you have them, I think you’re obliged to give them.”
And later she added: “I am unclear of the concept of how the truth can somehow be premature. The truth is the truth.”
Tyrrell’s swift frankness, and the astonishment it created, show how pathetically low our standards for public truth have become. We’ve gotten so pummeled into expecting nothing more than cravenness and weaseling from public figures, company flacks, government officials and politicians that the smallest dose of forthrightness knocks us flat.
We’ve slid a long way in the 64 years since Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding the D-day forces, penciled a note in case the invasion failed: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” What leader would admit such a thing today? Or maybe he’d save it for his book deal.
No, what we get now are hairsplitting circumlocutions, useful for temporizing and hedging and qualifying. “Mistakes were made” is the passive-aggressive gold standard for waffling. Doesn’t anyone ever remember that trying to squirm out from under the obvious makes people look foolish -- often on “The Daily Show”?
Listen to a couple of YouTube classics: Bill Clinton -- “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” But she sure had them with him. Sarah Palin -- “I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ to that bridge to nowhere.” But she was for it before she was against it, and she kept the nearly quarter-billion in earmark money.
I asked Tyrrell whether she had thought about how her admission would affect Metrolink’s legal position. “Of course -- but we were liable. Nothing was going to change the fact that we would be liable.
But there’s evidence that in some cases, a prompt apology -- rather than the standard tactic of “deny, delay, defend” -- may soften the legal blows when they come. Thomas V. Girardi is an L.A. lawyer who represents accident and malpractice victims, and he told my colleague Carol Williams, “You’re less likely to be sued, or if you’re sued, it is with much less venom, when you say, ‘Listen, I’m sorry.’ ”
Tyrrell’s statement and her resignation have snagged bloggers’ attention on the metroriderla.com website. One blogger said Tyrrell quelled speculation about terrorism or other crash causes, and maybe, by “quickly admitting responsibility, [Metrolink] can insulate themselves from additional punitive damages.”
Tyrrell’s been a newspaper columnist in Glendale, she’s worked in Hollywood and in the dot-com world. And now she’s not working at all. “I have not been overwhelmed with offers,” is how she put it to me Monday. It’s quite a mouth she’s got on her. Whatever might come her way, I think I can safely say she won’t be working for any administration’s White House press office.