Why the Verizon CEO Was Right About Bernie Sanders

“When rhetoric becomes disconnected from reality, we’ve crossed a dangerous line. We deserve better from people aspiring to be President.” – Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam

Former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg was a man of the people. He grew up on the streets of the Bronx, worked as a cable splicer’s assistant right out of High School, fought in Vietnam and earned two college degrees at night school. And he turned a regional Baby Bell into a telecom powerhouse.

Seidenberg had his run-ins with politicians and unions, but he always managed to walk that fine line between tough and fair. That said, he had no use for whiners, something I learned after writing a profile piece about him and his AT&T counterpart called “CEOs are Just Like You – Without All the Whining.”

Apparently whining wasn’t cool in the Seidenberg household. The article’s title got his daughter’s attention, she forwarded it to him and he emailed me – not so much to thank me for the piece but more importantly for prompting his “wonderful daughter and mother of their two grandchildren” to contact him.

The guy’s quite a charmer, I can tell you that. I always thought he’d be a tough act to follow, but his successor, Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam, appears to be doing just fine. He certainly has a way of dealing with whiners that would probably make all the Seidenbergs very proud.

The wireless trend has left Verizon’s legacy phone business in a tough spot – shrinking and under intense margin pressure. Rival AT&T isn’t fairing any better. After nine months of unproductive negotiations, last week 36,000 Verizon landline workers voted to strike, leaving McAdam embroiled in a high-risk game of chicken with their labor unions.

Naturally, Verizon is looking for concessions to keep the telecom industry from ending up like Detroit’s automakers – bankrupt and needing a taxpayer bailout. Meanwhile, labor bosses are digging in their heels. Never mind that the concessions are reasonable and these are well-paid workers. Some of them earn six figures plus benefits.

But it is an election year, and neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton was about to pass up an opportunity to pine for union voters ahead of the critical New York State primary (which kicked off this morning). They both joined the picket lines last week, but it was the democratic socialist who was far and away the more outspoken of the two.

Sanders called workers courageous for standing up to corporate greed and standing up for dignity and justice. The Vermont Senator claimed that Verizon wants to outsource jobs, take away health benefits and avoid paying taxes, and said the company is “just another major American corporation trying to destroy the lives of working Americans.”

McAdam wasn’t about to let that slide. The former engineer took to LinkedIn with a scathing rebuttal called “Feeling the Bern of Reality – The Facts About Verizon and The ‘Moral Economy’” that called Sanders’ views “uninformed” and “contemptible.”

The post set the record straight about Verizon’s exemplary tax record and capital investments. And McAdam made it clear that his company’s comprehensive proposal is intended to safeguard well-paying union jobs with good benefits while ensuring that they don’t find themselves in the same quandary as the one U.S. automakers faced nearly a decade ago. But it was the native New Yorker’s final message that really hit home.

“I understand that rhetoric gets heated in a Presidential campaign. I also get that big companies are an easy target for candidates looking for convenient villains for the economic distress felt by many of our citizens,” he wrote. “But when rhetoric becomes disconnected from reality, we’ve crossed a dangerous line. We deserve better from people aspiring to be President. At the very least, we should demand that candidates base their arguments on the facts … even when they don’t fit their campaign narratives.”

I guess we’re all getting pretty used to the political pandering, grandstanding and fear mongering that comes with the territory in an election cycle. But when candidates base their entire platform on anti-corporate rhetoric full of ludicrous exaggerations, generalizations and fabrications designed to rally the masses against the very core of the American economy, we have crossed a dangerous line.

Maybe Sanders is protected by the First Amendment, but the kind of broad strokes with which he routinely characterizes corporate America as intent on “destroying the very fabric of our nation” or “trying to destroy the lives of American workers” is about as close to the proverbial shouting “fire” in a crowded theater as you can get, at least in the political sense.

The notion that a man who is that out of touch with reality is this close to winning the White House should scare every American.