Monday, June 01, 2009

Uncle Sam in the Rumble Seat

The American Century ends today with the death of General Motors as we knew it, the free-market engine that powered an economy and a culture to global preeminence, selling physical and social mobility to millions who had previously lived in small insular worlds.

The news about bankruptcy and hope for renewal with taxpayer money is disorienting to generations who came of age in an America where success was defined by whether you drove a Chevrolet or a Cadillac and how often you could afford to trade it in for the newest model.

That superficial stability, that innocence is as long gone as the first car I ever owned after coming home from World War II, a used 1938 Packard coupe with a rumble seat.

The government takeover of General Motors while trying to maintain the appearance of distance is reminiscent of that rumble seat, an upholstered perch behind the body of the car, the back of which hinged up from where the trunk would normally be to seat passengers in the open air away from the driver.

That image will serve for the Obama Administration's posture of taking ownership but insisting that it won't exercise day-to-day management ("a fine line,” says Lawrence Summers, co-head of the auto task force, “but we think it's manageable”).

Back in the day, rumble seats were popularly known as "mother-in-law" locations, to symbolize barriers to back-seat driving from family members whose unwanted presence had to be endured.

The separation worked for a while, but rumble seats eventually went out of style because of too much exposure to the elements for their occupants.

Riding shotgun on the new General Motors may make Uncle Sam feel that way, too.

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