But the thing about padded rooms is that they also keep the sounds outside the door from leaking in. If anyone in America can be excused for sealing off the outside world from time to time, it would be this 66-year-old Boston transplant.
For more than a decade, Feinberg has been the national Great Decider, a man who guzzles human tragedy or aggregates human greed, then processes it all into dollars and cents. A lawyer by trade, Feinberg decided how the victims of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks would be compensated, and he parceled out donations for the dead and wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre. He sorted through the wreckage wrought by Wall Street’s credit-default swappers and the environmental destruction visited upon the Gulf of Mexico by BP.
Feinberg details all those dramas in a clearly written and emotionally contained new book that he titled: “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.” But the book, which went on sale Wednesday, could just as easily have been called: “If you think you can do better, be my guest!”
“Here’s the keys. You want to do it? You do it,” Feinberg says to me one afternoon at his office in the Willard building, a few steps from the White House.
Feinberg understands more than anyone that he does work few would want to undertake: quantifying the value of a lost limb vs. the value of a lost life or telling a widow that even though her husband was a lovely man who volunteered at the Lions Club, he’s worth only a fraction of what she needs.
It’s all numbers, Feinberg says, “not rocket science.” I ask Feinberg to consider a hypothetical scenario: Who would be worth more, Bernie Madoff or Mother Teresa? He hesitates not at all: Madoff.
From there, he launches into the predicted lament by Mother Teresa’s representative: What about her reputation? What about her unparalleled contributions? Isn’t that worth something, say $20 million?
Feinberg talks over the strains of an opera pouring out of speakers in his long, spacious office, where the shelves nearly sag under the weight of framed congratulatory letters and the walls are lined with glowing newspaper profiles. In the kaleidoscope of Feinbergian proximity to power, there are too many marquee names to chronicle here. He hasn’t even had time to get around to framing a photo of him with the guy who lives down the street — Feinberg’s grip-and-grin with President Obama curls into itself, one edge sliding into a gap in the shelf.
Not long into the interview, Feinberg identifies the music on the stereo as the opera “Faust.” But later he cuts himself off mid-sentence and jumps out of his chair to lope closer to the speaker. Energy is not something he lacks. “No,” declares the president of the Washington National Opera’s board of trustees in a voice both booming and utterly assured. “It’s Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo.’ Act One. Enrico Di Giuseppe.”