By Richard Cohen
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Among the alumni of Far Rockaway High School in Queens are three Nobel Prize winners -- two in physics (Richard Feynman, Burton Richter) and one in medicine (Baruch Blumberg) -- plus a pioneer in women's basketball (Nancy Lieberman), a famous psychologist (Joyce Brothers), a financier (Carl Icahn) and, appallingly and with much regret, Bernard Madoff, Class of 1956. Apparently, even back then I didn't like him.
I was in the Class of 1958, two years behind Bernie, but in the same class as his wife, Ruth. She was my friend, or so our yearbook strongly suggests, although my memory of our friendship no longer speaks to me. I remember her only as really cute, an object of desire across a classroom or another. But in the yearbook she wrote a long inscription. It seems I teased her. It seems I kidded her. She forgave me all that and ended by writing that I would "meet Bernie at the prom -- and I guarantee he will say hello."
Hello, Bernie. Goodbye, Bernie.
Others in my class did not say goodbye to Bernie until it was too late. Through Ruth, they invested with him -- modest amounts, a share of profits from a humble summer resort, the savings of a schoolteacher. In time, word spread of Bernie's magical touch with money, and others tried to join his investment club. If they couldn't, they asked those already in if they could piggyback. The answer was yes.
Now their money, their life's savings, is all gone. Oddly enough, they are still better off than some of Bernie's richest investors. My friend Ted has his New York City teacher's pension, while the very rich, who put all their retirement funds with Bernie, have been utterly wiped out. I feel sorry for them. I identify with them. They were not, as is sometimes written, greedy. The stock market was a mystery. It seemed to defy logic. They let Bernie deal with it. I would have done the same.
But Bernie and I were not speaking. We didn't speak at the prom, either. My money was invested elsewhere -- my company's 401(k) and some pathetic dabbling in the market. I now have more money than many of those who knew Bernie. This turns out to have been my investment strategy: Dumb luck.
When I tell people about my relationship with Bernie and Ruth, they sometimes gasp. When I show them the yearbook, they hold it as if it's a poisonous snake. My yearbook is the closest most people will ever come to evil. Bernie is evil, which is what the judge said Monday in sentencing him to 150 years in jail. The yearbook has become like a Nazi artifact. It is compelling. It is repulsive. It is about evil.
To fully comprehend Bernie's evil, you have to know something about Maimonides. He was a 12th-century Jewish sage, born in Spain but died in Egypt (where he was the court physician). Among other things, he codified the solemn obligation to be charitable. It was this obligation that so many of Bernie's investors were fulfilling. It was the satisfaction of this obligation that commended them for membership in their country clubs. They thought they were doing good. For them, as for Maimonides, it was not enough to be rich. You have to be charitable as well. Bernie took the money intended for charity. Bernie played them all for suckers.
This is evil. This is not stealing from the rich, as it is sometimes characterized, but from the poor -- the sick, the student, the refugee, the politically repressed. The list of charities damaged or sunk by Bernie is long. He stole from his friends. He stole from his family. He stole from my friends. At his sentencing, Ruth denounced him. Good. She said she could not believe what he had done. "The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years."
The 50th reunion of the Class of '58 was held about a month before Bernie's scheme collapsed. He and Ruth came, and although I was oblivious to them -- distracted by others, I guess -- I am told they were hugged and warmly welcomed. But after that, not a big deal was made of them. Then the news broke and e-mails whizzed back and forth. Prodded by a newspaper reporter, I exhumed the yearbook and was stunned to discover the inscription. It turned out I knew Ruth. It turned out she never knew Bernie.