Special master Kenneth Feinberg is a mediator's mediator

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By Liza Mundy
Thursday, January 14, 2010

The special master is sitting in a chair in his Pennsylvania Avenue law office, periodically crossing one leg over the other, relaxed if somewhat restless. Bespectacled, a fringe of hair surrounding his bare crown of head, he does not cut the Olympian figure you might expect of a man engaged in seemingly every modern American crisis.

But that's what he is. Partly through his volition and partly as an accident of history, Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg has become a ubiquitous personage when it comes to national emergency. Beginning in 2001, Feinberg was the U.S. government's special master tasked with setting compensation for injured victims and the families of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, a job he describes as "the most harrowing experience of my professional life."

In 2007 he distributed the money donated to victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech and to bereaved families.

And just now, in response to the nation's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Feinberg is the Obama administration's special master for executive compensation -- the pay czar -- charged with capping salaries at firms receiving the biggest chunks of bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

In his career, he has had a role in resolving controversies involving the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal. Where there is death and suffering, or merely bankruptcy and financial ruin, there, oddly enough, is Kenneth R. Feinberg. Calamity Jane comes to mind. So does Zelig, recurrent in a striking number of American dramas.

"That's cute," the special master says, when this notion is introduced. "If you mean by Zelig quality, like if there's a national challenge and a national crisis, bring in Feinberg, and he'll put on whatever veneer is needed for that crisis, I guess I wear that as a badge of honor."

In his 64 years, the special master has confronted human nature in its most extreme conditions, had every sort of existential question put to him. "Mr. Feinberg, why don't you bring these companies down to a level of compensation that's more commensurate with their value to society?" offers the special master for example, echoing a question he hears a lot these days.

Or: "My wife, she was an angel, Mr. Feinberg. Why her? Why not me?" he recalls being asked after 9/11.

Or, from the parent of a Virginia Tech victim: "Mr. Feinberg, I sent my daughter to school in Blacksburg, Virginia, not New York City. My daughter died in Blacksburg, Virginia, at the hands of a deranged gunman. Where is the justice in this, Mr. Feinberg?"

Emotionally, the questions are easier this time around. Angry bankers and outraged citizens are nothing compared with the spiritual devastation of families struggling against sudden, violent loss.

"Both communities are emotional," he says, asked to parse the difference between the grieving families he confronted then and the irritated executives he is engaged with now. "But it's different. Nine-eleven and Virginia Tech, my goodness, the human tragedy, the horror and pathos of those incidents, and their impact on American history -- there's no comparison. . . . In my job that I'm doing now, I have to be an accountant, I have to be a Treasury official. Nine-eleven and Virginia Tech you had to be a rabbi and a priest. It was altogether different."

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