Friday, November 12, 2010;
A Political and Financial Life
By Felix Rohatyn
Simon & Schuster. 292 pp. $27
In my next life, I want to come back as Felix Rohatyn. I'm envious of just about every aspect of the rewarding, challenging and glamorous life described by Rohatyn in his new autobiography except for, perhaps, writing those long, ponderous essays for the New York Review of Books. And what makes "Dealings" such a pleasure to read is that you can tell Rohatyn enjoyed writing it as well.
There was the dramatic, and lucky, escape from the Nazis as a young French Jew. And tutoring Edith Piaf in English. And working with the ad legend Bill Bernbach to turn around Avis Rent-a-Car with the "We Try Harder" campaign. And, of course, negotiating some of the biggest corporate acquisitions in history: ITT-Hartford Fire, GE-RCA, Matsushita-MCA and KKR's leveraged buyout of RJR-Nabisco.
Here's a man who, at various times, rescued Wall Street, Lockheed Corp. and New York City from financial collapse. He's known anyone who was anyone on Wall Street, in Hollywood and in Washington, and on any given day he could be found hobnobbing with Woody Allen at Elaine's; sharing a power breakfast with the governor at the Regency; chatting over the back fence with casino-hotel magnate Steve Wynn, one of his Sun Valley neighbors; talking in whispered tones with former Walt Disney Co. president Michael Ovitz at the Four Seasons; or getting the inside scoop from political heavyweights Bob Strauss and Vernon Jordan at the Hay Adams.
Then there's the apartment on Fifth Avenue with the park view, the cottage on Long Island and that house in Sun Valley, along with the ski trips to Zurs, Austria. And when he finally had done everything he wanted to do on Wall Street, Rohatyn managed to wangle the best job in government - U.S. ambassador to France - but only after turning down the offer to become president of the World Bank.
In the recounting of such a rich life, allowance must be made for a certain measure of name-dropping and boastfulness, particularly from an author who fesses up freely to numerous lapses in judgment. His attempts to dissuade the Justice Department from bringing an antitrust suit against the ITT-Hartford Fire merger earned him a grilling before a Senate committee, a minor role in Nixon's impeachment and the moniker of "Felix the Fixer." He admits now to giving Universal Studio's Lew Wasserman bad advice when he recommended that Wasserman turn down a takeover offer from Disney, then to have compounded the error by negotiating the sale of MCA/Universal to the Japanese, who never figured out what to do with it. And if you look closely at the pictures of executives fleeing from Lehman Brothers with boxes of personal items in hand just after the 2008 bankruptcy, you may find one of Rohatyn, who had only recently signed on as a consultant after returning from his ambassadorial duties in Paris.
Along with the mild self-criticism there is also some self-congratulation. Rohatyn revels in the release of Oval Office transcripts that prove it was President Nixon himself who ordered the head of the antitrust division to drop the Hartford Fire case even before Rohatyn first showed up at the Justice Department. ("You son of a bitch. Don't you understand the English language. Drop the goddamn thing. Is that clear?" Nixon tells Richard Kleindienst, the top antitrust official.) And he stresses too strongly that Gerald Ford's defeat in the 1976 presidential election was due to the president's refusal to bail out New York City.
Rohatyn understands that autobiographies are wonderful vehicles for evening up the score with those who have done you wrong. He fingers former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for blocking his nomination as the Fed's vice-chairman after they spread false rumors about his "soft money" predilections; Rohatyn goes on to note wryly that Greenspan came to embrace his view of the potential for high growth and low inflation. Rohatyn also exposes the treachery of socialite and diplomat Pamela Harriman, who was the first to bring up the idea of his succeeding her as ambassador to Paris before turning around and lobbying to give the plum job to veteran diplomat Frank Wisner. Those who shake their heads at the very mention of the corrupt financier Ivan Boesky will love Rohatyn's tale of their lunch at the Four Seasons.
Still, "Dealings" ends up as something of a letdown. Rohatyn leaves out too many of the behind-the-scenes details of his deal-making, along with candid assessments of most of the financiers and politicians who played a role in his life. He also skips over the painful episode of his break with his partners at Lazard Freres, the investment bank where he grew up professionally and had played such a prominent role for so many years.
Most disappointing, however, is Rohatyn's inability to draw the connections and the distinctions between his own deal-making and the greed and self-dealing that he now blames for having corrupted Wall Street. His chapter-ending reflections generally range from trite to banal, and even when he occasionally musters outrage over a financial services industry that has become an "electronic game" divorced from real-world value creation, he never quite explains why or how it came to be or who among his many friends, acquaintances and competitors was responsible.
Rohatyn has given us a memoir that is more kiss than tell, delightful in the reading but in the end less profound and incisive than one would have expected from someone who saw so much and lived so large.
Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist for The Post.