"Moby Dick" is often cited as the great American novel -- Captain Ahab's mad chase for the great white whale and all that. But when it comes to describing the American character, another of Herman Melville's novels may take the prize: "The Confidence Man."
We Americans seem to have a special weakness for the brash, charming characters Melville described, the ones who promise us the moon -- financial wealth, political nirvana, spiritual enlightenment. Other cultures are wary of smooth talkers, but Americans just love a good con. Our president's never-failing popularity testifies to that, if nothing else.
Our national gullibility is poignantly captured in this summer's best running soap opera, the Martin Frankel saga. If you haven't been reading the financial pages, the story involves a fugitive financier who disappeared two months ago from his house in Connecticut. Investigators believe he looted at least $215 million from a group of insurance companies that had agreed to let him manage their assets.
What makes the tale so exquisite are all the prominent people who apparently were taken in by Frankel's con game. That group includes a top New York accounting firm, a leading securities firm, a prominent Catholic priest with ties to the Vatican, a respected Tennessee businessman, a politically well-connected New York lawyer and a gaggle of state insurance regulators.
High on that list of victims is one of Washington's most famous names -- "Mr. Democrat" himself, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and counselor to presidents, Robert Strauss.
Strauss's law firm -- Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld -- began representing two of Frankel's concerns after he was introduced to Strauss last summer by a New York consultant. As befitting his "rainmaker" status, Strauss referred the matter to others in the firm and did no work on the account himself.
The firm knew Frankel as "David Rosse," an alias Frankel had lifted from one of his bodyguards. He claimed to be an investment adviser to several trusts, which Akin Gump agreed to represent. The clients included the Thunor Trust, which investigators say Frankel used to buy up some small insurance companies and later siphon cash from them, without Akin Gump's knowledge. The firm also represented the Saint Francis of Assisi Foundation, which Frankel also used in his scams.
Akin Gump, in its enthusiasm for its new clients, defended them to others who were skeptical.
When another law firm questioned the bona fides of the Saint Francis Foundation, for example, Akin Gump reportedly faxed a Catholic Church directory, published in the Vatican, which listed the priest who was president of Frankel's foundation. According to the Wall Street Journal, Akin Gump also tried to reassure the skeptical law firm by providing a document with official-looking stamps showing that the foundation was registered in the Virgin Islands. Those turned out to be ordinary postage stamps.
The connection to Strauss and his law firm apparently helped Frankel keep his con game going. "Akin Gump was one of the reasons I felt everything was okay," a man who advised Frankel on his insurance acquisitions told the Journal.
How can smart people be so stupid? That's the question that always gets asked after a financial disaster has hit and hundreds of millions of dollars have floated away. Frankel has vanished, so it's hard to get a fix on what made him so convincing. He's described as a neurotic, unshaven, Woody Allen look-alike, so this isn't the Great Gatsby we're talking about.
Frankel's appeal, surely, was that he seemed to be rich. He told a prominent New York attorney with connections to the Vatican named Thomas Bolan, for example, that he wanted to contribute more than $50 million to Catholic charities, lacing his speech with quotations from Catholic saints. He told Strauss that he was a confidential investment adviser to the Vatican and that the trusts he was advising needed a law firm to help them acquire insurance companies. His neighbors in Greenwich, Conn., say he had what looked like a million dollars worth of Mercedes automobiles parked in his driveway.
What could possibly be wrong with such a man? He looked rich, and he was ready to throw his money around, so people didn't ask questions. There's something very American in that. In other nations, people are instantly suspicious of new wealth. Is it real? Where did it come from? But not here. We just want a piece of it.
America is a land where the appearance of wealth is often enough. Just look at the Internet stock boom. These companies don't make any money, and most of them never will. But they've got pizazz, they're in the game, and we love 'em! So if we're looking for a culture hero in this summer of excess, I nominate Martin Frankel -- the latest avatar of Melville's American archetype, the confidence man.