DEAD MAN'S CURVE
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER, on the day before Thanksgiving, I was about to leave my office to take one of my sons to a matinee of Speed-the-Plow on Broadway when the phone rang. It was Larry Summers, who'd just been named chief economic adviser to Barack Obama, the President-elect. "I'm calling with a hypothetical question," Larry said. "If you were asked to take on a six- to twelve-month assignment for the administration, would that be something that could work for you?" I replied that such an arrangement would be complicated, but all the same, it was something I'd be happy to consider.
For most of my career, I had majored in Wall Street and minored in Washington. I'd built a career in investment banking and private equity, limiting my involvement in politics to fundraising, serving on a few think-tank boards, and writing the occasional op-ed. While I'd flirted with government service in the past, the beginning of this new administration seemed like a compelling moment to step up. Our country was facing the greatest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression; when would the skills of a finance guy like me possibly be more useful? If I hung back this time, what would I be saving myself for?
I hadn't worked in D.C. since the days of Jimmy Carter, and then not as a government official but as a reporter for the New York Times. I'd fallen into the job in 1974, starting as a news clerk for the Times's legendary columnist James "Scotty" Reston. Arriving in the capital two months before Richard Nixon's resignation was a dizzying experience for a twenty-one-year-old college graduate. A few years later I was a full-fledged Washington correspondent, responsible for covering what in the face of OPEC and stagflation were the two most important domestic issues facing the Carter administration: energy and the economy.
Then came the election of Ronald Reagan. Some of the stories I wrote were deeply skeptical of supply-side economics, to the point where I found myself attacked on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. My superiors decided that this would be an excellent moment for me to move to London to cover European economics.
Neither London nor journalism outside Washington was particularly satisfying, however. I grew restless. Although I had leaped at the opportunity to work with Scotty Reston, I had never set out to be a journalist. I'd been raised in the New York suburbs in a nonpolitical, business-oriented family. My father, who had seen his family's fur business
go bankrupt during the Depression and now ran our family's paint-manufacturing company in Queens, had urged me toward a professional education. I'd even applied and been accepted to business school and law school, both of which I'd deferred to stay at the Times. Now I felt the journalistic frustration of peering through the glass instead of running something or building something in the real world.
I could have tried returning to Washington as a public servant. But the private sector was a more realistic option in those days of Republican ascendance. Several friends I'd known in Washington had shifted to investment banking. That industry had nowhere near the glitz or notoriety it would gain within a few years, but listening to those who had entered the fray, it sounded like an exciting, challenging way to marry some of the variety and competitiveness of journalism with a chance to do more than report.
Money wasn't my main motivation — I was single and earning more than $60,000 a year, with both a cost-of-living allowance and a generous expense account — and it took me a while to realize how weird I sounded saying that on Wall Street. When asked in job interviews why I wanted to become an investment banker, I would speak somewhat airily about doing something different from journalism. My prospective employers would look at me quizzically. The more forthcoming ones told me that this was too tough a profession to take on unless I had a real drive to get rich. So I learned to play up a passion for moneymaking and to mention the limitations of living on only a five-figure income.
"I understand completely," said one of my last interviewers. "I don't know how anyone can live on sixty thousand dollars a year." At that time, someone making that much ranked in the top 10 percent of all earners.
In my early years on Wall Street, I had no time for politics or policy. I devoted my waking hours to work and tried to be a good family man. The best thing that had come out of my time in London was meeting my wife, Maureen White, another American expat. When we decided we wanted children, we somehow managed to have four in four years' time (one set of twins).
Not until the mid-1990s, after I'd risen to a senior post at the investment bank Lazard Frères, was I able to focus again on Washington. I began to write op-eds. I became involved with several think tanks and started donating to candidates I liked.
Maureen and I had met the Clintons on Martha's Vineyard in the early years of Bill Clinton's presidency. Our relationship was cemented in 1995 when Vernon and Ann Jordan arranged for us to stay over in the Lincoln Bedroom, on the second floor of the White House. We were so naive about fundraising that we took the Jordans at their word when they said that the Clintons wanted to "meet a few new interesting people."
That year, we dove into Clinton's reelection effort — raising money, courting business support, and attending events. After the election, Maureen became the U.S. representative to UNICEF. I had conversations with Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and his then-deputy Larry Summers, but their needs and my availability never coincided.
Maureen and I worked hard for our friend Al Gore in 2000, and then again for John Kerry in 2004, because we could not bear George W. Bush's policies. At the time, I wasn't thinking of a Washington job; I had made a commitment to the three partners with whom I started a private investment firm, the Quadrangle Group, in 2000, promising that I would not leave for at least five years. And I was enjoying helping our little firm grow and thrive.
When Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2008, the decision to support her was easy. I admired her enormously and thought that she was the best qualified to be President. But as the campaign unfolded, it became clear that on substantive policy grounds, she and Obama were almost indistinguishable. So while I was proud to be a Clinton supporter, I always felt that Obama would also be fine. In August 2007, I ran into him at a Martha's Vineyard golf club and mentioned that if he became the nominee, I'd be pleased to help in any way I could. (At that moment, I suspect neither of us thought that outcome was likely.)
We stayed with Hillary to the bitter end; I've always believed that the girl you bring to the dance is the girl you stay with. But when she dropped out in early June 2008, Maureen and I were happy to support Barack. As always, we tried to keep a low profile and help where we could, mainly in fundraising, business outreach, and cultivating other potential supporters, particularly those who had been for Hillary.
Election night 2008 was a celebratory moment for us. Of course, almost immediately the jockeying and speculating over appointments began. I wanted to serve and felt that now the timing was right: my kids were nearly grown, and Quadrangle was coming up on its ninth anniversary and I had capable partners. But I knew from observing previous transitions that Obama would pick his most senior advisers first. Any potential role for me would be a notch down.
I had not concealed my interest in Washington, so I didn't think I needed to do much to advance myself. I'd seen would-be officeholders put themselves forward shamelessly — and futilely. Any job I would want would be decided on merit, another reason for not tryin...