Okay, so not all anecdotes are created equal. And yes, the book is packed with selective accounts of media-savvy individuals bent on preserving their reputations—no surprise, in a work that relies so heavily on access to private conversations and thoughts.
The book’s ultimate value is the window it provides into how leading figures of the financial system behaved under the pressure of the greatest professional crisis of their lives, and the role played by ego and face-saving during those historic times. We knew that things in the final months were chaotic and out of control. What Sorkin illustrates, and in vivid journalistic detail, is the madcap confusion as frantic government officials try to engineer one merger after another between longstanding rivals while trying to avoid the appearance of doing just that. This leads to some real voyeuristic pleasures. In one memorable passage, Geithner plays matchmaker with Lehman’s Dick Fuld and Barclay’s Bob Diamond:
“He knows you’ll be calling,” Geithner assured [Fuld]. “I understand I’m supposed to call you,” Fuld said when he later reached Diamond. Diamond, however, was clearly flustered, as he thought he had been explicit with Geithner that he didn’t want to talk directly to Fuld about a deal. A deal would have to be brokered by the U.S. government. “I think we should talk,” Fuld said, trying to engage with him. “I don’t see an opportunity for us here,” Diamond answered.
Such scenes, which evoke Harold Pinter or maybe Abbott and Costello, are thick on the ground in TBTF. They are its reason for being.
What readers should not expect is an exploration of the roots of the financial crisis, primers on synthetic collateralized debt obligations, ruminations on the nature of greed, muckraking, moralizing, or thumbsucking of any kind. Any historical context here exists simply to get readers to the next tense conversation in the next glamorous location (the St. Regis, Sun Valley, Dick Fuld’s limo, and so on).
When Sorkin does take a step back from his fly-on-the-wall reportage, his analysis and conclusions are unoriginal and middle of the road. The prose is pure newspaper-ese (“Wearing one of his trademark off-the-rack, no-fuss suits and tortoise-rimmed glasses, Buffett. . . .”). There are no characters to speak of. The protagonists are mostly stick figures, square-jawed types running around with their hair on fire, uttering dialogue straight out of an action movie. Three specimens should give you the idea:
McGee shot a nervous glance at McDade, as if to say, “We’re fucked.”
For fuck’s sake, Wilkinson thought.
“Why didn’t we know this earlier? This is fucking crazy.”
Basically, TBTF is the 24 of financial-crisis books. The world is about to blow up, and everybody is Jack Bauer. Interestingly, the only figure to emerge with at least a shred of personality is Dick Fuld. Sorkin has assembled so much material on the Lehman lifer that the reader is able to witness the unraveling of his personality as months of stress and sleepless nights take their toll. After a while, the only person who doesn’t know he’s finished as CEO of Lehman is Fuld himself. This, Sorkin makes clear, is a man who has sat through one too many conference calls:
“Look into the whites of my eyes,” he said. “There isn’t enough room for both of us at the top here. We both know that.” He paused and stared at Diamond intently. “I’m willing to step aside to make this work for the firm.”
For all that, Sorkin’s account gives the impression that egomania and personality clashes were rarely, if ever, decisive in the end; if deals crashed, it was because the numbers were what they were. In one good scene, a Chase banker named Tim Main embarrasses his boss, Jamie Dimon, during a sales call by telling a roomful of AIG executives that it is important for clients to “recognize their own problems and shortcomings.” On Wall Street, this is considered a major faux pas. Main was taken off the deal. AIG failed anyway.
There wasn’t much anybody could do at this point. Of course, that’s the problem with this book.
At first glance, TBTF is a simply the latest book to gain entrée to the executive suites where important decisions are made and recreate key scenes in a novelistic fashion. It has drawn comparisons to classics such as Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate (1990), but such comparisons are unfair to all sides. Indeed, rereading Barbarians, which is richer by an order of magnitude, shows just how much power relations have shifted between journalists and Wall Street. Back then, access brought a lot more.