As for Fuld, surely some passing mention of Lehman’s role in fueling predatory lending and toxic underwriting would have helped readers put the madcap events of 2008 in context. It was the Times itself, after all, that revealed how deeply intertwined Lehman was in predatory lending with a seminal 2000 exposé by Diana Henriques and Lowell Bergman, work that was amplified by other reporters, including The Wall Street Journal’s Mike Hudson in 2007. Lehman’s (and Wall Street’s) neck-deep involvement in subprime is hardly a secret at this point.

And it’s not only backstory that gets tossed off the private plane. An exposé by The Wall Street Journal in October 2008 made a devastating case that in the weeks before the fall—which is to say, right in the middle of Sorkin’s timeline—Fuld and his team had grossly misrepresented Lehman’s financial position. Do we get any hint of this from TBTF? No. Instead, we are offered a glance at Fuld’s morale-building techniques:

To encourage teamwork, he adopted a point system similar to the one that he used to reward his son, Richie, when he played hockey. Fuld taped his son’s game and would inform him: “You get one point for a goal, but two points for an assist.”

Fuld clearly cooperated fully for this book. As it happens, he is the only figure whose motives are explicitly characterized—as someone who is “driven less by greed than by an overpowering desire to preserve the firm he loved.”

To some degree, TBTF suffers from what I call the Avatar problem. In the movie, a youthful outsider immerses himself in an exotic culture of larger-than-life figures, and ultimately begins to see things from their point of view. Indeed, he winds up riding the big red Banshee.

In the book’s final paragraphs Sorkin finally drops the mask of objectivity and offers his own view of the protagonists. He reports that Jamie Dimon sent a note of encouragement to Hank Paulson, in which the JPMorgan Chase ceo quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” passage (“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . .”). Sorkin writes:

It was a remarkable quote for Dimon to have chosen. While Roosevelt’s words describe a hero, they were deeply ambiguous about whether that hero succeeded or failed. And so it is with Paulson, Geithner, Bernanke and the dozens of public and private-sector figures who populate this drama. It will be left to history to judge how they fared during their own time “in the arena.”

This is, in a sense, Wall Street’s view of itself: well-intentioned men who dare to take risks while timid souls (the press, politicians, investors, borrowers, taxpayers) carp and complain. It doesn’t take much critical distance to realize that this is not the whole story, not by a long shot.

For all its flaws, TBTF remains a work of extraordinary reportage that gives readers access to some of the nation’s most powerful financial figures. It’s also a reminder, however, that on Wall Street, nothing is ever free.

 

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.