Thanks to the entertainment industry, we tend to overestimate the talents of criminals. In order for the good guys to be heroes, the villains have to be super-geniuses. In real life, we have crooks like Bernie Madoff, people only marginally more imaginative than their victims.
When the Madoff story first broke, it seemed like a great HBO show was happening in real time. The biggest losers in this scam looked to be people who never deserved their riches in the first place — like faux-royalty Euros and silly Palm Beach hucksters. Perhaps you’ve heard the term “public-service homicide,” used by cynical cops to describe murder cases in which one bad guy kills another. That’s how Madoff originally seemed — a public-service Ponzi man.
But then the pain of charities and widows turned out to be real and deep and nothing to be cavalier about. Even many of the other victims were guilty of little more than misplaced trust. The biggest killjoy turned out to be Madoff himself. He provided almost no real entertainment value, and eventually revealed himself to be entirely uninteresting, or clever, or really anything much at all: Just a cipher, an empty vessel, a putz. The guy didn’t even make trades. He had no game at all. He did almost nothing to disguise his con — like, say, posting a few months of decent-size losses — or put the hounds off the scent.
Fortunately for him, there were no hounds, but how could Madoff have counted on that for all these years? He just got obscenely lucky. His idiotically brazen lack of concern about being caught reminds me of the downtrodden neighborhood thug who used to set up operations precisely two blocks away from Trinity School on the Upper West Side in the eighties — he would leap out at us necktied little boys, seize the lapels of our blue blazers, and confiscate the two $20 bills that we had ourselves purloined off Dad’s bureau the night before.
How about the Madoff family? The breakdown is probably 50 percent moron, 50 percent criminal. Good luck to those guys trying to stay out of jail. Ruth is a sad case; no more needs to be said about her other than pinning our hopes on a lengthy sentence. The Noel family let us all down. When their role first became apparent, it was possible to imagine Champagne-drenched tales of espionage and intrigue, with the occasional maniacal chase pursuits down the slopes of Courchevalle — you know, James Bond stuff. Instead, the whole lot of them are just incredibly dull and self-absorbed. The Noels’ one lasting contribution to the broader cultural knowledge base is that the banking elite of Europe, the supposed custodians of the truest wealth on earth, have lost their cachet.
Over the next few days and weeks, there may well be another revelation or two. On the technical front, a thorough accounting of how much money was actually stolen would be fascinating. Remember, a good deal of it was returned to investors in the form of dividends and withdrawals. Bernie may have absconded with only a paltry few billion.
But even this minor satisfaction may be withheld. This story is done. Pity the publishers who made all those hasty deals for Madoff books. They may turn out to be his final victims.