John Thain: What Ken Lewis Did Was Very Uncool

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Photo: Everett Bogue; Getty Images

"I'm a human being, having a human experience in front of the world," said Jennifer Aniston in her first interview after her breakup with Brad Pitt, in Vanity Fair in 2005. "I wish it weren't in front of the world. I try really hard to rise above it." We were reminded of this seminal interview, and of Jen's admirable stoicism in the face of her public humiliation, this morning, when reading an interview given by former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain to The Wall Street Journal, the first substantive interview he has given since being unceremoniously ousted soon after engineering the firm's sale to Bank of America. While the breakups were different in substance — Aniston's husband left her for an insatiable sex goddess of the screen, while Thain was fired by BofA CEO Ken Lewis, castigated as a symbol of Wall Street greed, and accused of engineering millions of dollars in bonus payments to Merrill Lynch employees as the bank wrote down its largest losses ever — they've followed something of the same trajectory. Let's review.

They Looked So Happy Just Before It Happened


John Thain and Ken Lewis, 12/5/08

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, 1/5/2005

They Were Blindsided
John Thain: "Until he came to ask me to resign, there was never an indication from him that he had any concerns."
Jennifer Aniston:"I just don't know what happened," Aniston admits. "There's a lot I don't understand, a lot I don't know, and probably never will know, really."

They Found Themselves Humiliated in the Press
John Thain: Six days later, Mr. Thain says, he was stunned by a Financial Times article that reported Merrill had "accelerated" bonus payments in order to pay them before the takeover was completed. The article quoted a Bank of America spokesman saying that Mr. Thain had "decided" to speed up the payments. Bank of America "was informed of his decision," the spokesman said.
Jennifer Aniston:"Everything changed on April 29, when photographs broke of Brad and Angelina frolicking on the beach with Maddox at a romantic resort in Africa. 'The world was shocked, and I was shocked,' she says."

And the Tabloids Ran With the Story
Jennifer Aniston: "In the tabloids and celebrity gossip magazines, the soap-opera version of her life continues to hurtle along like a runaway express train. Jen Is Devastated! Jen Is Furious! Jen Gets Revenge! Jen Has a New Man! Jen Is Over Brad!"
John Thain: "The affair made him a lightning rod for public ire over greed on Wall Street." John Thain's Top 16 Outrages! John Thain's Decorating Spree! John Thain's Commode On Legs Outrage!

They Felt Betrayed by Other Parties
John Thain: "Getting fired is one thing. But nobody has the right to say things that they know aren't true."
Jennifer Aniston: "What Angelina did was uncool."

They Dealt Gracefully With the Pain
Friend of John Thain, 2009: Mr. Thain, a former mortgage-bond trader and electrical-engineering student, "was shell-shocked," Mr. Reed says. "He was very stoic and uptight .... He had to relax and say, 'This is crummy, and this is going to hurt,' and just accept it. At the time, he just tried to pretend nothing had happened."
Friend of Aniston, 2005: "This woman is basically having a root canal without anesthesia, but she's really trying not to numb the pain or shove it under the rug. She's grown so much, and she continues to grow on a daily basis, because every time you think, 'Well, I've dealt with this,' there's another hurdle to get over. It's a bit Job-like at the moment."

They Remain Angry About Certain Misconceptions
Jennifer Aniston: "A man divorcing would never be accused of choosing career over children," she says. "That really pissed me off. I've never in my life said I didn't want to have children. I did and I do and I will! The women that inspire me are the ones who have careers and children; why would I want to limit myself? I've always wanted to have children, and I would never give up that experience for a career. I want to have it all."
John Thain: "What bothers me is I was trying to do the right thing for Merrill's shareholders, employees and clients," Thain tells the Journal. "I want to set the record straight."

They Are Optimistic About the Future
John Thain: "Now he spends his time networking and says he is optimistic that he will get another chance to run a publicly traded company. He still puts on a suit nearly every day, although he no longer has an office to go to."
Jennifer Aniston: "It's sort of like Bambi—like you're trying to learn how to walk. You're a little awkward; you stumble a little bit. The things you would do with your partner, you don't do. It's uncharted territory, but I think it's good for me to be a solo person right now. You're forced to re-discover yourself and take it to another level. If you can find a way to see the glass half full, these are the moments when you learn the most. I've had to re-introduce myself to myself in a way that's different."

Thain Fires Back at Bank of America [WSJ]
The Unsinkable Jennifer Aniston [VF]