Rattner, the “car czar,” the ultimate meritocrat, suddenly seemed a bit player in a grubby comedy. It was a long way to fall.
Steve Rattner was in his late twenties and a star reporter at the New York Times when he had a conversation that helped change his life. That’s when a friend introduced him to a young Goldman Sachs arbitrageur named Robert Rubin, who shared the plan for his own life. “How much do you like money?” Rubin asked Rattner, by way of preamble. “Let me tell you how I think about it. I like what I do, and I want to achieve financial security for my family and myself. And then I want to do something more public-minded. I want to be secretary of the Treasury.” (Rubin, another gifted careerist, attained the post under Clinton.)
Rattner had started at the Times in 1974, a couple of weeks after graduating from Brown, and rose swiftly through the ranks, along the way befriending Sulzberger, who’d worked as a reporter alongside him. (They became so close that people sometimes took him for a Sulzberger.) Rattner was a talented reporter. “He was exceptionally hardworking and yet never seemed to be,” says Judith Miller, a Times colleague and onetime girlfriend. “He seemed to do it all easily. It was an enormously attractive quality to be very cool when others are flustered,” she adds.
Rattner covered the big stories of the Carter administration and, in the process, befriended some of its most influential members, who’d later usher him into his second career. It became a Rattner trademark to slip under the wing of great men—he did it elegantly, without apparent slavishness. “In his life, he’s cultivated the people who were important to his success at the time, and he’s done that extraordinarily well,” says a person who’s worked with him.
Rattner is self-contained and, even friends say, often difficult to read. “Warm in a cool way,” says Miller. Yet no one missed his focus and his drive, especially toward his career.
In 1982, Rattner was recruited by Roger Altman, whom Rattner had met when Altman was President Carter’s assistant Treasury secretary, for a job at Lehman Brothers. Sulzberger flew to London, where Rattner was then posted, in an effort to persuade Rattner to stay in journalism. They talked and drank much of the night, frat-boy bonding that Sulzberger particularly relished. It did no good. Rattner had a scary vision of himself in twenty years, as a deputy national editor and stuck. “He wanted to matter, to do things, to be respected, to cast a shadow,” says a friend. And so Rattner, after his usual careful consideration, moved to Wall Street.
It was a switch that some fellow journalists considered a shameful apostasy. The Washington Monthly even published an article criticizing Rattner’s career change. Rattner, quoted in the piece, acknowledged stiffly, “I’m a failure at discharging all my social responsibilities.”
Maureen White, Rattner’s wife and herself an investment banker at the time, understood the scope of her husband’s ambition. “It begins to get on you after a while that [as a journalist] you are writing about people who have more power than you, more influence and more money, and are not any more capable,” she told The Washington Monthly. “Why in God’s name are you trailing them around the world and writing about them when you are smart enough to make the money and have influence commensurate with theirs?”
Rattner may have been the most prominent investment banker of his generation; his press clippings said as much. Colleagues didn’t always like him, though Rattner was powerful enough that few openly admitted it. “Many people feel a need to be nice and social with Steve,” one colleague said, “but it doesn’t mean they like him.” To outward appearances, it didn’t ruffle Rattner. “Most people want to be liked,” says a person who worked with Rattner. “In some weird way, he kind of knows that once you get to know him, you won’t like him, and I don’t think he cares. Which is really useful if you want to get ahead.” But Rattner knew that view of him, and in fact it wounded him—he wanted to be liked. He may have been a shark, but it wasn’t all he was.
At Morgan Stanley and then at Lazard Frères, where he arrived in 1989, Rattner had a hand in some of the large media deals of the nineties: Paramount, McCaw, Comcast, Random House. “Give him his due,” says one of those friends who don’t like him. “He was a preeminent investment banker in media and telecommunications.” Rattner cultivated CEOs like he’d once cultivated sources, he has said, and they trusted him. In these interactions, Rattner’s restrained style worked. He let the CEOs be the stars. Rattner appeared to possess the subordinate ego in the room, an alpha carefully disguised as a beta. Rattner’s approach came naturally. He can seem effete, almost precious. He wears nicely cut suits with high-waisted pants, round tortoiseshell glasses, and speaks about almost every topic in the same even-toned, matter-of-fact way. “I’ve never encountered anybody with as much mojo who has less charisma,” says one person who worked for him. Still, in his low-key style, Rattner talked bluntly. As Craig McCaw, now CEO of Clearwire, says, “Some investment bankers are prone to tell you more of what you want to hear. That would not be Steve. He tells people what they don’t want to see about their own business,” and, adds McCaw, he doesn’t negotiate on his fees.