At Lazard, Rattner initially attached himself to Felix Rohatyn, who probably “invented the persona of investment banker as trusted M&A adviser,” writes William Cohan, whose book The Last Tycoons portrays Rattner revealingly.
If Robert Rubin provided Rattner with a goal, Rohatyn showed him a path. Not only was he larger than any particular deal, but Rohatyn was also a civic force who’d helped rescue New York City from bankruptcy in the seventies. And he was a shaper of opinion, tossing off authoritative essays on economic policy for The New York Review of Books while courting intellectuals at his Fifth Avenue apartment. He had it all, including one supreme gift: He made personal ambition seem beneficent. It was a quality Rattner no doubt admired.
Rohatyn initially seemed to think of Rattner as a younger version of himself, the yuppie model with expensive suits and 5:45 a.m. workouts with his buddy Sulzberger.
Like Rohatyn, Rattner was a student of economic policy—he could hold his own with Summers—and also wrote op-eds. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he chaired Channel 13. And at every turn, he carefully cultivated the social and political connections these positions yielded. Elected officials, intellectuals, journalists, businessmen gathered at his apartment a mile north of Rohatyn’s—his own Fifth Avenue “salon,” as Harvey Weinstein called it.
Rohatyn’s sole failure had been in politics. “You know,” Rohatyn once confessed to Rattner, according to Cohan, “I used to think that being a policy guru and saving New York was enough to become Treasury secretary, but I found out that you really have to be in the mix and you really have to raise money. It’s not going to happen for me.”
Rattner would not be so foolish. His wife served as national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee for five years, until 2006—“the DNC’s ATM,” she was called in this magazine. Rattner too was a force, securing millions for Democrats, and in the process making friends. He palled around with the Clintons. Al Gore and Senator Charles Schumer are good friends, along with Mayor Bloomberg.
Friendships at that level are in part alliances of people who never lose sight of one another’s usefulness. Rattner’s brilliant connections opened doors. So did the seemingly endless publicity he’d attracted ever since Washington Monthly founding editor Charlie Peters made him a symbol of his generation. “I don’t know why all these people want to write about me,” Rattner once said. People who heard that snorted. Had there ever been a more energetic or successful manipulator of the media? Perhaps his greatest feat was the 1994 Vanity Fair article that first declared the then-41-year-old “the premier investment banker of his generation,” while permitting him to expatiate on his surprisingly simple values. I’m rich but not like those rich, he seemed to say. “I often take the subway to and from work, in part, because I don’t see how one can have a view about the problems of the city without experiencing the city on at least some level as typical people do,” Rattner told the magazine.
The article infuriated Rohatyn, whom it treated as a relic, and he reacted with barely contained fury. In a 1996 New York Magazine article, he took on Rattner. “Steve is so monomaniacal,” he told writer Suzanna Andrews. “Eventually he wants to be Treasury secretary, and he’s trying to get it by getting media attention and by social climbing … He just wants to get ahead.”
Rattner later said he regretted the Vanity Fair article, but no one believed him. The deed was done, and swiftly. The next year, Rohatyn retired—Clinton appointed him ambassador to France, a consolation prize. Rattner, his successor, moved into Rohatyn’s office at Lazard. (Bruce Wasserstein, New York Magazine’s owner, is Lazard’s chairman and CEO, but he wasn’t there during this period.)
Rattner thrived at Lazard for a time. He was a big earner, and that garnered respect. In 1997, he was promoted to deputy CEO and briefly viewed as one who might bring unity to a contentious group. But Michel David-Weill, Lazard’s effective owner at the time—“its patron saint,” as Rattner later derided him—had near-monarchical powers, and he wasn’t about to relinquish them to anyone. Rattner departed in 2000, disappointed and downhearted—“defeated,” says a friend, for the first time in a long while.
If Rattner had, in effect, been bounced from Lazard, it didn’t shake him for long. His drive had always been matched by a boundless and seemingly innate self-confidence. “He’s always been comfortable with himself,” says Sulzberger, one quality that, Cohan writes, gave him an air of “inevitability.”