But AIG employees loved it. “He was like a wild man,” says Jay Wintrob, the CEO of SunAmerica, one of AIG’s many subsidiaries. In between threatening to harm public officials, Benmosche was talking about how to pay off AIG’s debt. “I would say he was the earliest guy out there that said, ‘We can repay all of it. There is a future here.’ ”
When things calmed down, even Washington began to see a payoff. “The guy’s crazy,” one of the Treasury Department’s public-relations guys told Millstein, who began, dejectedly, to explain. “They were like, ‘No no no no. It’s good. He’s inoculated himself. Congress will never call him down now, for fear he’ll scream at them.’ ”
This was an outcome that satisfied Benmosche, who now talks about this period as if he had planned it all along. “I always knew I was going to say all these things, be pretty aggressive,” he says over dinner in the formal dining room. “Because saying the government’s in charge, it just wasn’t working.”
“Governments!” shouts Fernando, who is by now quite drunk. “Government are coming to the point in which they are going to control everybody!”
Benmosche smiles at him indulgently. “It’s like Indiana Jones,” he says, referring to the scene in which one guy does all this fancy swordplay and Indy just takes out a gun and shoots him. “Too many people, they’re standing there with the stupid sword. You gotta get the gun.”
Once in the states, Benmosche began to assemble his team. One member was Brian Schreiber, Hank Greenberg’s former right-hand man. He’d fallen out with his mentor, who felt his staying at the company was disloyal, but Benmosche appreciated that he’d been there for twelve years and had been a vociferous opponent of Project Destiny.
For help with the mess at Financial Products, Sarah Dahlgren suggested Peter Hancock, a former JPMorgan executive described as the “intellectual godfather” of the credit-default swaps that brought AIG low, a fact that now seems faintly embarrassing. “I like the idea of doing something that was really …” British-accented and exceedingly polite, he searches for the adjective. “Worthwhile.”
Tom Russo was in a similar frame of mind. Since the blowup of his firm, the former general counsel of Lehman Brothers had consulted on the film Arbitrage and written a grimly detailed book about the national debt. “It’s boring, I know,” he says, sighing in the manner of a man who has accepted that he alone must bear the weight of unbearable knowledge. Russo had no plans to go back to Wall Street but found himself unexpectedly inspired by Benmosche’s argument. “When Bob talked to me about what he wanted me to do, he talked about it like, ‘It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to happen,’ ” he says, his Eeyore eyes animated. “I remember thinking, This guy can sell anything. Because he actually convinced me. Which is very, very hard to do.”
Both Hancock and Russo speak of the job almost as though it were a public service. “If you’re from Lehman, where you’ve seen death, this potential for growing—you get a different sensation,” Russo says. “To participate in reviving a company and being in service to the country and paying back the taxpayer, that is something that, in a short life, why would you miss? Even though I could not exactly explain to myself how we would do it.”
Of course, this was not a charitable endeavor. “I told the Treasury, ‘I don’t work for free,’ ” Benmosche says.
Money has been a driving force in Benmosche’s life, as it usually is for people who used to have none. Like Greenberg, who grew up on a farm fifteen miles from the motel Benmosche’s family ran in Monticello, New York, he’s built his fortune mainly as a cushion against the memories of childhood privation. He started working at the motel at 10, after his father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother with four children and $250,000 in debt. In high school, he worked at the motel and drove a Coke truck, then joined the Army, where he absorbed the writings of Ayn Rand. “I don’t read much,” he says. “But that blew me away.” His work as a communication specialist in the Army gave him the skills to get his first job at Arthur D. Little. Even after he started making money, at Chase Manhattan, Paine Webber, and MetLife, “I was tense all the time,” he says. “When you grow up struggling with debt, you never want to go back,” he adds. “Finding myself with enough money that I don’t have to worry about things anymore is like when you take off a wet pair of shoes. It’s very relieving until you have to put them back on again. There’s nothing worse than putting on wet boots.”