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The Clark Kent Timesman

How mild-mannered, smooth, ambitious Steven Rattner transformed himself into a Manhattan superhero. An excerpt from the controversial new book Autumn of the Moguls.


I received an invitation to attend a book party at Steve Rattner and his wife Maureen White’s apartment.

Book parties in Manhattan may be the functional equivalent of Tupperware parties or bridal showers in other places. (There isn’t a literary life anymore; publishers no longer even throw an author a party—you have to recruit friends or get your day job to throw you one, or find sponsors, like a vodka brand.) If you are not tied to a book or its party by obligation, you skip it. But this was something else—beyond the apartment’s being a big draw, this was an invitation from people with so much money that it suggested command performance. You wanted, however pathetically, to be near them.

The party was for a book called The Great Tax Wars, by Steven Weisman, an old friend of Rattner’s and of mine. The three of us had started at the Times in the same late-sixties-early-seventies era. But I had left for magazines and Rattner had left for a stratosphere that no one could have imagined at the time, whereas Weisman had stayed—and stayed—and risen to the estimable but faceless rank of Times editorial writer. The party was in some sense honoring Steve’s constancy, but there was also a larger point.

There were book parties—possibly half a dozen were going on that evening around Manhattan—and then there was a party at the Rattners’. When you’re trying to get someone to throw you a book party, you try for your friend with the best apartment—but the Rattners’ apartment transcended such neighborliness, or haimishness, and essential small-timeness. In some way, the party became about the disparity itself. The triumph of the Rattners was the point.

Serious party-giving in Manhattan is a complicated statement. Careers are made around serious parties. (A dowager friend whom I have known since long before her dowager days has exactingly analyzed it: In Manhattan, your career is who you go out with at night.) To be able to give a serious party, to have the wealth or the will to give a serious party, puts you in a different circle of achievement and ambition.

This was a party whose message was Timesness and political-connectedness—every journalist of high rank in the city was in attendance along with nearly every liberal politician. That was the backdrop. But most of all, the message was publicness. We are givers of parties, was the overriding statement, to which other public people come.

This role, or the interest in playing this role, may be what separates one ambitious person from another. It’s the thing that creates a special class of the ambitious (and a special order of compensation). How public do you want to be? How public are you temperamentally able to be? Notably, Rattner did not seem to be obviously and instinctively a public guy. There was a lack of extroversion and of, well, sex appeal.

Will, however, was perhaps more important than nature. Certainly the apartment anticipated his public role.

The elevator opened into a massive foyer that in turn opened into an even larger anteroom (all of these rooms were the size of other people’s two-bedroom apartments) that opened into the main gallery running in front of Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The room was a careful, muted, just-so green affair, with much elaborate and detailed plasterwork.

The billionaire George Soros lived in the same building.

The art was considerable. It was all presentation. It was nineteenth century. It was an attempt at salon life. There was very little furniture (small-timers joked that perhaps they had run out of money).

There was a sense that the Rattners were on the fine line between too-too-ness (he was just a former journalist after all, which no one was going to forget) and being one of the most significant marital entities in the city. He with a billion or so in the bank, ready to become a media mogul with vast reach and power, she, a fund-raiser and committee woman of the highest rank (she was the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee).

Many people here were journalists who continued to try to regard Rattner as a colleague. A faux affability was in the air. But you couldn’t not hear the background marveling, and the grinding of the larger question: What did his ascension mean? Why Steve? And what did this say about the rest of us and the yearnings that drew us here?

The two most irritating words to a generation of Timesmen may well be “Steve Rattner.” Even though he has not been at the Times for more than twenty years, he remains a sort of rebuke.

Rattner’s career at the Times was of the highest order. He was really golden. But then one day, in the still-pre-yuppie eighties, Rattner did what may never have been done: He upped and left the Times and went into investment banking.

In 1982, investment banking was still a dumb-dumb business. In the long shadow of the sixties, and the darkness of the no-growth seventies, Wall Street was a redoubt of C-students, and sons of former Wall Streeters (who were C-students). So when Rattner made this leap, crossed this chasm, he was seeing something that few other people saw—not just opportunity but, I think, a new point of view, a new identity. Simply, he got the money thing—that everything would shortly be a product of how it was financed.

So what was so special about Steve?

There is a way that Rattner is described during his early years at the Times that is telling. First, he is always described—small, fair, cool, remote. Unfriendly. Ambitious. He is singled out from among the other blurry Timesmen. This could mean that among lots of highly ambitious people at the Times, he was more ambitious. Or it could mean that his ambition was of a different order. Timesian ambition is very much of a corporate kind. It is Organization Man stuff. It is to rise up within the Times but always with the implicit understanding that without the Times, you would be nothing. It’s a very precise individual-to-institution calculation. You are its product—almost never the other way around.

Perhaps what irritates Times people most of all is Rattner’s ability to have been such a good Timesman and yet to have broken away from the joint.

He began his Times career as James Reston’s assistant. This was, then, the most honored job for a young man in journalism—something like beginning a legal career as a Supreme Court clerk. From Reston’s office, he went to the Metro desk and then, in the opec-obsessed seventies, to writing about energy and shuttling back and forth to the Middle East, and then, at 24, to the Washington bureau.

As it happened, his Washington rotation intersected with that of the publisher’s son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

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