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The Clark Kent Timesman


This circumstance of having the heir working as a journalist among other journalists is played in Times culture as a normal one. But everyone knows it’s weird and loaded. Now, nobody is at the New York Times by happenstance (whereas most people find themselves working in professions and at companies they couldn’t ever have anticipated). Most everybody who is at the Times has aimed for it, considered it for years, fetishized it in greater and lesser ways.

The Sulzberger family is a complicated part of this fetish. It is one of America’s longest-lasting, and last remaining, instances of primogeniture. In any conventional career strategy at the Times, there really isn’t much advantage in having a relationship with the family. It would be like someone trying to rise up in Labour Party politics by befriending the prince of Wales. But Steve Rattner does befriend Arthur. Indeed, Arthur is befriended by an assortment of people in the Washington bureau in the early eighties. That is Arthur’s job at this point in time: to experience the Times as its reporters experience it—and to experience Times reporters.

But it’s situational. While he befriends these people now, he will unbefriend them as the situation changes. He will say later, in his surprising blunt-speak way, that he can’t be friends with Times reporters. That it doesn’t work. That it complicates things.

But the person he will stay friends with, best friends (they will later live in the same building in New York and, every morning, go to the gym together), is Steve Rattner—no longer at the Times, but now a media money guy, whose clients include the Sulzbergers.

I remember when I heard this: Steve Rattner had left the Times to go to Wall Street. This seemed both absurd and disturbing at the same time. If no one had ever done this, but someone, someone like Steve Rattner—already seen as the most successful Timesman of his generation—was doing it now, what did it mean?

He was defining success (and success and failure are the two states obsessively juggled and arbitrated by people at the Times) in a way—money was success—that was almost morally opposite the Times’s definition of success. And what was most difficult and most irritating was that, no matter what Times people would have liked to believe, virtually everybody believed Rattner was the greater success.

How did he know, I have spent a lot of time wondering since then, that everything was about to change? That the industrial revolution was about to begin and he was joining it, while everyone at the Times was being left on the farm?

If he had not left the New York Times, Rattner would have earned, in twenty years, assuming a stellar career, an aggregate of three to five million dollars (he would have been making about $50,000 in 1982 and something more than $300,000 in 2003). In twenty years as an investment banker (he was already making $1 million a year two years into his new job) with a stellar career, he would have earned $300 to $500 million.

The point is not just the hundred-fold difference but between being a functionary in the information business (indeed, a relative nonentity in the information business—there is now no equivalent at the Times or, in fact, in all journalism to, say, James Reston) and one of its key leaders.

What’s more, given the self-perpetuating asset base, and the access that your own asset base gave you to other asset bases, you would, with any desire, continue to increase your wealth exponentially (you were creating generational wealth).

He had gone to Lehman Brothers, then to Morgan Stanley, and then to Lazard Frères, where he was the No. 2.

Lazard, for a long time, remained a rarefied Wall Street place. It was not so much a player as the firm that played the players. It sold pure knowingness, synthesis, meta-thinking. The same skill sets he used in his $50,000-a-year job at the New York Times will shortly pay him $20 or $30 or $40 million a year.

This is almost a pure business-model point. You can retail your expertise the way a newspaper does, or you can do it the way an exclusive investment-banking firm does. Of course, few New York Times reporters, even the best business-desk people, could show up downtown and be seen to have great value to anyone. They are sloppy, and literal, and indiscreet.

The value changes with the package—in talking the talk and walking the walk.

Still, Rattner, even in his own home, was fairly indistinct. Or it was a fine, unwavering control that he maintained. He listened. His arms crossed over his chest. A faint smile stayed in place. Mario Cuomo confided something to him—something important, it seemed, but it might have equally been a pleasantry. There was in the tableau Walter Isaacson, who ran CNN, Steve Shepard, who ran BusinessWeek, Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Jonathan Alter from Newsweek, Steven Brill (for whom the Rattners would also give a book party later in the spring).

Rattner is, perhaps necessarily, a social climber, as the people here were all necessarily social climbers. Now, this is a rarer attribute than you might think in this celebrity age; most people, in and out of business, have a natural and ingrained reticence. They’re shy. Insecure. Afraid. Ashamed.

Social climbing requires complex emotional breadth and stamina—and often a novelist’s, or courtesan’s, understanding of individual value and distinction and of the myriad underlying relationships in any given room or professional or social circumstance.

You have to be able to both know your place and cleverly advance it.

Indeed, the premium on social climbing, and people who have the shamelessness to engage in it, is so large that it has meant that a great number of vulgar, tawdry, unrefined people have been accepted into and elevated up the social and business ranks.

Rattner has the advantage of being an active and willing social climber but not being sleazy. He is very smooth. He has a certain degree of Wasp aestheticism—or Wasp envy. Formality. Reserve. Efficiency. Soft-spokenness. (He is a kind of perfect museum-board member.)

And yet, by the mid-nineties or so, these well-born-banker-like qualities that had been at a premium started to seem rather dusty—the biggest dollars were going to a new, more protean, more public, more engaged sort of entrepreneur.

For the three or four or five years of the big boom (depending when you got with the boom), what you wanted to be doing was owning pieces of these vastly inflating enterprises. You didn’t want to be just in the advisory and fee-generating business—which Lazard was in. You wanted to be buying into, at a ground-floor price, some of the most outrageous wealth-creation schemes that have ever been created. (There was really no kind of respectability that could compete with the respectability that came from billions. And the more people who made these billions, the less respectable you seemed without you yourself having billions.)

You wanted to be a promoter rather than an adviser—you didn’t want to be behind the curtain, you wanted to be out front.

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