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The Clark Kent Timesman

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So Lazard, in the last years of the boom, clinging to old-fashioned respectability, began to look dowdy, out-of-it, failing, and Rattner began to plan his segue from Lazard and banking and into a different kind of public life.

He had risen through the ranks of Clinton-administration favorites, contributing money, raising more dough, playing personal host to the homeless First Family, and now successfully transferred this affinity to Gore and his prospective administration. He was about to be that historically important figure, the Wall Street guy who goes to Washington.

The upside here was really fabulous. He had made hundreds of millions, and now he was going to have historical stature added to the résumé (and be able to someday go back and make, potentially, hundreds of millions more). He was going to be Bob Rubin, or even Clark Clifford.

But it didn’t turn out that way. The Democrats died.

So he started a fund.

There is a special way that people who know about funds say the word fund. A fund is a rich man’s vehicle for self-realization and expression. Because you have made money before, money is now going to come to you, reside under your command like the armies of lesser lords. The money is your instrument. The fund is your nation.

Pete Peterson, the former Commerce secretary, started a fund called Blackstone Group, which, in addition to making him vastly more wealthy, made him more central, engaged, called upon, than he was as Commerce secretary. Before Peterson, the former Treasury secretary William Simon started Wesray and arguably created the model for the personal fund. Henry Kravis, at KKR, with his fund became the seminal businessman of the eighties. John Doerr at Kleiner, Perkins made his venture-capital fund the virtual arbiter of the nineties.

Rattner raised more than $1 billion. And, what with the money he would be able to borrow against that cold cash (the leverage), Rattner would have as much as $10 billion to invest in the media business.

No doubt, as he considered his fund in early 2000, he was thinking about old media and new media and the convergence of platforms and distribution systems and the technology to facilitate all this. But then the market crashed.

In an ideal world, you invest your money in a rising market (ideally, you raise money in a rising market, too). In the second-best world, you are fortunate enough not to have invested your money in a market that the bottom is falling out of (and, too, to have raised at least a good part of what you want to raise before the bottom fell out).

Indeed, as the first year of the millennium wore on, and as the millennial downturn got worse in 2001, it was more and more clear that Rattner was one of the luckiest guys around. He’d gotten lots of money together before the bust was clearly on but hadn’t yet given it to anyone. This meant not only that he was not losing any money but that he would have all the money in his war chest ready to deploy when the market bottomed out.

When he bought, he would be buying cheap. It was almost an impossible-to-fuck-up strategy. The job was just to wait. The art, too. You had to fight the impatience of having nothing really to do.

So you continued to raise money—slowly, in a down market—and you had a lot of meetings in which you listened to proposals soliciting you to invest in companies that you were not going to invest in because, if you merely waited a little longer, your dollar would buy more than it would buy when you first heard the proposal.

How to be a dealmaker—a deal macher—without doing any deals? That was the question. How to be out there is the way it would have been put. We have to be out there, Steve, someone would have said.

And so there were the parties. And then there was the conference—a three-day Wall Street fête of mogul heads of state, called Foursquare, for Rattner to preside over. And although Rattner and his partners so far had made few investments, there was the sense—conveyed through hundreds of meetings with hundreds of prospective deal doers—that Rattner held the purse strings for so many media dreams.

If all went well, if he could buy smart (as well as low), the former Times reporter was ready to take his place among the next generation of media moguls.

At the book party’s high point—measured in sheer numbers of bodies in the room divided by numbers of famous bodies—Rattner’s wife, Maureen White, conspicuously cleared her throat. In an interesting power-sharing arrangement, she was apparently to give the evening’s peroration.

She was, in many ways, more imposing than her husband. A former Wall Streeter herself, she had something more like a Beverly Hills than a Manhattan coif with whitish makeup (her lips were exceptionally shiny and pale). There was no expense spared, no detail untended, no consideration unthought of—but she nevertheless (unlike Beverly Hills) presented herself with a certain austerity and sexlessness.

Was she a creature of her husband’s aspirations, or he of hers? was the unavoidable question (friends of theirs openly debated and analyzed this question).

She proceeded to deliver an oddly long speech—an elaborately prepared impromptu talk—part of the effect of which was to recast the light, if it had drifted, back on the hostess and host. She gave the sense of not just offering the space to have a party, but of being, too, the honoring entity, with the author, bashfully and modestly and awkwardly, by her side. The accolade and implied honor she extended was, like the party, itself out of proportion. (Book parties tend to be filled with other people who have written books, like bar mitzvahs are filled with other 13-year-old boys who have had bar mitzvahs, so the pretense of specialness is a hard one to maintain.)

I don’t think I was the only one embarrassed here.

Still, such embarrassments are ultimately taken in stride, and what is remembered is the intention—the positioning. And, in many ways, that intention, for the Rattners to be the presenters, the benefit chairs, the larger-than-life friends, the pillars and underwriters of the journalistic community, would be remembered much longer than Steve Weisman’s book.

Everybody was paying attention. It was a serene moment of giving the Rattners their due. We were here—this great roster of journalism and media and political and financial figures—to defer. To acknowledge their grandness and importance and largess. To join in their self-congratulation.

Suddenly filled with the sense that having gotten this far without inordinate panic or self-loathing, I should now get out, I turned and ran smack into Rattner.

His coolness, or preciseness, or remoteness, was palpable. You wanted to grab and hold him. But he was such a smooth surface.

He was one of those people who speaks in a voice purposefully too low, too modulated, compelling everyone to bend toward him. I stumbled through a difficult effort at conversation. The more I sensed his elusiveness, the more frantically I tried to make a connection.

You assume that the failure to connect, to fit in, to imagine yourself as properly part of this, is your own failure. Steve Rattner meant something. If what he meant was opaque, it was nevertheless obviously very large. He was privy to something. He had figured something out. He had turned the key. He had gained not just a huge fortune but control, standing, centrality. He was a man of consequence. Wasn’t he?

Rattner continued to seem remote, placid, Delphic, exceptional, as I made my excuses.


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