251 Minutes With Ken Feinberg

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Ken Feinberg is asleep, I think. The way he’s slumped in his seat, I can only see the gray tufts of hair on either side of his head, which has drooped low enough that his chin is nearly touching the lapel of his tuxedo. We’re sitting just a few rows away from the last harrowing scene in the Washington National Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther. Onstage, the hero, bleeding profusely after having stabbed himself in the chest for love, is squelching out the opera’s most famous aria—a tour de force that would probably best not be punctuated by a giant snore from Feinberg. Should I wake him up, I wonder? But then, just as the final notes sound, Feinberg comes to life. “That is the French! Passion!” he announces in his distinctive Christopher Walken voice. “You can’t help but be affected by this overpowering passion this poet feels, not only for this girl, this woman, but life generally,” he says, then jumping to his feet. “Bravo!”

It’s surreal but fitting, since springing into action in the aftermath of a tragedy is what Feinberg is known for. When disaster strikes, he’s called in to deal with the money and has been ever since the Bush administration tasked him with doling out compensation to families of 9/11 victims. Since then, he’s appeared, Gump-like, at the scene of nearly every high-profile disaster—the Virginia Tech shooting, the BP oil spill. “The American Bar Association called me ‘the Master of Disasters,’ ” he says when we meet in the Kennedy Center’s bar before the performance.

The odd niche has begotten two quasi-­memoirs—What Is Life Worth?, about the September 11 fund, and Who Gets What?, which was released last week—and afforded him a wonky sort of fame: A trail of murmurs follows Newt Gingrich and the formidably coiffed Callista around the opera, but just as many people squint at Feinberg, sure they recognize his potato-shaped head and Mr. Magoo eyeglasses. It’s also made him wealthy: BP reportedly paid his legal team about $20 million to distribute more than $6 billion.

Still, “I don’t relish these assignments,” he says at the bar. And why would he? In 2010, residents of the Gulf Coast, convinced he was a BP lackey, practically ran him out of town. “I bet you have to get back for all those Jewish holidays, don’t you?” one man sneered as he departed a town-hall meeting. This was nothing compared with the things he heard during the 9/11 negotiations. “I spit on you and your children,” one widow told him, after receiving what she thought was less than her due. Still, Feinberg sees the work as his duty. “When presidents and attorneys general ask you to do things, you don’t say no,” he says, wide-eyed.

As a result, the buttoned-up Washington lawyer has become an armchair philosopher by necessity. “I’ve become much more understanding of people,” he explains, squeezing a lime into his Diet Coke. “Most people respond to personal tragedy with a good-faith belief: It’s not my fault, I’m an innocent victim, and I’m entitled to whatever benefit might be bestowed on me, because it’s a small benefit, compared to the loss I’ve suffered. When I ask questions, they get angry, they get vindictive. It’s human nature.” He shrugs.

When the Treasury Department asked him to cut back the pay levels of Wall Street executives, he expected, at least, less Sturm und Drang. He was wrong. “For the people who work at these companies, pay is kind of a barometer of self-worth,” he says, launching into an impression of the inner monologue of a Master of the Universe. “If you don’t give me what I am entitled to, you are denigrating my character, my personality, my work ethic. So it became very emotional.

Lopping zeros off the checks of a few petulant banks doesn’t keep him up at night, but some of this other jobs do. “The woman who saved three little girls from drowning in the Mississippi River dies a heroine,” he says. “Her husband says, ‘Where’s my check?’

“Bad things happen to good people all the time.” He checks his watch. It’s been exactly an hour. (Lawyers.)

“I’m much more fatalistic now,” he says, waving for the check. “In my experience, you never know what’s waiting around the corner.” For tonight, at least, the only tragedy he’ll see is onstage. “The opera and classical music saved my sanity,” he says as we head into the theater. “People at the World Trade Center are killed by terrorists; you can go two miles uptown to Lincoln Center and listen to the height of civilization. You see what mankind is capable of,” he says. “On the negative side you have war, pestilence, death, tragedy, murder. But then, on the plus side of the ledger, you see what man can create.”

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251 Minutes With Ken Feinberg