The Clark Kent Timesman

Photo: John Kascht

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.

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.

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.

The Clark Kent Timesman