Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Highs and Lows

Act III of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at The Metropolitan Opera. 11:30 PM. Photo: JH.
January 27, 2009. Yesterday was cold and sunny in New York. And blah, the way a winter day can be blah in the northeast. It remains very quiet, as it most always is at this time of year.

Old New York. Last night JH went with his parents and his brother to the Met to hear Lucia de Lammermoor. Opera going is now third generation for his family. Although I am not a big opera buff I am always a little in awe of that -- that the third generation are fans of both today’s music and grand opera. It also strikes me, a kid from a small town in New England, as ultimate New York life --- something that JH and his family just naturally take as a matter of course. It reminds how the city is so rich in what it offers to us.

New New York. Caroline Kennedy for Senator. In the last two days I’ve had two long dinner table conversations about national politics with two separate individuals who have worked and lived in that world a good part of their lives. In both cases the talk began with Caroline Kennedy’s brief foray into political life but quickly moved to the matters of nitty-gritty down-and-dirty political warfare.

From the sound of it, Ms. Kennedy, whatever she thinks and feels, is far too innocent for that arena. So am I. Insiders talking about “how it works” paradoxically regard news media reports as if they were true, and yet talk about the underside of political life (the bids for power, the petty jealousies, the monstrous jealousies, the back-stabbing and endless manipulation of people’s agendas) as if it’s the only side. I’m left feeling none of us is innocent enough.

The romance of Obama is already wearing off with many of these people possibly because it was never quite there with them the way it is to the electorate in general (that is, those who wanted to see him as President). It is not that they disapprove of or don't like the President, it is simply that he has now become, as it always is, a part of the process. And that process is all those lovely things I referred to at the end of the previous paragraph. It is also true that President Obama knows this on their level because, like them, he’s a politician too. Et tu Brutus.

We are living at a time when the leadership both politically and financially appears to be responsible for much of what is going on and also appears to be in it far over their heads. What will change that I don’t know. Nor do I know if anything will change that, although something’s gotta give.

Nevertheless, the Bubble has burst and the party is over. John Thain at Merrill Lynch has apologized, in his way, for spending $1.2 million on his office. This kind of executive “aesthetic choice” is not new, nor is the denouement.

Lewis L. Glucksman. William E. Sauro/The New York Times, 1990.
The other night a friend was telling me about an incident in the 1970s when he was working for Lehman Brothers and was sent out to do some work in the Los Angeles office by Lew Glucksman, then chief executive of the firm.

My friend, a native New Yorker, loved the glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills and was especially impressed when he first visited the office of one of the firm’s executives: it was, hands down, the most glamorous and lavish office he’d ever seen. Anywhere.

Not long after he’d begun his stay there, Mr. Glucksman phoned him and asked him how everything was going. My friend waxed very enthusiastic about his work/visit and especially about the fabulous office that one of the Lehman executives had made for himself. Lavish; beautiful wood paneling, chandeliers, paintings, antiques, state of the art sound system; a bar and fine crystal and stemware -- and pricey: $368,000 of luxury (or more than ten times that in today’s dollars).

As it happened, it was also the first time Mr. Chief Executive Lew Glucksman heard about this particular executive’s lair. His reaction to my friend’s report, however, seemed less than enthusiastic. So much less that a few days later, Mr. Glucksman made a special plane trip out to Los Angeles to see what my friend was so knocked out by.

George IV chair, $18,000. One of John Thain's office purchases (CNBC.com).
And when he entered the fabulous executive suite (the executive was away from his office as it happened), he too was awestruck. So much so, he hit the ceiling. He was furious and instantly grabbed a piece of paper off a secretary’s desk. In large letters he wrote: “YOU’RE FIRED!” which he then scotch-taped to the office door. Then he took a second piece of paper and in large letters wrote: “And you will pay Lehman Brothers back every cent you spent on this office.” And he taped that to the office door too.

The next day, Lew Glucksman returned to New York, the man came in and found the notes on his office door and shortly thereafter left the firm. He also reimbursed Lehman the $368,000.

It is significant that the world -- where Lehman no longer exists -- such extravagance is commonplace, even ordinary to modern executives (if not to the public). Richard Fuld, the last head of Lehman was a protégé of Lew Glucksman, if you’re interested in ironies.

Mr. Thain, the man with the latest Wall Street million dollar executive suite has publicly acknowledged that his office renovation was a “mistake” and stated that he would reimburse the company for all of its costs.

Random House defines a mistake as “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.; a misunderstanding or misconception.”

I'll bet Lew Glucksman would have had another word for it.
Comments? Contact DPC here.