Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Round the Nation

I've been travelling again for work, this time to do some court assessments, last week in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and this week in Rutland, Vermont. Both very nice places--especially now that the trees on the Green Mountains are about half-turned for autumn. Coeur d'Alene was lovely too -- mostly evergreens around the huge lake and river. And today I'm in Trenton, NJ, to discuss improving caseflow management with criminal court judges tomorrow.

This morning I found myself somewhat amazed to see an obituary in both the Washington Post and New York Times for someone who was doubtless my richest law school classmate, Bruce Wasserstein. This will not be one of those warm (or cool) recollections because, yes, I had met him now and again, but no, I didn't know him very well. What can I add to the lengthy descriptions of his rather unusual career?

Two things stand out. I felt he had followed some similar paths (early on--way before the bucks rolled in) to mine. He'd been a college editor at Michigan and then stayed on an extra year in Cambridge to finish a joint law-business degree. Apparently, having been an SDS-er, he "justified" spending time over at the B-school, after spending a summer in Ralph Nader's crew, by citing the need to know the enemy, so to speak. I had similar feelings about starting out with a Wall Street law firm, wanting to learn something about how they practiced law before going in other directions.

So he started out at Cravath, then on the 57th floor of One Chase Manhattan Plaza, and I was at a far smaller outfit (then called Reavis & McGrath, now absorbed by Fulbright & Jaworski) on the 39th floor, same building. There the parallel ends. Apparently he learned enough about Wall St. to become an investment banker with First Boston and just about take over everything on the Street that wasn't in the hands of Goldman Sachs. And it doesn't sound like he looked back in any kind of anger from atop his billions.

His generosity extended to adopting his late sister Wendy the playwright's child, on its face an admirable step and one that we would hope all such billionaires would do. I for one found his sister's plays absolute delights, having seen most of them--The Heidi Chronicles and others--in New York--I even think I'd still enjoy them should I see them revived.

He also contributed most munificently to Harvard Law School, which despite the recent decline in the university's endowment by 30 percent, remains part of the richest academic institution in the world. I gather he may have been the largest giver. Perhaps he had other charitable interests and maybe some of them will emerge as his affairs are put in order.

Apparently he will be remembered for leading the great corporate takeover movement, which began the process of saddling many of the target companies with huge debts that they then needed to shed many their assets, especially the human ones, in order to finance. I'll give him credit for not peddling derivatives--which seemed to be a crooked operation from its very start. But it wasn't very healthy for our economy to engage in takeovers that mainly enriched only the financiers, such as him, and left the companies stripped of most of their value. All the gain was transactional. It was reported that he didn't like the nickname--Bid 'em Up Bruce--which does sound like one of those nicknames that never quite caught on, anyway, as it hardly flows trippingly from the tongue.

It almost seemed he had reverted to his days as a student editor when he acquired a bunch of publications--New York magazine, The American Lawyer, and others--but it must have all been for either vanity or influence, because none of them reflected his personality or views. This was no Hearst or Rupert Murdoch.

So except for the sheer size of his deals and his fortune, it was an all too familar tale: young radical finds himself as a capitalist and outdoes the scions of inherited wealth--and almost everyone else--in his new incarnation. End of story?

There was that second thing that I said stood out. The obits said he went to a hospital with irregular heartbeats earlier this week. No other details of his illness or death were given. Such are the privileges of the very rich--at least until the pursuers of what inquiring minds want to know turn up. The limited information probably is illustrative of the discretion the well-off can enforce, yet in today's milieu, my first thought was that perhaps even such a mighty titan of finance might have been misdiagnosed or worse: that foul play may have entered into the story.

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