We don’t read books about the Great Depression that were written in 1932. We don’t read newspaper accounts of the Mercury astronaut program from 1961. Instead, we turn to John Kenneth Galbraith’s book from 1954 about the Crash, and Tom Wolfe’s 1979 account of pilots being shot into space.
I say this because, 20 years from now, we won’t be reading Andrew Ross Sorkin’s account of the Great Recession, boldly titled “Too Big To Fail,“—which almost seems like bragging for this 600-page tome from the well-known and much acclaimed New York Times journalist. This event’s definitive documenteur has yet to speak, and won’t until time has passed and lips have loosened. However, this shouldn’t stop us from enjoying what, until now, is the most robust account of financial and political insiders as they struggled to save the very basis of capitalism last autumn.
And enjoyable it is. Despite clearly being rushed to press—spelling errors abound, and Canary Wharf is not in London’s Square Mile, Andrew—it is an impressively detailed account that is well-paced to make the book seem half its actual length.
Its most thrilling and insightful parts, I find, focus on then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. It’s the first account I’ve seen that really delves into the man—going so far as to envision the retching sounds he made into Nancy Pelosi’s garbage can as he tried to convince hesitant Congressional Democrats that TARP was necessary. You get a very keen sense of a man who hesitantly took a job he knew would be difficult, and who would rather be back in his modest New York apartment or, even more likely, in Chicago. What was surprising is how early he seemed to know that there was severe trouble ahead for America’s economy.
However, I can’t help but feel that Sorkin’s angle might have been a little warped by whom he spoke to. Jamie Dimon clearly sat with him, and thus he comes across as a quasi-savior, trying his best to help his fierce rivals; Lloyd Blankfein comes across a little more self-centered, but still wanting to help. Since when did these men—who, through years of political infighting and jockeying, rose to the top in one of the most hostile businesses out there—become so altruistic? Perspective comes only with hindsight, and I fear that the truth of the matter was obfuscated by the months between their actions and the telling of them. I am sure they went above and beyond what would be expected of purely self-motivated characters, as they must have realized something was going down—but I will bet there were a lot of internal discussions regarding the poaching of customers and the drawing down of Lehman’s and Morgan Stanley’s credit lines that went unmentioned when Sorkin was in the room.
Another critique I have is with this very style of journalism. Tom Wolfe could get away with writing dialogue from the mind of his characters because he was, more often than not, in the room when it happened. When he wasn’t, he used such a baroque style that readers understood that he was embellishing and loved him all the more for it. Sorkin—who is taking his lead from the Dean of Financial Journalism, James Stewart—writes dialogue in such a realistic sense that you often forget he was nowhere near the room where it was said. I am on the losing end of a 30-year battle here, but it must be mentioned.
Maybe I’m just jealous that I didn’t write it. Despite all its flaws, this book is a phenomenal effort for one year later. It won’t be the last word, but it is an interesting one.