What's going on here? "You've got to let them get off steam," he would explain. After a while, he would take bring down the gavel again and get back to business.
I thought of Dick Maloney this week while reading Panic of 1907, Sean Carr and Robert Burr's absorbing account of the mostly-forgotten near-death financial meltdown on Wall Street early in the last century. It's a fascinating backgrounder on some of what we lived through last year and, not incidentally, a remarkable insight into the career of J. P. Morgan Jr., the old lion who more or less systematically hectored and bullied financial markets back into order.
So we're at the old Union Trust Company on the northeast corner of Thirty-sixth and Fifth Avenue. The order of the day is to squeeze $10 million out of the presidents of New York's most powerful trust companies to help shore up a flagging comrade and thus restore confidence in he system. Morgan (inevitably) presides. For him personally, it was no small matter. He was 70; he was mostly retired from the bank--he spent his time on Episcopal Church matters, and his collection of rare books and Renaissance art. He'd been on his feet in action for days and nights now. And he nursed a persistent, nasty cold.
Still, Morgan's entreaty, the president of Bankers Trust agreed to stump up $500,000, perhaps a million. But the others balked.
Their aimless discussion continued. Morgan was clearly exhausted. At first, he sat quietly smoking, until his cigar went out. Then his head dropped forward and he fell asleep in his chair.Get that: perhaps the most critical moment in the career of perhaps the most powerful man in the world, and the old goat falls asleep.
But get this also: it didn't matter. Discussion continued to meander around him:
Another 30 minutes passed. Morgan then abruptly awoke, and he immediately asked [his aide] for apencil and a sheet of paper. "Well, gentlemen," Morgan continued...And he got his money. And the system survived.
What do we see here? I think we see something between Kubler-Ross's six stages of grief and Maloney's "let them let off steam." It really didn't matter what the bankers said. It didn't matter whether Morgan was there or not (maybe he was awake all along and just faking it). They knew they were licked from the start. They needed to reconcile themselves to the fact they they were going to part with a large chunk of their beloved change. And these things take time.
I think there may be a moral here about all those meetings that everybody hates to go to. We never get anything done, you say. We just talk and talk. True, too true. And sometimes, that may be just the point. Deans who preside over faculty meetings, please copy. And consider a nap.