Friday, August 31, 2012

Mr. Smithers Goes to Washington

I read Jeff Connaughton's The Payoff on the strength of an enthusiastic recommendation from Simon Johnson. It was a worthwhile endeavor: an important story, well told. And as may or may not be relevant, it is also an odd story, or at least teller, and I'm not sure myself just how much the perspective of the teller affects the content of the tale. Bear with me, I'll try to explain.

The core story here is the narrative of Connaughton's life as the trusty right hand to Ted Kaufman in Kaufman's two-year career as senator from Delaware. You'll remember Kaufman: he was the trusty right hand to Delaware Senator Joe Biden through much of Biden's senate career, and the appointment to fill out Biden's term after Biden moved over to the White House was his reward. Kaufman, you'll recall, took the bit in his teeth and ran: he began his career by announcing he would not be a candidate for election and thereby freed himself of all the responsibilities of fund-raising that make up the daily life of any senator who wants to stick around for another term.

Arriving just in time to clean up after the 2008 meltdown, Kaufman decided to make a brief for financial reform. It was a topic Connaughton knew a bit about: he'd spent a bit of his youth in banking, as well as long years as a lobbyist. So the setup is clear. But from here, you could file the book on the heavy-laden shelf of memoirs entitled “how I confronted the great beast and got my head handed to me by the forces of greed, corruption and sloth.” Indeed from to time it is hard to tell whether we should envy them for the fun they are having as they slash at the Wall Street minotaur and how much indulge our sense of compassion from our foreknowledge that it will all come to nothing.

If you think you've heard all this before the chances are you have, and that's a problem: the kind of reader who will stick with this book (though it is fluent, and not very long)--the kind of reader is the one who already pretty much knows what story the author has to tell. This is a pity, not least because this would actually be a pretty good one to put into the hands of a reader who does not know the story and wants to know what the fuss is all about. Indeed Connaughton's general introduction to “algorithmic trading”--its revolutionary character and its potential for mischief—is a small masterpiece and I'm pretty sure I will steal it for use with students next spring.

But now, the odd part. Mainly, the alert reader is bound to be puzzled by the tone of Matt-Damon-like innocence that the author adopts when he undertakes to tell us what routine Washington evil is all about. This is a guy who, after all, had been in and around politics for a quarter century; who had managed campaign money; who had made himself a principal (if not quite first tier) of a formidable lobbying machine. Surprised? Is this a literary device thrust upon him by his editor?

Possibly, but here's a reason to think otherwise. Specifically as he describes it himself, Connaughton is one of those people born to believe himself not quite deserving of a place at the high table, the perpetual outsider with his nose perpetually pressed against the glass. He seems to have learned how to make a good thing of it: as he himself suggests, the job of second banana has its inherent virtues, and it is a job he seems to be good at. The irony is that in working for Kaufman he makes himself the second banana of a second banana and here, it would appear, he really excels.

Which sets me up for my final point—one not strictly germane to the essence of the book, but still a fascinating piece of dish. That is: Connaughton, who has built his entire career around Biden—around Biden's presidential aspirations but more generally around Biden's position as a top-tier macher in the Democratic party establishment. Truth be told, Connaughton really hates Biden. Well: he's awed by Biden's political chops and he genuinely admires a lot of what Biden stands for. But in his quarter century, Connaughton feels he's never had the appreciation he deserves.  And it rankles.  I mean really, really rankles. 

Which is to say: I can't count the number of times in the book where Connaughton says of Biden, “But did he ever thank me? Ha!”--or words to that effect.

And it may be more than just Connaughton. If you believe his account, it's a failing of Biden's: a great crowd pleaser, keen political instincts, and in many ways a highly constructive and admirable policy man. But on the testimony here, a man with an unpleasant habit of not saying thank you to all but the narrowest of old established inner circles.

In short, I can' think of anything to match Connaughton's rancor except Paul Theroux's confessional about his "relationship" with V.S. Naipaul.  And I grant this may be nothing more than mischievous gossip, although Connaughton does draw one provocative general comparison. He points out that Biden (at least in Connaughton's persepective) can be seen as the ant-Kennedy. Ted, that is: apparently Ted had exactly the opposite reputation from what Connaughton sees in Biden. Connaughton (quoting a friend) says that “Kennedy believe[d] in force projection”--of keeping touch, of following the careers of your former underlings, of making sure, in otheer words, that you have friends and allies in every cranny of the beast.

It's a fascinating insight, very likely true. Of course the irony is that with Connaughton, Biden got the same result by doing just the opposite.

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