Even though Reaganism is a bit passé at the moment, “trust but verify” would be a good mantra for 2009. The common thread linking all the sad commotions of the year we just escaped from was a monumental absence of due diligence.
When Oprah gets fooled by yet another fantasy “memoir”—this time of a Nazi camp survivor who cooked up a tale of meeting his wife-to-be when she threw apples over a barbed-wire fence at Schlieben, which she was a few hundred miles away from at the time—you have to wonder why the big fat budget of that show doesn’t at least extend to a fact checker. But then you might ask the same of any of the hedge-fund machers whose only service to their clients was supposed to be knowing all about where the money they were paid such obscene sums to invest was actually going.
One phrase I would dearly like to consign to the can is Out of the Box. The thinking that told us we should invade Iraq and that house prices never decline may have been out of the box, but it put us into the ditch.
I remember being stunned when Tracy Hogg, the former nanny who wrote the bestselling mommy manual The Baby Whisperer, told me that the mothers she worked for usually hired her without checking any of her references. She had a British accent, and even though the children’s literature of the British Isles is more populated by monstrous, bony-fingered control freaks than nannies who fly through the air to make everything shiny, the Baby Whisperer’s posh vowels were enough, apparently, to convey a Mary Poppinsesque aroma of wholesomeness.
Much of the fascination with the Bernie Madoff story is the sickening sensation of embarrassed recognition. Perhaps we should all now decide that personal recommendations are often either just a subterfuge for laziness or some craven desire to abdicate judgment in favor of social one-upmanship. Doing due diligence diligently is such a hassle, after all. It involves making boring phone calls. It involves tracking people down. It involves paying attention when people are telling you things you don’t really want to hear.
Everyone, it seems, has got more important, more interesting things to do than fiddling around following Google links into the past or calling up former classmates to get the real scoop on the guy handling your life savings, or, if it’s a medical issue, your life. Top doctors, I have come to believe, are as big a menace to your health as top money managers are to your bank account. They are almost never available to talk to. They are too busy promoting their new books, speaking at medical conferences in Vienna, or getting flown to the Gulf by private plane to perform some small service to the prostate of a Saudi prince. Your lousy blood test results are the last thing on the medical genius' mind. And yet no Park Avenue dinner party is complete without some dome-headed CEO trying to force one’s spouse into the exorbitant waiting room of the greatest knee surgeon/nutritionist/back doctor/colonoscope artist on the planet.
Thank God Obama was only kidding when he kept touting Change You Can Believe In. His own Cabinet choices have been cautious and well-researched, but that doesn’t mean we now have to climb into the tank and believe they suddenly know what they’re doing. Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, to whom our flailing economy has been entrusted, are protégés of the erstwhile genius Bob Rubin. Rubin’s the one who, last January, in his role as director and chair of Citigroup’s executive committee, told a small crowd at Manhattan's Cooper Union, “We are not in fact on the verge of a financial meltdown.” (At the time, Citgroup had already written down more than $24 billion in losses due to greed and rotten judgment.)
Now that everything everywhere has fallen apart, it would be nice to think that this year certain exiled words could make a comeback—words like flinty, beady-eyed, skeptical, cautious. One phrase I would dearly like to consign to the can is Out of the Box. The thinking that told us we should invade Iraq and that house prices never decline may have been out of the box, but it put us into the ditch. We have been badly misled by people who persuaded us that they understood things we didn’t.
I felt a pang of Greatest Generation yearning when I read in The Wall Street Journal Fouad Ajami’s tribute to Samuel Huntington, the 81-year-old political scientist who died last week. Huntington sounded like such a refreshingly commonsensical old cove. “He looked with skeptical eye to the American expedition in Iraq,” writes Ajami, “uneasy with those American conservatives who had come to believe in an ‘imperial’ American mission…The world tempts power and then denies it. It is the Huntingtonian world; no false hopes and no redemption.”
But that’s too bleak a message for 2009. For the real deal you have do what I did over the holidays, and go and see the Broadway production of, yes, Mary Poppins. I’d seen Julian Fellowes’ marvelous dramatization of P.L. Travers’ 1934 classic before—two years ago, in London—but back then the denouement didn't have the same resonance.
Mr. Banks, if you remember, is the bowler-hatted father of Jane and Michael. He is humiliatingly suspended from his bank after refusing the business of a client—the slyly named Mr. Von Hussler—who is peddling a scheme the bank’s bosses believed “was bound to make us millions.” After months in the doghouse, Mr. Banks is summoned to face what he firmly believes will be the coup de grâce. His chairman demands to know why he turned away Hussler’s business.
“I refused Mr. Von Hussler,” Banks declares, “because his scheme was hollow. It had no product. It had no substance. It had no meaning outside the walls of a bank! Oh yes, he told me about assets and profits and growth, but there wasn’t a word about PEOPLE! I know that if a man puts any value on real life then as far as you’re concerned, he’s a washout, but I’m afraid I do value it, gentlemen! In short, George Banks, Esquire, has rediscovered the human race! I apologize for ruining the bank. But I do NOT apologize for understanding that there are more important things in life than making money!”
“Ruining the bank? Ruining the bank?“ replies the chairman in a burst of cherubic exuberance. “My dear chap, what are you talking about? You’ve saved our bacon! Haven’t you heard? Von Hussler’s scheme has ruined our rival! You’ve kept us out of the nastiest scandal since records began. We don’t want YOUR apologies! We’re offering ours!”
There was no place for Mr. Banks on the Wall Street of the fast-fading Bush era. Might there be a place for him in Obama’s SEC?
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown . She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.