Niall Ferguson: A Eulogy for Financier Ted Forstmann

Financier Ted Forstmann died on Nov. 20. At a memorial mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Tuesday morning, Niall Ferguson delivered remarks in his honor. Plus, Lloyd Grove on Forstmann's visionary life.

Some of you knew Ted Forstmann much better than I did. Most of you knew him much longer. When Ted’s family and closest colleagues asked me to join Mayor Bloomberg and Charlie Rose in offering a eulogy to Ted, I must admit I was hesitant, not to mention humbled. What could be more presumptuous than for a British-born professor to try to do justice to one of the great American capitalists?

And then I remembered the side of Ted that I suspect relatively few of you saw. Teddy the philosopher. Teddy, my coauthor.

When I heard the news of Ted’s death—which we’d been dreading for weeks—my first thought was: he was the most American American I’ve ever known. Financier. Fun lover. Philanthropist. And a man who couldn’t abide cant—in both senses. Cant in the sense of insincere humbug. And can’t in the sense of “this can’t be done.”

And yet there was another side to Ted that was a little less classically all-American. He was, after all, a single parent. He was a man for whom the color line—for so long this country’s curse—was simply not visible.

He was also a matchmaker: a Cupid with a Gulfstream 5 instead of wings. He took a fatherly interest in my romance with Ayaan, whom he did so much to help after she was forced to leave the Netherlands, and who can’t be here for the very excellent reason that she’s about to give birth to our son. Ted was one of those people who didn’t advise her against me, and I’ll be grateful for that until the day I die.

What I really want to remember today, however, is Ted’s secret life as an intellectual. Ted was no ordinary master of the financial universe. He saw things differently. He was what the Germans call a Querdenker, which the English “lateral thinker” doesn’t quite translate.

From the moment we met, he and I talked about his fears for this country’s financial and political system. He had shared my foreboding about the excesses of the early 2000s. And he also shared my fear that when the crisis struck, people would leap to the wrong conclusions.

In a piece we wrote together for The Wall Street Journal back in April of last year, we made an argument that I believe still holds good: that in a mood of legitimate public anger at the consequences of the crisis, this country is drawing the wrong conclusions about its causes.

Unlike many people in the financial world, Ted Forstmann was not afraid to criticize Wall Street. (It was I who had to tone down his invective.) But what Ted dreaded was that the backlash that was bound to follow the crisis would lead to precisely the hypertrophic regulation we now see emerging over literally thousands of pages—as well as to demagogic calls for redistribution via higher tax rates and expanded federal programs.

Ted was convinced that any new regulation should focus strictly on excess leverage and the derivatives markets. Those, for him, were the root causes of the crisis.

With Ronald Reagan, he also passionately believed that enlarging the government was not the answer to the problem; often, it was the problem. That was why he wanted to see more disadvantaged kids going to private schools. His ideal was social mobility, not state-mandated equality. In this, as in so many ways, Ted was very wise.

A couple of years ago, two of my kids had the privilege of having lunch with Ted at one of his favorite restaurants, Harry Cipriani, just nine blocks from here. Last weekend I asked my younger son, who’s now 12, if he remembered the conversation. He did. Ted’s advice was this: “Don’t do the obvious thing. Don’t follow in anybody’s footsteps. Look around you and figure out what’s needed, what’s missing. Then do that.”

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I hope my son heeds that advice. I hope his whole generation heeds it. I know, Everest and Siya, that you will.

I admit I was surprised by my own reaction to the news of his death. My first thought was: oh, no, now I won’t be able to ask Ted what he thinks anymore. What he thinks about the economy. What he thinks about politics. I won’t be able to get his take on the presidential candidates. And suddenly I felt really bereft.

That morning I had to write a column for Newsweek. I couldn’t help myself: I just sat down and addressed it directly to him. What’s your take, Ted? As I was writing it—and boy, did the words flow—I realized just how much I am going to miss his wisdom. Because I could never predict what Ted’s take would be. To a pedestrian, risk-averse academic like me, the way he thought about the world was full of surprises—and always illuminating ones.

Ted, you were in many ways the most American of Americans. You were the quintessential doer. But you were also a thinker. And we really do miss the unique way you thought.

Wisdom is in short supply these days. You took so much with you when you left us.