Saturday, March 14, 2009


I’m one of those guys who rarely misses a reunion. I value connecting the dots of my life, remembering the past, and seeing how my old friends and acquaintances have evolved. I’ve been to every reunion of my high school and college classes since the tenth. And not only do I attend these affairs, but I usually enjoy them. That’s pretty remarkable for a guy who’s practically allergic to small talk.

Still, there is one set of reunions I’ve never attended. These are the gatherings of the Harvard Law School Class of ’84. We have our 25th reunion coming up within the next month or two. No matter. I have no plans to show up. There’s something about the HLS environment that I find off-putting even to this day. I wrote about it briefly in my first novel. The professors were, with limited exceptions, the Platonic form of arrogance. And the students weren’t exactly God’s gift to warmth and spontaneity. Going up to Boston to “network” with them isn’t my idea of a good time. So, once again, I’ll pass on the opportunity.

That’s not to say, however, that the Class of ’84 has been out of my mind this year. Far from it. This has been a notable 12 months for a few of my classmates, a very difficult and often painful 12 months.

Let me begin by reminding everyone of a subject I discussed last spring at some length – the U.S. Senate campaign of Steve Novick. Standing at 4’ 9”, having a metal hook for a left arm, never having run for political office at ANY level, possessing almost no money, and representing the far left of the American political spectrum, Novick wasn’t exactly a favorite when he announced his candidacy. But the guy made one brilliant campaign ad after another, some of which gained national attention and all of which were perfectly suited for the quirky city of Portland, his state’s only metropolis. By the eve of the primary, Novick was actually ahead in the polls. For me, his old law-school friend who travelled out to Oregon to help with the campaign, it was like witnessing a fairy tale.

Then, of course, reality reared its head, and Novick was defeated by the slimmest of margins. The winner of the primary, Jeff Merkley, then went on in November to claim a seat in the U.S. Senate. Gloriously, Novick bested Merkley in Portland by double digits. However, my friend’s victory in Portland wasn’t quite enough to erase Merkley’s dominance in the rest of the state.

When thinking back on that campaign, I can’t help but focus on the role of Chuck Schumer, the NewYork Senator who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. For reasons known only to Schumer and a few of his fat-cat buddies on the Hill, the Senior Senator from Gotham raised a ton of cash from donors throughout the nation that he gave to Merkley to use against Novick. As a result, on the day of the election, Oregon was blanketed with ads for Merkley, and all Novick had was die-hard supporters like me dropping literature at homes. What would have happened, I wonder, had Schumer stayed out of the race and allowed the people of Oregon to decide it for themselves? Quite probably, Novick would now be a United States Senator, and the HLS Class of ’84 would be rejoicing at the ascension of one of its most beloved members.

Novick, you see, began law school at the tender age of 18, having previously gone directly from middle school to college. Everyone who knew Novick at Harvard loved him – for his incredibly precocious mind, his upbeat personality, and his infectious sense of humor. He was, stated simply, a breath of fresh air in a social environment that sorely needed one. Unfortunately, he is now just another under-employed American. What a shame.

But at least Novick emerged from his campaign with his pride intact. That cannot be said for all of my other prominent classmates.

This past year was particularly brutal for the lovely Silda Wall and her husband and fellow HLS ’84 graduate, Elliot Spitzer. I couldn’t believe my eyes a couple of weeks ago when I saw Elliot was back in the news. He had just purchased a building one block from his Waterloo -- the Mayflower Hotel. What shocked me was the price tag for this little piece of D.C. real estate: the tidy sum of $180 million. Sure, what disgraced statesman doesn’t have $180 million lying around when they need to transition away from politics?

Talk about surreal!

Seriously, consider the context. Here’s a guy who busts his butt to become one of the most powerful state Attorney Generals in the history of this country, and then rises to the position of New York State Governor, only to toss away his good name on high-priced hookers. We all watched as he humiliated his wife, who I remember as being a truly lovely person, and we can only imagine how his children felt, knowing just what their daddy loved to do with his free time. I was frankly worried for the man’s safety, for he wasn’t just any John, he was Mr. Law and Order. How, I wondered, could he ever look himself in the mirror again?

Well, wouldn’t you know it, he found a way. The quintessential golden parachute. Some people “pick up the pieces” of their lives by checking into rehab, or by going to work at a menial job (“would you like any ketchup with those fries”). Elliot? He just goes back to the scene of his abject humiliation, looks down the street a few feet, and then decides “That building looks lucrative. I think I’ll just dump $180 million on it.”

In case you couldn’t tell, Elliot had a bit more family money than Novick when he came to law school. Elliot’s dad owned buildings in Manhattan. Novick came into his money with the help of his mom, the truck stop waitress. Who says Harvard lawyers aren’t diverse? After all, some of us never even go on to practice law. In that regard, I have in mind one more classmate: James Cramer.

I assume by now that everyone’s heard of Cramer. He’s the Crazy Eddie of CNBC. As the host of “Mad Money,” Cramer has made a name for himself running around manically while proclaiming which stocks to sell and which to buy, all the while pretending that he actually knew what he was talking about. If you look him up, the dude didn’t do nearly as well in Law School as his good friend, Elliot Spitzer, so after he was turned down for a position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, he decided to take on Wall Street – just not in the same way Spitzer did. Spitzer fought to regulate the Street; Cramer became what is known as a “Big Swinging Dick,” aka a successful player of the Wall Street game. He started out as a broker with Goldman Sachs and did well enough that, in 1987, he opened up his own hedge fund. The fund attracted such notable investors as, you guessed it: Elliot Spitzer. In 1996, Cramer and New Republic Editor Martin Peretz co-founded Still later, Cramer began working on, which aims to educate Main Street about Wall Street. Add his entertaining TV show to the mix, and you have what has appeared to be the quintessential Bodhisattva of Wall Street – a successful trader who was not only content to make money for himself and his wealthy clients, but has felt compelled to share with the American public the secrets to making lots of money without producing anything.

Unfortunately for Cramer, a funny thing happened on the way to his canonization. Like his near-namesake, Cosmo (aka Michael Richard’s character in Seinfeld), Mad Money’s Cramer took on one cause too many. While Cramer supported Obama in the fall, he has more recently been a staunch critic of the President’s handling of the banking crisis. Cramer surely thought he was on solid ground here; after all, his entire network had turned into a festival of Barack bashing, one that nearly rivals Fox News. Why, Cramer must have thought, would anyone want to single him out and try to destroy his reputation?

To answer that question, we need ask but one man: Jon Stewart. The comic actor turned faux-news anchor is rapidly positioning himself as the most valuable figure in American journalism today. Hyperbole? Not at all. Watching Mr. Stewart dissect Cramer on national television over the past week was worthy of Harvard – the Med School, that is. I’ll give Cramer credit for having the class to come on The Daily Show and confront his critic face to face. But all that accomplished was to allow Stewart to humiliate Cramer nearly as much as “Client Number 9” was humiliated at the Mayflower. Watch this clip and decide for yourself. Have you seen a more thorough evisceration by a journalist of the schmucks who have run Wall Street to the ground, all the while reveling at their own brilliance in playing games with other people’s money? Say what you want about the tough times on Wall Street, but the CNBC crowd and its constituents who whine about Obama’s raising taxes on the rich are still sitting pretty in mansions from Bergen County to Scarsdale to Greenwich, whereas the bulk of their fellow investors across the country are beginning to wonder if they’ll EVER be able to retire. You’ll forgive Stewart if he’s beginning to wonder if our definition of a Ponzi scheme isn’t a bit too narrow.

I look at a guy like Cramer and I’m reminded of that old ad campaign where the consumers are told that they could “have it all” – three piece suits AND rock ‘n roll. Cramer must have thought he had it all. Unlike his buddy Spitzer, who had to wage wars against Wall Street and, later, Albany Republicans, Cramer could be a friend to everyone … and get rich in the process. At the same time that he was rolling in the dough, he was comporting himself on the airwaves like a party-animal, even backslapping on such mainstream programs as Morning Joe.

Then came Stewart. His rebuke was quite simple -- it’s one thing to be a wild-and-crazy celebrity and make money for it; it’s another thing to be a charlatan who recklessly deprives people of their savings. As Stewart demonstrated, Cramer and his network told middle class people that they could TRUST his recommendations on what to do with their nest eggs, when in fact he didn’t have a friggen clue what he was talking about. Worse yet, Stewart pointed out, Cramer once publicly joked about playing the kind of games with the financial system that could have actually gotten him and his cronies in trouble if the regulators weren’t such idiots.

In short, thanks to Jon Stewart, America now can see Cramer in the same light as that other former Harvard graduate student, George W. Bush. Both are a couple of frivolous frat-boy types who had been having the time of their lives at the expense of the American public. Clearly, Stewart is saying, we cannot afford any more of those celebrities.

Right now, with the possible exception of March Madness, Stewart is the best thing going on TV. I often joke that my wife, another member of the HLS Class of ’84, would dump me in two seconds if she could be with Stewart instead. Maybe that’s not true, maybe she has a tad more fidelity than Mr. Spitzer, but I suspect that if she could spend an evening … or a night … with any celebrity, it would be Mr. Stewart. And who could blame her? The Daily Show anchor never went to a private college, let alone Harvard Law School, but he has demonstrated himself to be a far more accomplished verbal swordsman than one of HLS’s most prominent graduates. So much for the value of an Ivy League education.


Mary Lois said...

Dan, you might enjoy a reunion of the HLS Class of 84 if you could get Steve Novick to join you. Cramer and Spitzer won't be there!

Daniel Spiro said...

I really wouldn't be surprised if Novick came. He probably needs to show up and thank all the classmates who gave him money for the campaign. If I were in his position, I'd show up. I'd feel obliged to do so.