Oops, you dropped a name

The self-serv­ing mem­oir of a for­mer World Bank pres­i­dent.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Simon John­son is a co-author of “13 Bankers: TheWall Street Takeover and the Next Fi­nan­cial Melt­down,” just out in pa­per­back. book­world@wash­post.com

A GLOBAL LIFE My Jour­ney Among Rich and Poor, From Syd­ney to Wall Street to the World Bank By James D. Wolfen­sohn Pub­lic Af­fairs. 462 pp. $29.95

Early so­ci­eties ac­corded dis­pro­por­tion­ate power and in­flu­ence to priests — look through the records of who was ac­tu­ally run­ning a coun­try, and you’ll of­ten find some­one with a re­li­gious back­ground. Over time, as economies be­came more com­plex, the landed aris­toc­racy, wealthy mer­chants and in­dus­tri­al­ists held po­si­tions of promi­nence as min­is­ters or top ad­vis­ers to the ruler. In the Soviet Union, en­gi­neers were cen­tral to power net­works. We have bankers.

JamesWolfen­sohn’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “A Global Life,” pro­vides a glimpse into why ex­actly bankers have be­come so pow­er­ful in mod­ern Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Wolfen­sohn is ac­tu­ally not the kind of banker with the most power to­day: The ones who brought the econ­omy to its knees in 2008 suf­fered no con­se­quences, and now they tell the rest of us who and what we need to cut.

Wolfen­sohn never ran a com­mer­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion that was “ too big to fail” — al­though he ap­par­ently used such ar­gu­ments in an at­tempt to get more sub­si­dies for Chrysler dur­ing its res­cue at the end of the 1970s. And he was never en­gaged in the ag­gres­sive and un­der-cap­i­tal­ized risk-tak­ing that has char­ac­ter­ized the past two decades — he was out of Salomon Broth­ers in 1981 and out of his own bou­tique ad­vi­sory busi­ness (and into the World Bank) in 1995.

Even at Salomon, Wolfen­sohn was an in­vest­ment banker in the tra­di­tional sense, mean­ing that he put to­gether old-fash­ioned cor­po­rate fi­nanc­ing deals, not com­pli­cated “struc­tured” prod­ucts or any­thing di­rectly re­lated to trad­ing.

Wolfen­sohn is a net­worker. Mov­ing de­lib­er­ately into worlds cen­tered on wealth, first in Aus­tralia, then theUnited King­dom and al­ways the United States, he cul­ti­vated peo­ple with his charm, cour­tesy and al­ways with money. In his mem­oir, he is del­i­cate and dis­creet to ev­ery­one — even peo­ple who threat­ened his ca­reer or dam­aged his for­tune are treated with kid gloves. There are a few ex­cep­tions: mostly Aus­tralians but also some Bri­tish snobs who stood in his way, and at the very end of the book, there are some un­char­ac­ter­is­tic but com­pletely jus­ti­fied jabs at se­nior Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Con­doleezza Rice and even Ge­orgeW. Bush.

Mostly, though, Wolfen­sohn dis­cusses his net­work of friends and re­la­tion­ships with the ut­most care, pre­sum­ably be­cause, at age 77, he is still in the game. He is chas­ing some­thing — in­flu­ence, pres­tige, sta­tus as “a global player” — and he is never done.

He wears his con­nec­tions lightly in the first part of the book but makes a good deal more of them dur­ing hisWorld Bank years. De­scrib­ing a meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton at the White House to dis­cuss whether he could be­come World Bank pres­i­dent, Wolfen­sohn presents his MO in a nut­shell: “He and Hil­lary had vis­ited our home in Jack­son Hole dur­ing their sum­mer vacation, and we had given him a birth­day party at our house. But this was my first time in the in­ner sanctum, and my first meet­ing where there was a sub­stan­tial is­sue to be dis­cussed.”

Wolfen­sohn is a ma­jor league name­drop­per, and the reader grows weary at times. As the book tells it, he boosted his role as a net­worker by bring­ing his friends to­gether with lead­ing mu­si­cians. Af­ter fund­ing a pair of bud­ding im­pre­sar­ios in London in 1969, Wolfen­sohn be­friended the Rus­sian pi­anist Vladimir Ashke­nazy, con­nected with amuch­wider range of up-and-com­ing (and fa­mous) per­form­ers and bridged the worlds of mu­sic and fi­nance ever af­ter.

Wolfen­sohn made bril­liant use of non­profit board mem­ber­ships to meet pow­er­ful peo­ple and build valu­able net­work con­nec­tions. He chaired the boards of Carnegie Hall and then the Kennedy Cen­ter. The book makes it sound as if in each case he ac­tu­ally ran the show, but this is im­plau­si­ble — there are top-notch pro­fes­sional staffs at these places for a rea­son. He is a bit too in­clined at times to take all the credit.

The World Bank ma­te­rial takes up nearly 200 pages but re­ally comes as an an­ti­cli­max. He is too much on his po­lit­i­cal guard, and there is noth­ing new here. His time at the bank was fine, par­tic­u­larly his in­ces­sant woo­ing of non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions. But the al­le­vi­a­tion of poverty can­not be ar­ranged as read­ily as mu­si­cal events.

Wolfen­sohn was a banker to the rich and fa­mous. He was not a Medici-type banker, us­ing money to wield un­var­nished power. And he was not a Sandy Weill-type banker, build­ing a frag­ile fi­nan­cial be­he­moth based on delu­sions of grandeur. But he helped many mem­bers of our elite, and they helped him in re­turn.


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