In Power Failure and The Smartest Guys in the Room, Skilling, Lay, and Fastow emerge as human beings rather than as cartoon characters — and this is a strength. Because in the end it’s hard to believe that any of these executives went to the trouble of knowingly erecting a Ponzi scheme in the form of a gigantic company. And the alternative — that seemingly right-thinking citizens can end up wreaking great havoc without ever actually believing that they’ve done wrong — is in some ways more troubling. It calls to mind something that the author John Brooks once wrote about Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange in the 1930s, who had an impeccable public reputation until he was caught embezzling. “Whitney did not think of himself as a thief,” Brooks wrote in Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street 1920-1938 (John Wiley & Sons, 1999, originally published in 1969). “Rather, he thought of himself as one who would not be a thief no matter what he did; that is, as a moral superman.”
It’s both amusing and somewhat sad that an insight so useful to understanding the recent past should appear in a book published nearly 35 years ago about events that had taken place 30 to 50 years earlier. But Once in Golconda is still worth reading — and it might have been truly valuable to have read it five years ago before the recent bubble burst. But nobody was pushing books about scandals back then. After all, there wasn’t much of a market for them.
Rob Walker (www.robwalker.com) is a freelance journalist, a columnist for Slate, and a contributing writer for Inc. He has worked as an editor for the New York Times Magazine, Money, and American Lawyer.