Pin-Striped Guys & Dolls

Richard Reeves

November 26, 1990|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK — New York. A FEW YEARS ago, when he was still chairman of Dillon, Read Co., I shared a ride with Nicholas Brady, now secretary of the Treasury, into the city from LaGuardia Airport. We talked about markets and money and Wall Street, things he knew a lifetime more about than I did.

Still, I wanted to try out my then-favorite theory: The problem with go-go, grab-grab glorification of money and greed then was that it was luring the best and the brightest of young Americans away from work and ambitions that would better serve their fellow men and women.

Mr. Brady looked at me as if I were crazy. ''These aren't the best. This is all they can do. These are people you want to keep off the streets,'' he said. ''The best you can say is that they're gamblers and hustlers.''

I had never heard of Michael Milken then and, for all I know, Mr. Brady hadn't either. But that was who he was talking about that evening. I came to think about Milken and his ilk as the spiritual children of the small-time hustlers, pimps and boosters in ''Guys and Dolls.''

''Where's the action? Where's the game? Gotta have the game or we'll die from shame,'' they sang in the Broadway version of Damon Runyon's stories of Times Square before World War II. Big Julie and Nicely Nicely Johnson, all of them looking for Nathan Detroit and ''the oldest, established, permanent, floating crap game in New York.''

They ended up in jail, not that they did such terrible things. They hurt some people, sure. Who doesn't? But most of their victims were looking for action or trouble with their eyes wide open.

Milken's generation hurt a lot of people, more than we will ever know, a lot of whom refused to open their eyes. In the annals of chicanery, the new hustlers represented a quantum leap in the ** state of the art. It's like the evolution in aviation from biplanes and barnstorming to B-2s and Boeing 747s. I, for one, believe Milken belongs in jail. It made my day when I heard that federal Judge Kimba Wood had sentenced him to 10 years in the slammer.

I believe friends, some of whom made a few bucks at Milken's game, who tell me the man is a genius, was more often than not a positive force in the march of capitalism, is the very soul of charity, and a wonderful husband and father. But he's a crook, and crooks value the loot more than their children or they wouldn't take the risk that they might see their kids only on visitor's days.

I also believe that his game, figuring out more and better ways to strip corporations of their assets, and his greed, whether for power or money, was a significant factor in destroying my country's confidence in itself and institutions as critical as its markets, its banks, its corporations, its government and its laws. I hope this sentence goes a little way toward restoring national faith. He is, in every sense of the words, a public enemy.

Any doubt I had about the secrets of the man's heart were washed away in running water. For me the clincher was the scene in the Drexel Burnham Lambert bathroom, described by one of his associates, when Milken turned on the faucets -- to foil possible bugging -- and told the guy that federal subpoenas had not been issued yet, so, ''Do whatever you have to do.''

With a certain gutter gallantry, the associate told Judge Wood he did not know for certain that the command meant to destroy records before the feds got them. But in my world, innocent men don't do their business in lavatories or turn on the water before they speak.

There are ways to defend what Michael Milken did, and, Lord knows, hundreds of impressive folk jumped up to do just that. But at the end of his day, he poisoned what he said he was saving, the American business environment.

The last kind words were on the op-ed page of the New York Times on Wednesday, the very morning of the sentencing. Michael Lewis, the author of ''Liar's Poker,'' said it was wrong to punish Milken for things that were being done, if not as well, by ''everyone else on Wall Street.''

Really? I hope the feds get everyone else, too.

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