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Public relations disaster

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM


Headline, pp.220, 18.99

Private lives of the rich or celebrated or infamous kinds in New York often resemble one of those inside-out buildings designed by the architect Richard Rogers in the 1970s; like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with its exterior escalators and air-conditioning ducts, or the Lloyd’s building in London, where lifts and pipes are part of the facade, what one expects to be private in New York is public discourse.

An entire book could be written on the spectacle and politics of emotional display in New York, and if Tom Barbash’s On Top of the World is not that volume, it is an addition to the extensive raw material, as well as another contribution to that burgeoning subcategory known as ‘Nine Eleven’.

Howard Lutnick is the head of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm whose offices were once between the 101st and 105th floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center, the first to be struck on 11 September, 2001. No one on or above the 96th floor, where the United Airline plane exploded, survived. Among those who worked for Lutnick and who died were his brother and his best friends; Cantor lost 658 employees – a third of the company.

If Lutnick were the type of man who could settle at a desk he would have written this book himself, but he’s not that kind of man. He is a Master of the Universe, who became chief operating officer of Cantor at 29, its CEO soon after, and is, one senses, too impatient by temperament to write a book. Standing in for Lutnick is a college friend, Tom Barbash, who tells us that Cantor Fitzgerald, as much as any other US company, exemplifies American capitalism and Lutnick American moneymaking prowess – in other words everything al-Qaeda resents and wishes to destroy. British readers may be puzzled to learn that one of the greatest rewards for this Master of the Universe is to summer in England. But for Lutnick, as it is for a thousand other Wall Streeters, Anglophilia is a badge of success. In late October last year, I met a New York banker lounging in a red leather armchair in the bar of Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Club, his money made for the day, no longer requiring his hands-on direction. He was flying to Britain at the end of the week, he said, and in exchange for a small fortune was taking over the stately home of a well-known west-country duke for a long weekend. ‘That ought to pay for some new curtains,’ the banker said sarcastically, before closing his eyes, falling asleep, and dreaming, I supposed, of Britain in early winter.

Howard Lutnick, like 11 employees who were sacked by Cantor the previous day, was lucky. On the morning of the 11th, he took his son Kyle to school; it was the first day of the fall term, and the gates of Horace Mann on the Upper East Side – Manhattan’s ‘Gold Coast’ – didn’t open until 8.45. There’s a photograph in this book of father and son just before Kyle goes to class: the caption beneath it begins, ‘The last good day of my life.’ One of the less lucky was the sacked Cantor employee who went to collect his belongings that morning and who, like everyone else trapped at the top of the tower, vanished just before 10.30 am.

For the next three months, Lutnick, in addition to saving his company from collapse – Cantor Fitzgerald would post a fourth-quarter profit in 2001- went to hundreds of funerals and memorial services, which, he estimates, were attended by 250,000 people. But in late September Lutnick, fatefully, agreed to appear on a television show and to speak of his grief at losing his brother, his friends and so many of his employees. He broke down in front of the cameras. One of those watching the lachrymose Howard Lutnick was a Cantor Fitzgerald widow. She was soon on television herself, explaining to Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel that Lutnick’s tears were those of a crocodile. Howard Lutnick, she said, had cancelled all salaries of the deceased. What were widows to do? she asked O’Reilly. And Lutnick hadn’t rung to say how sorry he was about her husband’s death; in his own television appearance, Lutnick said he had called every relative.

Now Bill O’Reilly is something of a TV factor in New York; he is a man who likes to stand up for the little guy or gal, keen to stress his working-class origins and Horatio Alger rise to the top, although, as the American commentator Michael Kinsley pointed out, those origins are less working-class than O’Reilly likes to claim for himself. As in London, reverse snobbery in New York is all the rage, and few things in America lead to as much anger as the rich man stealing away with his wealth at the expense of everyone else, and especially at the expense of rich people inclined to rage at other people’s riches.

As a result of Bill O’Reilly’s show, Lutnick, who like O’Reilly grew up in middle-class Long Island, the son of professional parents, faced a public relations disaster – he appeared as ruthless as Leonora Helmsley, the property billionairess who a decade ago famously said only little people pay taxes; Cantor Fitzgerald was threatened with ruin. Within days of 11 September, financial firms unscathed by the attack on the World Trade Center might have muscled in on the market for US Treasury Bonds that Cantor had dominated for years. They didn’t, but the O’Reilly show might now give Lutnick’s competitors the excuse to go after a market Cantor had cornered for itself.

Tom Barbash’s book is part of a campaign launched by Lutnick soon after that O’Reilly show to clear his name and to salvage Cantor. And as befitting the political campaign book that it is, On Top of the World makes the case for Howard Lutnick, although it inadvertently proves that famous maxim of American politics which so many American politicians, financiers, celebrities – the rich and powerful – seem congenitally prone to forget: if you make an error, go public, immediately, because if you don’t, then your enemies will turn a cock-up into a conspiracy or a tale of greed before you have time to open a copy of the next edition of the New York Post or tune into the latest broadcast of The O’Reilly Factor.

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