There is a Tamil idiom about immersion reading that roughly translates into “whisking and drinking a book” (pustakathtai karaichu kudikirathu). That’s exactly what I have done, not with one, but three books that define a brand new and exciting genre, in which are combined the excitement and fast pace of reality TV with the rigour and discipline of reported journalism. It is also history—though of a very recent period. So recent, in fact, that the victor and the nature of victory are still murky. If I had to pick a name for this new genre, it would be “reality reporting”.
Former US treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson’s book On the Brink (2010), The New York Times reporter and columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail (2009) and New York magazine columnist John Heilemann and Time magazine editor at large Mark Halperin’s Game Change (2010) are three new books that are a must read for those with an interest in books and current affairs. The first two, belonging to the crunch-lit genre, deal with the financial crisis of 2008, while Game Change is about the campaigns for the US presidency also held during the same period.
On the Brink
Henry Paulson Jr, the 74th US treasury secretary, holding that post from July 2006 to January 2009, writes On the Brink with great candour and objectivity. It is an eminently readable moment-to-crisis moment account of the interactions between the treasury and other government agencies and officers, financial leaders, regulators, White House staff and the members of the House and Senate. Paulson says the most important part of his story is the way Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve; Tim Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and he worked together through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And work together they certainly did—through sleepless nights, hastily put together conference calls and mile-a-minute policy formulations. The book has many nuggets: “The Treasury is primarily a policymaking institution, its real power comes from what the president delegates”; “reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had slowed to a crawl because the Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd was running for President”; “I respected Sheila (Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.), but sometimes she said things that made my jaw drop”. One comment in particular tops this: “Our regulatory system remains a hopelessly outmoded patchwork quilt built for another day and age.”
Too Big to Fail
This book by the mergers and acquisitions reporter of The New York Times pipped Paulson’s to the bookstores. While On the Brink takes the government, legislature, and regulation angle, Too Big to Fail brings the Wall Street private sector perspective. On the face of it, you would think two 500-page books on the same event published within a couple of months of each other would have huge overlaps. But each stands on its own, and is unputdownable. Unlike Paulson, who has relied on memory and personal experience, Sorkin bases his book on 500 hours of interviews as well as analysis of related documents and evidence. Sorkin writes with a journalist’s distance from events but on rare occasions, one can see a “shape” given to the story by clever public relations departments of banks.
Lehman’s demise is chronicled in great detail, as are the events of that fateful week that led to the bailout of AIG. The speed at which events unfolded comes alive in Sorkin’s writing, as do insights about deals made, remade and unmade in the space of hours and days during that week in September 2008. All in all, an action movie of a book.
Too Big to Fail, too tough to put down.
Heilemann and Halperin’s book is about politics and campaigns. The US presidential campaign of 2008 became blockbuster entertainment. That it heated up at exactly the same time as the credit crisis once again proves the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Intertwined, these two mega events unfolded with larger-than-life characters, unprecedented choices and historic consequences. Heilemann and Halperin use their unrivalled access to give us a voyeuristic look into the insides of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. With the gift of master storytellers, they enlighten us about Obama’s confidence in winning the race, Clinton’s slide from the role of inevitable winner and John McCain’s gamble in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.
The book is astonishing in detail, and one is left in awe at both the importance and the pettiness of the principal characters. Strewn throughout are charming anecdotes and priceless gems. For example, when asked how he was doing after the Iowa caucuses early in the campaign, Obama replied, “Serene”, while others around him were nervous wrecks. Clinton’s take on the same caucuses: “Maybe, they just don’t like me.”
Game Change is the most sought-after book this season in the US library system. For good reason.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore
Graphic by Jayachandran/Mint
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