Now, I say "date," but even with our budding "buddyship" I did not really realize at the time that this was a "date." He was an extraordinarily wealthy and powerful (much older) man who spent his days traveling around in a Citigroup jet and I was a math/finance geek who'd been covered in five miles of sweat and no makeup the one time we'd met in person. Now, I clean up pretty nice for dinner in South Beach with the former Treasury Secretary, but maybe it didn't matter; later he would remind me that the first time we'd met I had something written on my backside. (I promise you, I had not even noticed when I picked up a few pairs of gray sweatpants on clearance at Victoria's Secret that the words "Pink University" were screen printed on the behind, but give the man credit for being observant.)
After all the effortless phone bantering, dinner did feel a bit surreal and awkward in the way of a high school Homecoming dance dinner; we spent a lot of time sort of giggling. (It might have been easier if I'd had some of his wine, but like the sitting Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson I was raised as a Christian Scientist and don't drink alcohol.) We talked less about the economy than Barack Obama's victory the week before in the Iowa caucuses. (My friends and I felt it was all the white midwestern encouragement black voters needed to turn out in record numbers and seal his victory; Rubin still thought Hillary Clinton would pull through and supported her just about all the way.)
I brought up my stint at HMC, and he informed me mysteriously that he'd "vetted me," whatever the hell that meant. (I've had to attain security clearances for some research posts and fellowships at Boeing, NASA and various defense labs over the years; had he gotten my file somehow?) We shared the intimidating experience of enduring freshman year at elite East Coast colleges as public school kids from the south -- he'd gone to Harvard from Miami and I'd gone to Vassar from a New Orleans housing project -- but his college experience seemed more daunting than mine; my sense of kids from fancy private schools up north was that they talked a good game only until you realized they didn't know what they were talking about.
I also remember teasingly inquiring as to whether he'd flown in on a Citigroup jet again. (He'd called me from one in December.) "It's one of the perks," he replied a bit sheepishly.
Things were much more relaxed by the time I walked him back to the Ritz - which was along the way to my South Beach condo. When we passed a homeless man along the way he made a bit of a show of opening up his fat leather billfold and producing a dollar -- "There but for the grace of God..." he remarked melodramatically -- and I gave him a lot of heat for that, because who exactly did he think he was kidding? I said give the man a job. Heck, you're the head of a bank! But when we reached the hotel entrance, the tension returned. He got this funny look on his face, and asked:
"Do you want to go upstairs and...cuddle?"
So that's what this is about. For a moment I was totally speechless and had to dig into my Harvard trained PhD brain to figure out what the hell he meant by "cuddling"! What can I say; once a teetotaling math geek, always a bit slow to pick up on signals from the menfolk. So the former Treasury Secretary had a "crush" on me! And not long afterward the former Treasury Secretary had his tongue down my throat and hands everywhere sort of like an octopus. But as soon as the thought entered my mind -- the former Treasury Secretary has his tongue down my throat?! -- I came to my senses a bit and awkwardly went back home before we both got too carried away. This is to say, I said to myself that there would be no other former Treasury Secretary appendages entering any other of my orifices.
But there were dozens more phone calls from Bob Rubin over the next year, and one more dinner -- this time in a private dining room in his Ritz Carlton hotel suite. Yes, I am sorry to confess, human weakness got the best of both of us and there was more "cuddling". However, when I finally came up for air and came to my senses, I bluntly - in his face - asked the obvious "So, are you married?" question. Of course, I'd read his memoir and figured Google would let me know if he'd officially split from his (very attractive) wife, but I'm also vaguely aware how much time and money it can take for these things to make the transition to "official" from "de facto." But his reply suggested that either his marriage was far from any stage of finished, or that he was just kind of creepy.
"Have you ever been married?" is how he answered.
Now, the tactic of dodging a question by posing another question might work okay for the bratty teenagers of this world, but by the time the question at hand involves holy matrimony you kind of hope a man has matured a bit. I realized something about Bob Rubin right then though, which is why I limited all our further interactions to the telephone after that evening, and why I'm telling this story now, at the risk of engaging in what my nieces and nephews would call "playa hatin'."
You see, I genuinely like Bob Rubin. He's cute and personable and we had a lot of fun. But watching him testify before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission last month, I felt like I'd entered the Twilight Zone. A former executive in the bank's mortgage department testified that after more than a year of trying to alert risk management to the completely corrupted mortgage practices, he'd emailed Rubin directly, with the subject heading "URGENT -- READ IMMEDIATELY -- FINANCIAL ISSUES" in November 2007, two days after he called me that day four times - including the very long phone call while I was at the Miami airport awaiting my flight to Raleigh. The email stated, in short, that the bank had lost tens of billions of dollars on subprime mortgage loans it had not yet "recognized," and could find itself on the hook for more than a hundred billion more, so blatantly had Citi flouted its own standards.
Of course, the original sin by which they were able to do all this stuff without "recognizing" it on the books in the first place was the whole "derivatives" conundrum we started with. Had the complicated derivatives with which they dumped garbage into and out of the books been overseen by any government and/or grownups, they probably wouldn't have even tried to get away with it. But Bob Rubin (along with Alan Greenspan and my old boss Larry Summers) had brutally struck down the first and last serious government plan to regulate them - the proposal advanced by former Commodity Futures Trading Commission chief Brooksley Born weeks before LTCM blew up in 1998.
But here was my old friend Bob Rubin testifying, as he has before, that he had been a longtime advocate of derivatives regulation, yadda yadda, but even that couldn't have saved us from this once in a millennium confluence of events. "You look back and say, 'Well these were obvious warning signs,' but they weren't obvious at the time. They're only obvious in retrospect."
And it was like the Gospel of Captain Obvious (Not Just In Retrospect!) revealed itself to me.
Can this country really afford to appoint bratty teenagers to positions of power and influence when they have already demonstrated to us, over and over again, that they are no more capable of taking responsibility for their actions than bratty teenagers?
What if I answer that rhetorical question with a question: Could we afford it the first time???
Then why in God's name am I still, after his pathetic FCIC performance, reading stories about how Bob Rubin "still wields tremendous influence in Barack Obama's Washington?" Why am I forever hearing how he still talks on the phone regularly to Tim Geithner, when I have fourteen (14) months of phone records to prove he'd rather be talking to me -- and not because I'm a derivatives expert?
I had to politely blow off Bob, by the way. And because there are still so few clubs in this land that wouldn't have Bob Rubin as a member, he kept calling and calling, from Citigroup jets and executive retreats and the Council on Foreign Relations, even after the TARP passed. (That day he got an earful from me.) One day in May he called my phones five or six times -- and it wasn't to discuss the merits of opening the Federal Reserve discount window! But we never cuddled again, although he did show up in Miami a few times and try, and he finally quit calling after getting himself named to the Obama transition team. I don't know, maybe I just miss the guy.
Miami wants you back, Bob! Retire!
You have served your country as Treasury Secretary, according to history successfully run Goldman, and if some are now saying you ran Citi into the ground, you and I both know you had no real responsibility there.
So in the words of the late James Brown, "please, please, please....", now go away and leave us alone. Please don't try to set any more economic policies for us. We did not elect you to do so.
Perhaps it's understandable that you'd want to polish off that tarnished legacy of yours -- but if you can't start by facing up to what you did, you aren't worth a spot on Dancing With the Stars !
Thank you for your service. Now you can go fishing - forever! And please take Summers, Greenspan, Geithner, Blankfein, and all your other Goldman frat boyz with you. Oh, and Hank Paulson, I'll look for you in church!
The very witty and talented writer Moe Tkacik contributed to this article. Thanks Moe!
Follow Iris Mack on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrIrisMack