It was a classic populist spectacle, reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech or Huey Long's mid-Depression campaign to "Share the Wealth." There, arrayed before Rep. Barney Frank and other voices of the people's outrage, sat the former titans of Wall Street, each of them trying desperately to convince their congressional questioners, and the world, that they deserved some fate other than oblivion.
And these were the survivors! The hardy ones. The eight CEOs who appeared before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday--among them Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and John Mack of Morgan Stanley--were actually the bankers who have best navigated the financial turmoil in recent months after taking money from the "Troubled Asset Relief Program," or TARP. That may help explain why some of the angrier congressmen, like Gary Ackerman of New York (who last week roared to former SEC officials: "You couldn't find your backside with two hands if the lights were on!") were a little calmer this time. But it was a striking display of the new balance of power in America. One by one, the former "captains of the universe," as Rep. Maxine Waters described them, genuflected before their congressional masters. "I feel more like a corporal of the universe," Bank of America's Ken Lewis joked weakly. The CEOs described how much they've slashed their salaries and bonuses, how hard they've tried to lend out the billions of taxpayer dollars, and how quickly they'll try to get off the federal dole.