There was one of those syrupy pieces in The New York Times business section the other day that I can read only so long before an overdose of sugar in the blood forces me to look for the antidote. This time, it was about the wonder and magic of Goldman Sachs, which, they say for decades, “has churned out a golden list of corporate executives and statesmen, wealthy financiers and nonprofit managers.” Maybe so. But the idea that these are supermen who glide above the earth and only touch the ground as a courtesy to convention is a bit much.
Robert Rubin was no better a secretary of treasury than a lot of his predecessors who had no financial background at all. And his return to Wall Street so soon after that stint raised a few eyebrows. It’s really not supposed to be that seamless a transition. Governor John Corzine spent more than anyone in history to win a seat in the U.S. senate, which he gave up after one term and a rather lackluster one at that. He then threw record more wads at the New Jersey governorship. He seems best known today as the governor who forgot to wear his seat belt and just narrowly escaped death. To me, he always seemed to be a man who had a problem articulating what this great drive to serve in public life was all about. Current Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is spending a good deal of his time contradicting what he said earlier, like how the subprime mortgage meltdown would not affect the broader economy. All his Goldman experience didn’t help him see that one coming, or the falling icon of market capitalism –the American dollar. It can be painful to listen to him in an unscripted moment, too. Then there is Joshua Bolten, another Goldman alumnus, who currently is chief of staff to an unpopular president now facing a domestic economic downturn to cap off what is probably the greatest foreign policy reversal in American history: Iraq in turmoil, Iran going nuclear, Pakistan teetering on the edge and Russia retreating to Soviet-style belligerence.
Goldman Sachs doesn’t need exaggeration and myth-making. It does well at its job and there are many institutional factors that make that possible. It does not, however, produce genius that is immediately transferable to other forms of economic and political leadership. Quite possibly, we are dealing with human beings after all; smart fellows, to be sure, but they put their pants on one leg at a time, too. It is bad enough when they forget that basic fact. It is a sure road to folly when the public forgets it.