Interesting story in the NYT yesterday with an irresistible headline: The Talented Mr. Madoff. With no new developments to add, the story took a look at the psychology of the man; it took a stab at the parts of the story that are interesting to me, and those are the parts that would be in the novel, not the Fortune magazine postmortem:
“Some of the characteristics you see in psychopaths are lying, manipulation, the ability to deceive, feelings of grandiosity and callousness toward their victims,” says Gregg O. McCrary, a former special agent with the F.B.I. who spent years constructing criminal behavioral profiles.
Mr. McCrary cautions that he has never met Mr. Madoff, so he can’t make a diagnosis, but he says Mr. Madoff appears to share many of the destructive traits typically seen in a psychopath. That is why, he says, so many who came into contact with Mr. Madoff have been left reeling and in confusion about his motives.
“People like him become sort of like chameleons. They are very good at impression management,” Mr. McCrary says. “They manage the impression you receive of them. They know what people want, and they give it to them.”
Con men are a staple of fiction, and having never met one myself (other than the usuals — bosses promoted beyond their abilities, etc.), I take a writer’s word about what’s involved in the game. And so reading about Madoff sent me to my paperback-pulp bookshelf, where I found “Bright Orange for the Shroud,” and yes, folks, it’s time to get acquainted with ol’ Travis McGee again. On the trail of the crew who fleeced an old friend of a family fortune in a perfectly legal real-estate scam, he comes across their offices in a bland Florida complex, and meets the head of the gang. Together they admire Debra, his lovely assistant and protege. Even though Travis’ friend was a fat pigeon, like all good professionals they’ve got another one in the pipeline. The boss explains:
By falsifying records, bribing minor officials, making some careful changes in old group pictures — school and church — and with the help of some brown contact lenses, some minor changes in hair and skin texture we have given Debra an iron-clad identity as a mulatto, as a pale-skinned girl who actually did disappear at fourteen. This curious revelation has come as a horrid shock to her young husband of four months, and an even worse shock to her wealthy father-in-law, the ex-governor of a southern state, a fevered segregationist, a man with political ambitions. The positive rabbit test — also faked — is bringing things to a climax. The fat settlement is for divorce, abortion and total silence.
I suppose the biggest con in this is how John D. MacDonald flatters his readers into sympathizing with the crooks. A neat trick in 1965.
But that wasn’t the revelation of the business section this week; rather, this Ben Stein column was. I confess: I’ve been a reader of Stein’s since the 1980s, and my newspaper’s editorial page had a subscription to the American Spectator, which has been running the creepy Ben Stein’s Diary for years. All Stein columns are a version of Ben Stein’s Diary, and all Diary entries are roughly the same: Stein describes his life as a C-list actor in enervating detail that somehow matches his famous voice, with regular stops to marvel at how lucky, how fortunate, how unbelievably blessed he is.
When his days weren’t concluding with dinner at Morton’s, they ended with a description of Tommy, his adopted son (“We’re so blessed to have Tommy. Every day we thank Tommy’s birth mother for choosing life…”). Even at the gamboling-puppy stage of childhood, Tommy sounded like the world’s biggest spoiled brat, begging his dad, always successfully, for one indulgence after another, about which Stein sometimes pauses to feel bad, but never very long. He’s happy to be a rich Republican and to buy things for his boy. If it made Tommy happy, that was good enough for Ben.
Well. Now it’s 2009, and some chickens are ringing the doorbell at Stein’s multiple fabulous homes, asking where they’ll be roosting:
…my handsome son, age 21, a student, has just married a lovely young woman, 20. You may have seen on television the pudgy, aging face of their sole means of support.
I have been pondering what advice to give them about money. What I keep coming up with is this: Do not act like typical Americans. Do not fail to save. Do not get yourself in debt up to your eyeballs. Work and take pride and honor from your work. Learn a useful skill that Americans really need, like law or plumbing or medicine or nursing. Do not expect your old Ma and Pa to always be there to take care of you. I absolutely guarantee that we will not be. Learn to be self-sufficient through your own contributions, as the saying goes.
…I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me. I wish I could teach them that money is a scarce good, worth fighting for and protecting. But I very much fear that my son, more up-to-date than I am in almost every way, is more of a modern-day American than I am. To hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine. To not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength. Of course, that’s my fault. (I have learned that everything bad that happens anywhere is my fault.) And I hope to be able to leave him well enough provided for to ease his eventual transition into some form of self-sufficiency.
The rest of the column’s even worse, if you can imagine. Actually, this has been a theme in the column for some weeks now, how “we” have gotten in over our heads through our profligate spending, etc. While I won’t argue with the broad outlines of this, I’d hope a writer who dares to call his column Everybody’s Business could spare a thought for those of us who have never set foot in Morton’s, who put large down payments on our houses and never once refi’d for vacation cash, who didn’t cave in (and, apparently, continue to cave) to our bratty children’s every whim, who saved and worked and who find ourselves equally screwed. What’s Tonto’s line? What do you mean “we,” white man?
I don’t generally wish ill on people I’ve never met and who’ve never done a thing to me, but I’m really hoping Tommy Stein meets reality one of these days, and that he skins his knee on it.
Now I’m off to study my Russian. Yes, that’s me — talented writer and editor, journalist with multimedia skills, working to add yet another skill to my repertoire, not that it will matter. No one’s hiring. Tommy Stein will always be better off than me.
Be good, all. it’s a new week, the sun is out, and although it’s very cold (6 degrees), I’ve had two cups of coffee and feel ready for anything. Onward to the new verbs, and the new year. Let’s talk about something other than Bill Ayers today, eh?