- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
If there’s one thing you’ve got to love about tough times is: they’re tough on everyone. These days, it’s not easy even for those who have taken historically proven paths to amassing wealth, fame, power, social acceptance and happiness — like becoming a billionaire or pope or U.S. Treasury secretary or an Austrian sadist. Admittedly, it’s hard to work up too much sympathy for most of these mighty who have fallen, but sympathy is not the only reason to reflect on their fates. There are also the cautionary lessons offered up by their Icarus-like descents. Nah, who are we kidding? That’s for some other blog. There are only two real reasons to revisit these stories. It’s fun to watch the bastards squirm. And because recently the headlines have been filled with so many prominent people who for one reason or another are royally screwed, we want to know: Who’s the most screwed? Which of these figures who have chosen a well-worn path to the limelight, has done the most damage to their own reputations and the lives of those around them?
Here are thirteen choices from this month’s headlines ranked by just how little sympathy we should have for them:
13.) Edward Liddy
The only reason this guy is on the list is that his career is probably finished simply because most people will forever associate him with A.I.G. But while the company has already joined Enron, Long Term Capital Management, Drexel Burnham Lambert and Blue Horseshoe in Wall Street’s Hall of Infamy, Liddy himself is something like a hero, coming to work for a dollar a year as a public service in the most thankless job in the global business community. (And what is Blue Horseshoe? Hint: “Blue Horseshoe loves Anacot Steel.”)
According to Forbes, the official magazine of Wall Street greed, the world’s billionaires managed to misplace $1.4 trillion in the past year, their ranks thinning from 1125 to 793. Their average net worth has fallen by almost a quarter to only $3 billion. Both Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim each lost $25 billion. One, Adolf Merckle, ended up killing himself. Former Wall Street titans like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Weill fell completely off the list as did Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. But Zuckerberg is only 25 and still has $900 million left. So as far as sympathy goes this is pretty much a mixed bag. The reality is that these days even a few hundred million gets you pretty far so let’s not lose too much sleep over them. (The reason they are this low on the list is not because I feel sympathy for them… it’s because I feel considerably less for everyone else on the list.)
11.) Eliot Spitzer
Poor Eliot. If only he had kept it in his pants, this would have been his moment. One can hardly imagine what is making his life worse right now, the fact that the A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been his apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure… or the fact that his wife Silda has stood by him and thus will have the moral high ground in his marriage until he dies. Admittedly, while Spitzer unzipped his own career, his worst violation did not come against the public but against his family.
10.) Gordon Brown
It’s hard to hate Gordon Brown. In fact, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. This is due in part to the fact that he is Britain’s first prime minister who is also part basset hound. Also, he had to follow Tony Blair who was quite telegenic and appealing, particularly in that phase of his career when he was being played by Michael Sheen. (Less so later when he was being played by one of George W. Bush’s hand-puppets.) Still, Gordon did accept the job of PM, did screw it up to a fare-thee-well and now is on the verge of blowing his last big moment on the public stage as he prepares to host a G20 Summit that is very likely to realize somewhere between zero and few of his grand ambitions for it.
9.) Bibi Netanyahu
The fact that a man President Clinton’s White House spokesman once called “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into — just a liar and a cheat” has managed to bring himself to the verge of returning as Israel’s prime minister is something of an amazing feat. Although perhaps not so much if you are familiar with what people in Israel euphemistically call politics. But Netanyahu assured that he was lost before he even took office by teaming up with racist boor Avigdor Lieberman. Together the two may fight so hard to protect Israel that they irreversibly weaken it.
8.) A.I.G. Bonus Babies
The NY Times writes, “Residents who had been pillars of Connecticut towns are finding themselves the focus of populist rage.” But shouldn’t we have hated them already for even wanting to be pillars of Connecticut towns? I mean, these people actually chose to become insurance executives and live in John Cheever hell just to become wealthy? Didn’t they see The Ice Storm. Oh, the humanity! I hate them for their stale dreams more than I do the fact they squandered one of the great names of Wall Street while gaming both global financial markets and the American taxpayer.
7.) Ben Bernanke
In ancient societies, dark uncontrollable forces were placated by throwing virgins into volcanoes. In Washington, the ritual involves throwing officials under the bus. (The bus is implacable but near-sighted. As it approaches one victim, it will be at least temporarily satisfied if that victim throws someone else in its path.) Edward Liddy was in front of the bus this week during Congressional hearings and at the last minute, threw Bernanke in its path by saying the Fed knew everything A.I.G. was doing re: bonuses. But later the bus claimed other more delicious victims and Bernanke escaped… then he announced the U.S. government was going to print a trillion dollars in monopoly money to stem the crisis. Inflation was a near certainty before… now it will be Bernanke’s inflation. No one will even remember he had anything to do with A.I.G. … and that won’t be a good thing.
6.) Tim Geithner
Sadly for Tim Geithner, he even looks like a sacrificial lamb. Earnest, brilliant, trying his best, he will never be able to escape the fact that he is one of the few who will get the blame for both the misguided Bush era bailouts and the false-starts of the Obama administration. Every time there is a mistake, the bus will head in his direction. Obama says he has confidence in Geithner. That is exactly what they said about Tom Daschle before they pulled the plug on him. Heck, Obama said he would no sooner disown Jeremiah Wright than his own grandmother shortly before he disowned him, as they say, with prejudice. Geithner might survive, but he has been wounded. The good news for the economy: sometimes they say people who have been through near death experiences actually develop psychic powers.
5.) Asif Ali Zardari
Zardari was known to be a bad guy long before he became Pakistan’s president. Many of the closest friends of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, could not stand him. Now, as it turns out, neither can most of the Pakistani people. Locked in a bitter struggle with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, Zardari showed his weakness by capitulating to demands to reinstate Pakistan’s former Chief Justice per Sharif’s demands. Now in a desperate attempt to reassert control of his own party he may be plotting the ouster of his Prime Minister according to Indian press reports. He’s on the ropes, his opposition is gaining strength, and meanwhile fraught, dangerous, complex Pakistan is hardly being governed at all.
4.) Chris Dodd
The Nutmeg State’s longest-serving senator got his job the old-fashioned way, he [effectively] inherited it from his father, Sen. Thomas Dodd. He is also now virtually certain to lose it the old-fashioned way, as a result of a combination of arrogance, corruption, lying, and misreading the mood of the times. From his questionable home-mortgage finances to the comedy of errors this week when he denied having anything to do with legislative provisions allowing the A.I.G. bonus then blamed it on his staff then blamed it on the Treasury, Dodd is serving himself up on a silver platter to his opponents. And none of that even addresses the issue that as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee he was at the center of a fat-donations-from-Wall Street-equals-zero-oversight-from-Congress culture that helped get the world into this mess in the first place.
3.) Bernie Madoff
What more can you say about Bernie? For a decade and a half he went to bed every night knowing that he was lying, cheating, faking trades, committing fraud, and putting his and countless other families at grievous risk. And yet he lived his life like a king, like the former chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers that he was, with yachts and mansions in the Hamptons and Mayfair. In fact, noted judge of character and bankruptcy-addict Donald Trump said “he was a pretty respected guy.” That says it all.
2.) The pope
To non-believers he may be just a creepy old ex-Hitler Youth member who wears funny clothes and has appalling values, but to Catholics he is so much more than that. For example, according to one Vatican insider quoted in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, “he’s out of touch with the real world” and his papacy is “a disaster.” Another is reported to have said he “is isolated and fails to adequately consult his advisors.” At least. His Africa trip pronouncement that condoms not only don’t help the fight against AIDS but that their distribution actually “aggravates the problems” is not just a PR nightmare for the Holy See; delivered on the continent where both AIDS is most rampant and the Church is growing fastest, it is a formula for massive death and suffering.
1.) Josef Fritzl
Back in the good old days, when Joseph Alois Ratzinger was a little boy, being an Austrian sadist was a surefire path to the top, it could lead anywhere, perhaps even to world domination. But today, Austrians are outraged that one of their own could have locked his daughter in the basement, made her his sex slave, and killed one of the seven children he had with her. Which is really bad. Austria has changed, you see. There is no tolerance for twisted brutality there anymore. Well, less. In fact, fewer than a third of Austrians voted for the hate-spewing, neo-fascist extreme right parties like the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future. And while cynics (Jews or Muslims) might point out that this was the same proportion of the population who voted for Austria’s leading party, the Social Democrats, their point is undercut by the fact that it was only a relatively few Austrians who honor Nazi heroes in public ceremonies on the anniversary of Kristalnacht or who have participated in nasty little rituals like the recent unfurling of a Nazi flag in Hitler’s hometown of Braunau. No, there is no place for a Fritzl in modern Austria and so he will be sent to a psychiatric prison for the rest of his life. But one must wonder, is the outrage because of his crimes, because they were against fellow Austrians or because he thought so small?
This post has been modified since posting.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images; ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images; Chris Hondros/Getty Images