Friday, February 08, 2002
New York magazine has an insightful article on the infamous phone call from former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin to the Bush administration, lobbying on behalf of Enron and, by extension, his employer, Citigroup.
So Bob Rubin did what Bob Rubin does. On his own, without consulting Weill or anyone else, he picked up the phone and made what he thought would be the most discreet of calls to Treasury Undersecretary Peter Fisher. Rubin and Fisher weren't strangers -- Rubin knew him from his Treasury days, when Fisher worked at the New York Fed.
"Hey, Peter," Rubin proposed, "this is probably not such a good idea, but what do you think about putting a call in to the ratings agencies? Maybe they could work with Enron's bankers to see if there might be an alternative to an immediate downgrade."
It was a cheeky proposal: Rubin was asking the federal government to meddle in the private business of the independent ratings agencies, Moody's and Standard and Poor's, on behalf of a company with manifold financial and spiritual links to the current administration. Not to mention the fact that he was a major shareholder and executive of one of the two banks that stood to lose the most if Enron went under. "Gee, Bob," Fisher smartly demurred, "I'm not sure if that's advisable at this point."
I've said it before, but Rubin's little phone call was the most questionable move (that we know about) that was made regarding the federal government and Enron. It probably wasn't illegal. But it definitely was unwise.
But for once, Bob Rubin was pushing against a string. By inserting himself into the Enron mess so late in the game, he made his presence physical, not spectral. Which is not how Bob Rubin's power works. For such a famously self-denying man, the call was a rare act of hubris.
The author is right. The call wiped away a little of that aura of omniscience and omnipotence that Rubin had carried for so many years.