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From Watergate to Wall Street November 9, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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In the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, I have two book recommendations that aren’t really anything new. However, not really knowing much about the events surrounding the first (I was born years after), and being too young to really understand what was going on with respect to the second, I found them thoroughly enjoyable.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the journalistic team that broke the Watergate scandal in 1972, and their book All the President’s Men is a memoir of sorts. Chronicling the highs and lows of their efforts at the Washington Post to unmask the cover-up being orchestrated by the White House, there is no doubt that the book is as relevant today as it was when it first came out, and the events no less shocking over thirty years later.

Most write-ups of the book describe it as a political thriller. This is certainly apropros, though it should be noted from the onset that the narrative tends to suffer from the dry tone and meticulous detail characteristic of newspaper reporting. In fact, it is almost as if the book were cobbled together under the assumption that the reader had been following the regular reports filed by the authors at the Post as the story unfolded. Nonetheless, it is hard not to be riveted by Bernstein and Woodward’s account of the reckless abuse of power by the White House. In this regard, the power of the story derives from the fact that these events actually did happen.

There is no doubt that the book will appeal to those keenly interested in history and politics. However, while obviously a vital resource on Watergate, it is as much a story of excellent journalism as it is political reportage. Indeed, I find that what I enjoyed the most from the book (and only by a small margin, mind) was less the blow-by-blow of the White House cover-up and more the behind the scenes account of the lengths to which the reporters had to go in order to get the story. Reading the book, one better appreciates what good journalism is all about: the ethical dilemmas that reporters face in light of the need to get the story, the effort it takes to come up with a story that can stand on its own and be fair, and the skills that good journalists must hone that have nothing to do with writing. Indeed, if the reader will take away nothing but these insights from All the President’s Men, it will have been well worth the time spent reading.

Switching gears, Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burroughs and John Helyar depicts the largest corporate takeover in American history: Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co.’s $25 billion leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal at the time, Burroughs and Helyar reconstruct the events surrounding the takeover from in-depth interviews with the key principals and put into perspective how and why events turned out as they did. A thorough and accessible reader into the inner workings of big business, it is no wonder that the book remains on the reading lists of many business and MBA programs.

One might think that the book is but another treatise on the excesses of corporate greed. That would be unfair. Notwithstanding its importance, the book is less about avarice than it is about hubris; specifically what happens when the most competitive creatures on this planet – business executives – pull out all the stops when they decide that losing is not an option (and are still able to keep near everything above board!). Hence, the appeal of the book derives from the authors’ ability to paint the all-too-human follies of those involved, making the man on the street realize that captains of American industry can act like children, too.

From a narrative perspective the book is a gem, precisely because Burroughs and Helyar have gone to every effort to write the book as a story. They succeed marvelously. Spending as much time as they did with the important players, and with the benefit of hindsight, the authors tell a tale that is actually quite stunning. It is grave in some areas, ridiculously humorous in others. It describes the wheeling, dealing and politicking that must be a part of every businessman’s repertoire, as well as the irrationality that sometimes gets the better of otherwise well-educated (and respected) individuals. But above all else, it is a story that – whether by chance or design – is just too crazy not to be true. Had the events in Barbarians not actually transpired, it is inconceivable that anyone could have thought up anything that can quite compare.

Barbarians at the Gate is certainly light reading, but that has more to do with the authors’ skill than the subject matter. In the hands of lesser authors, it is difficult to imagine a piece that can appeal to both the layman and those steeped in the language of business. One need not be particularly interested in business or corporate affairs to enjoy this book, but will learn upon reading it a lot about how business is (and occasionally, should not be) done: mainly, those things that cannot really be taught in a classroom.

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