I was waiting for the daily White House briefing. It was a lovely near-spring day. Most of the reporters were outside, many preparing to hurl questions at the banking CEOs who were finishing their private lunch with President Barack Obama in the East Wing. It was expected that the soon-to-be departing bankers would stop at the stake-out position in front of the entrance to the West Wing and field queries from the journalists.
And then they came. Mostly tall men. All white, I recall. In very nice suits. Most had silver hair. It was as if Central Casting had been asked for a dozen banking chiefs. After being surrounded by reporters and camera crews–business journalists were in a frenzy–the gaggle of titans made its way to the microphones. They said what you’d expect: that they had had a productive meeting with the president, that we’re all in this together (just some of us have more retirement worries than some others), that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s toxic assets plan is a good first step (these guys are lucky to have anyone giving them any kind of step), that they were not surprised by the public outrage over the AIG bonuses (did they want to seem more out of touch?), that the financial regulatory system does need updating, and that we’re all in this together. Oh, did I say that already? That was a talking point that someone had obviously instructed them to use whenever it was necessary to exhale.
I was standing toward the back of the pack of reporters, watching as each question seemed to bounce off the impenetrable wall of spin the bankers had constructed. (Was it woven into the Italian wool of their suits?) There came a momentary pause in the not-so-tough grilling, and I yelled out, “Do you think you owe the American people an apology for helping to cause this economic decline?”
The men at the front of the banker’s crowd looked at one another, and then one moved to the mike. It was Kenneth Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America. He noted that there were few financial institutions that had not committed mistakes. “I don’t think the public should think we’ve done everything right,” he said. (Not much need to worry about that, sir.)
But what about a simple plea for forgiveness?
“At some point,” he said, “we have to stop talking about the past and talk about the present.” Apparently that point was right now. He said nothing else about the mistakes of the past. He pointed to “mixed signals” in the economy that had positive implications.
So no apology, no expression of regret, no “my bad.” Onward and–we can hope–upward. I suppose that high finance means never having to say you’re sorry.