Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The editor of the Web site The Daily Beast, Tina Brown, has sent us another list of recommended readings. This time, her readings share the theme of excess, starting with the excessive profits described in a book called "The Greatest Trade Ever." Author Gregory Zuckerman chronicles the hedge-fund manager who made that trade.

Who was John Paulson, the subject of this first book you've got here, "The Greatest Trade Ever"?

TINA BROWN: John Paulson was a hedge-fund manager who hadn't had an enormous amount of success in Wall Street, but developed a huge hunch round about 2006 that we were in the middle of a great housing bubble and that it was all going to come crashing down. And he was prepared to put billions of dollars on that bet.

But, of course, the subject of this Goldman inquiry now is that this trader, Fabrice Tourre, is a guy who spent his time devising ways to stuff his own clients' loans with Paulson's hand-picked securities dross. They knew, of course, though that Paulson was on the other side. But the others, it is alleged, didn't.

INSKEEP: You're eluding here to the Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit against Goldman Sachs, which involves a trade that, in turn, involved John Paulson. And so we have two sides of the same man here. This book, "The Greatest Trade Ever," just the very title of that indicates what a genius this guy seemed to have been once upon a time, and maybe still is seen that way by many. But at the same time, there's questions about him.

BROWN: Well, you know, he is a bit of a genius. And, in fact, he's been charged with nothing and, in a sense, didn't do anything. But what is interesting about this book, in a sense, is not the details of this trade so much as just the window it gives you into this world on Wall Street where, frankly, how these bets land is so - has no consideration to the people that it lands upon. You know, Paulson and his pals were really hoping upon hope that the mortgage market would collapse.

So, I mean, I've called him in a piece if wrote, actually, the ghouls of Wall Street, because there they are, sitting there, rooting for everybody else to fail.

INSKEEP: So you have a sense of excess in "The Greatest Trade Ever," and perhaps also a sense of excess in this New York Magazine article you've sent us about Tiger Woods - or not strictly about Tiger Woods, but about his - well, what should we call them?

BROWN: Well, you know, what I love about this piece - it's a very skillful piece done by Lisa Taddeo for New York Magazine - and what's clever about it that, you know, we all read every day in the tabloids about these girls who've surrounded Tiger Woods and so on, but she really takes the lid off this kind of whole teaming club world of the, quote, "VIP hostess." And she calls them the halfway hookers, because these girls are not call girls, and it's very, very interesting.

I mean, she calls these girls the ambassadors of these guys' desire. Because what they do is, someone like Rachel Uchitel, her job was to bring in the guys, bring in the girls into the club, introduce guys to girls who would be really discreet. All a celebrity has to do is sit in his booth and point, and basically, what he wants is delivered to his table.

It's fascinating. The girls are paid in tips and in trips and in goodies and gifts. It's all about the goodies they can collect. They call the hedge-fund guys like the Paulson crowd the whales. It's all about landing a whale.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Doing a little bit of hedge-fund trading of a different kind here.

BROWN: Exactly right.

INSKEEP: There is a vivid description here of the bank, a club in Las Vegas where it says that Tiger Woods would be one of the guys who would go and he would get an excellent table that would overlook the dance floor, and he could just point and get what he wanted and someone would bring it to him.

BROWN: Absolutely. It's point and click with these guys. You know, I mean, I guess it's a depressing - both these pieces that I chose, I guess, are a kind of sobering look of what excess has wrought. It's the complete lack of any kind of moral compass, in a sense. You know, when Paulson celebrated his billion- dollar trade for his company, he hosted a - in November 2008, he hosted a celebration for his firm in the Metropolitan Club and was ordering $500 bottles of wine. And, you know, outside those doors in November 2008, of course, you know, we're about to hit the teeth of the recession, all wrought by this mortgage collapse.

INSKEEP: There seems not to have been much of a recession for club hostesses. There's a description here of women making $3,000 a night, sometimes.

BROWN: Indeed. I mean, Rachel Uchitel talks about how she got - her fee was $250,000 a year, plus $250,000 in tips. It's like lifting up a rock, you know, and seeing all these thorns.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Hum. Wow.

BROWN: It doesn't sound like you're very excited to hear about this, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: You sound gloomy, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well, that - I'll tell you why I sound gloomy. It's because you've sent us another item in the list here, which is a far sadder story, actually. And it's a book that you're publishing called "Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox."

BROWN: Yeah, now, this is a fascinating tale. You know, we assigned Barbie Nadeau on The Daily Beast to cover the Amanda Knox trial throughout...

INSKEEP: Let's remind people what the crime was.

BROWN: The crime was a particularly unsettling one, which was two exchange students go to Parousia to study abroad. These two girls show up in Parousia to learn Italian and have a good time. And they get into a world - sort of seedy world, really, of drugs and partying, which seems to be what Parousia is in an underworld.

Meredith, the girl who was murdered, was a far more sort of straight-laced girl than Amanda Knox. She liked to party, but she certainly wasn't anything more really than a, you know, than a regular party-loving girl. Amanda Knox, however, clearly was of a different stripe, and she became involved with a very, very druggy rich guy called Sollecito, and a seedy pusher who was Algerian, and these three were hanging out together.

Somehow along the line, something happened that night two or three years ago, and Meredith Kercher had been stabbed to death in the most horrendous way in clearly what seems to have been some kind of hideous night of thrill-seeking gone awry.

INSKEEP: Given that some of the facts will never be known here, apparently, what do you think is the lesson of this?

BROWN: What Nadeau really sketches very well is how a girl who was a thrill-seeker, was a girl who liked to live on the edge - when you get a kind of toxic chemistry of the town, the place, the man she was hanging out with and so forth, was tipped over into a kind of moral abyss that she may never have got to if she hadn't been in that kind of company.

INSKEEP: We're getting reading recommendations, as we often do, from Tina Brown of The Daily Beast. Our theme is excess this morning. And Tina, we've heard about money. We've heard about sex. We've heard about murder, and the final recommendation here seems to be about excessive ego.

BROWN: Yes. I love James Wolcott in Vanity Fair. And he's written a wonderful piece this month called "Hot-Air Balloons," about how all these guys with big egos, very rich guys - pundits, TV hosts - think at a certain point in their career where they've gotten to a certain level of celebrity power and fame that they should run for office.

INSKEEP: Let's name some names here: Lou Dobbs, Chris Matthews.

BROWN: Lou Dobbs, yes, Chris Matthews...

INSKEEP: Mort Zuckerman.

BROWN: Mort Zuckerman, Larry Kudlow. He calls Larry Kudlow a Republican cockatoo who invokes Robert Reagan's name as if it were a cure for erectile dysfunction, which is pretty brutal. But, you know, he's very funny about Lou Dobbs, you know. He says that people like him preen their opinions even more and practice the false humility of pretending to answer a clamor that is mostly in their heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Although he underlines why you would do this, why you would dance around and flirt with the idea of running for office. You get extra attention. You get extra...

BROWN: You get wonderful attention. You get everybody running around saying that they want to sign up. You get everybody telling you that, you know, you really ought to run. And then, of course, at the end of it, you pull out, demurring and saying you really have decided - you've taken soundings, but you're not going to do it.

INSKEEP: Tina Brown of The Daily Beast. Thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Our conversations with Tina are called Word of Mouth. You can find links to her recommended reads at npr.org. And, by the way, there's a short cut to that page on our Twitter feeds. You can follow this program @MORNING EDITION and @nprinskeep. I'm also on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: