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What's Behind the Goldman 'Charm Campaign?'

Blankfein watchers have been treated to a flurry of sightings during the last few weeks. The formerly reclusive CEO has been popping up Zelig-like all over town and the press has taken note.
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Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, attends the Clinton Global Initiative, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, attends the Clinton Global Initiative, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Blankfein watchers have been treated to a flurry of sightings during the last few weeks. The formerly reclusive CEO has been popping up Zelig-like all over town and the press has taken note. Wasn't that Lloyd being escorted out of the White House by the Secret Service after a meeting with the president? Was that really Lloyd sitting in the back of the theater at a preview screening of Brad Pitt's new movie, Killing Them Softly?

What gives? I put the question to Goldman spokesperson, Michael Duvally. Here's his reply:

"I would say that we have felt the time was right to have a more proactive media strategy. In terms of Lloyd Blankfein's recent media appearances, they have focused on the importance of resolving the fiscal cliff, which is something he feels very strongly about."

Most of us know by now that Lloyd has climbed aboard the fiscal cliff bully pulpit in defense of his economic vision for the United States which includes a little Warren Buffett (the wealthy should pay higher taxes) but a lot of Koch Brothers (everything near and dear, namely entitlements, should be on the chopping block) and he's tied his star to a Fortune 500 Boy's Club that's taken the pro-active moniker, "Fix the Debt." His call, however, for Americans to lower their expectations and accept a little more hardship has gone down like castor oil for all those whose yearly salaries are far below the 16.1 million Lloyd drew last year in salary. But he's got the ear of the mainstream press thanks to the Goldman public relations team which has taken great pains in controlling the release of their golden boy so as to give selected journalists the impression that they're getting something special. Listen to CBS's breathy Scott Pelley somberly telling his audience that "An interview with Lloyd Blankfein is as rare as a look inside the Goldman Sachs money machine." Furthermore, the adoration accorded to the CEO by Pelley borders on the religious and Goldman has made the most of it, producing a 30-second spot about their good works that prefaces the actual online interview segment on the CBS website.

It's a far different reception than the one given Lloyd at previous get-togethers, most notably before Senator Carl Levin's Congressional hearing during the 2008 investigation into Goldman's toxic "shitty" deals, or later in 2010 before Brooksley Born and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee which focused a lens on the dubious world of derivatives. All this agita producing publicity was embellished by Matt Taibbi's radioactive Rolling Stone campaign which covered Goldman in a plague of deep sea cephalopods and the more recent publication of the tell-all tattler by Greg Smith (Why I Left Goldman Sachs) which brought to light such news-unworthy events as a sighting of Blankfein, naked, air drying himself in a gym shower.

The inauguration of the Goldman "charm campaign" is something that's been in the works for some time and part and parcel of the PR department's new boss, the affable Richard Siewert. Brought in to replace the prickly long time PR stalwart Lucas van Pragg in March, 2012, Siewert was a sweet hire with an impeccable pedigree coming to Goldman via the White House (where he was Bill Clinton's press secretary) and from Treasury (where he was a counselor to Tim Geithner). Under Siewert's direction Goldman has sounded the "all clear" at HQ signaling that it's now OK to say you're from Goldman (and proud of it) and damn the torpedoes coming from the likes of Taibbi, Smith or hordes of unwashed Occupy folks. There will always be a Goldman and despite the controversy surrounding pre-crash proprietary trading shenanigans investor confidence is back to pre-crash levels if not beyond and that's what the PR department wants to reinforce. The charm offensive has already junketed the CEO to interviews across the media spectrum, from CNN and CNBC, even north to Toronto to address a spirited group of moneyed Canadians at the Canadian Club.

Now, I've got a soft spot for Lloyd Blankfein, after all we're both 1950s vintage kids who grew up close to one another in lower middle class Jewish neighborhoods: his father, a postman, my father a scrap dealer (a Jewish Sanford without son) and I often muse about the possibility that we might have run into one another at a local stickball game or a rowdy Johnny-on-the-Pony get together, but then again I don't think that was Lloyd's style. He seemed more likely the kid with a pocket protector sitting in back of class punching the air repeatedly with one arm in "pick me, pick me" desperation when poised to answer a difficult math question and given his future success was more likely to spend leisure time hawking Brooklyn's favorite, Nick-L-Nips, from an orange crate stand, probably doubling the price to a dime.

Blankfein isn't one of the more impressive Titans of Industry and that probably works in his favor. Cameras don't love him; in close-ups he squints way too much. He has none of the Waspish/Goyish bearing of former Goldman heads like Hank Paulson or John Whitehead and it's hard to escape the feeling that there should be a character based on him in some future Woody Allen film (if Woody found some inherent comedy in the 2008 bailout of Goldman, and if he did, I'd suggest considering Wallace Shawn for the role).

Lloyd seems like the "good boy" that every working-class Jewish family wished for back in mid-century Brooklyn; the kind of son that would make parents kvell with pride. As a super-successful CEO in the public eye he exhibits an earnest mushiness that runs counter to the sociopathy exhibited by so many of his CEO colleagues and the Goldman PR department has wisely made the decision to deploy him as the centerpiece of its charm offensive. Will he prove persuasive enough to change the common perception of Goldman as something akin to Blade Runner's evil Tyrell Corporation? Probably not, but sending out a warm and fuzzy Lloyd signals investors that Goldman is back in the game and nothing -- not even the upcoming July, 2013 SEC trial of Fabrice "Fabulous Fab" Tourre, (the less-than-humble Frenchman whose sketchy trading prowess, memorialized in steamy emails, resulted in enormous albeit questionable profits) can keep the company from its appointed task: making enormous profits.

Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on Foreclosure Diaries, a documentary about the financial crisis and has blogged on foreclosure related issues for American Banker. He is currently working on a memoir of mid-century Brooklyn titled, Salugi.