If you can have only one book to read abou the 1980s of Milken, Drexel, and Boesky, make Den of Thieves that book.
This is a magnificent work, guarantted to stir up the animals. It should serve as the final word to all those Milken apologists and revisionist historians who continue to patrol the back pages of the Wall Street Journal, among other places.
Den of Thieves (Simon & Schuster, 493 pages, $25) is the work of James B. Stewart, an editor at the Journal, and one of those reporters who covered the insier trading scandal, beginning with the arrest of wonderboy Dennis Levine in 1986.
Here, before I go much further, let me give a tip of the hat. It has long been rumored among certain journalists and journalism critics that Mr. Stewart and his fellow reporters received loads of inside stuff improperly from federal prosecutors and were able to take advantage of the most egregious, damaging leaks, scoring coup after journalistic coup and stoking the Drexel bonfire.
On the one hand, after reading Den of Thieves, I think these critics -- and they are usually also the Milken apologists complaining about the "prosecutorial hothouse" atmosphere of the late 1980s -- overstate their case. It takes more than a few leaks to put together a credible newspaper story. Mr. Stewart, for one thing, had an edge on his competition: A lawyer by trade, he not only understood how securities work, he also understood the legal mind.
And Mr. Stewart, while denying he was the beneficiary of any continuous stream of privileged information, writes: "To the dismay of the government lawyers, the press barely credited them with capturing Mr. Boesky. Instead it bashed them for not extracting punishement enough. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, lacking large public-relations staffs, both [Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles] Carbery and [the SEC's chief of enforcement, Gary] Lynch decided to talk to only a handful of reporters, which meant their version of events often went unreported.
The italics are mine. The implications are obvious.
Which leads me to: On the other hand, as one of my ace reporters pointed out: So what? This is how the game is played. Someone talks, what he says is corroborated by other trustworthy sources, and the reporter has himself a story.
And what a story this is. Den of Thieves reads like what Truman Capote once called In Cold Blood -- a "nonfiction novel." It is a stylish read, moving along with scene-by-scene construction, faithful recording of status details, and realistic dialogue. At the same time the reader knows, as Mr. Capote once put it, "that every word is true."
Everyone is familiar with the genius Michael Milken, the genius Ivan Boesky, the genius Martin Siegel, the genius Dennis Levine. In American society, where title is nonexistent and breeding means little, money counts for a lot. It commands respect, and, in some cases, even seems to confer brains.
The truth, however, is that the lot of them were not "geniuses" at all, and in most cases were fairly undistinguished -- characters with little character and less actual talent. In short and in sum, as Mr. Stewart painstakingly proves, they cheated, and so raked in the billions.
Mr. Stewart is not preachy. He does not let moralizing get in the way of his story, and wisely spares his readers the "Greed in Reagan's America" malarkey. He states simply, and up front: "Violations of the securities laws are not victimless crimes. When insier traders gain windfall profits because they have bribed someone to leak confidential business secrets, when prices are manipulated and blocks of stock secretly accumulated, our confidence in the underlying fairness of the market is shattered. We are all victims."
Mr. Stewart does not pull punches with the Milken apologists, even on his own editorial page. "This camp seemed to favor the anties-tablishment 'creative destruction' that they believed Mr. Milken had spawned," he writes, "and showed a barely disguised contempt for the securities laws as needless government limitations on innovation and entrepreneurship."
My favorite part of Den of Thieves is during the final days, when Mr. Milken hired the public relations firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery to burnish his image as a patriot.
The "den of thieves" of Mr. Stewart's title, the insier traders, are an unattractive enough bunch, although they have their nice, zany moments. But a more unpleasant, unsavory, and untalented crowd than the disinformation p.r. spin artists would be difficult to imagine. Just recall their book: Portraits of the American Dream. Or the crowd of well wishers they pulled together outside of the courthouse steps on the day Mr. Milken pleaded not guilty, attired in their T-shirts and baseball hats proclaiming "Mike Milken: We Believe in You."
As with all practitioners of the arts of insincerity, they sicken as they surfeit.