L. William Seidman accomplished many things in his 88-year life — Ivy League degrees, military honors, business success, political triumphs, media fame.
But Bill Seidman was more than his accomplishments. He was a genuine, generous man who had fun just being himself.
There are plenty of Seidman-isms. "Where you sit is where you stand" was one of his favorites, and there was never much doubt where he stood.
Seidman told it like it was and did not much care how the listener took it. That's not to say he was callous. Far from it — he just knew what he knew and was not afraid to say it.
On Wednesday, Seidman died after a brief illness in New Mexico, where he long owned a large ranch run by one of his daughters. He is survived by his six children and his wife, Sally, whom Seidman cared for closely since an accident a decade ago left her with many medical complications.
Seidman's admirers describe him as perhaps the least pretentious extremely successful person they ever met. Bigheartedness and loyalty were second nature to him. He made friends easily and held on to them.
Industry lobbyist Rick Hohlt was a close friend of Seidman's for 30-odd years.
"One of the first parties I went to in Washington was at his house in Georgetown, and there was [Fed Chairman] Arthur Burns," yet Seidman "was unpretentious," Hohlt recalled Wednesday. "He didn't have a car and driver. He rode his bike to work. He wore the same old blue blazer. He was an individual. Period."
Ken Guenther, who met Seidman during the Ford administration, recounted how Seidman met his young granddaughter a year ago and "kept up with her because he liked her."
"He gathered people in," Guenther said. "He was just this enormous positive life force, always looking forward."
Not only looking forward, but doing so with joy.
There was no project, no speech, no newspaper column, no broadcast that did not capture his imagination. He wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal just last week on one of his many passions: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Seidman ran the agency from 1985 to 1991 and in the process transformed it into a powerhouse. When the S&L industry cracked, Congress turned to him to pick up the pieces. He organized the Resolution Trust Corp. and over six years took over 747 institutions with $396 billion of assets.
Seidman's strategy was to sell assets quickly, before a loan or an office building could lose more value.
He was criticized sharply and repeatedly, even by his bosses in the first Bush administration. But Seidman never wavered, and in hindsight it is widely agreed that the RTC was a success.
Seidman clearly relished life, even the slings and arrows aimed his way. He reveled in teasing his detractors and often bested them.
Ask John Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. When Sununu suggested the government could help pay for the S&L crisis by charging depositors a fee when they opened accounts, Seidman branded it a "toaster tax," playing off the tradition of institutions giving away toasters to new customers.
The remark got plenty of play in the news media and infuriated Sununu, who tried to push Seidman out. In a 2002 Fast Company profile, Seidman said he resisted the pressure.
"I said I wouldn't go," Seidman told the magazine, which concluded: "When Sununu himself was forced to resign (his exceptionally abrasive manner led to his demise), someone remarked to Seidman, 'Poor John was his own worst enemy.' Seidman's reply: 'Not while I'm alive.' "
That sums up Seidman's sense of humor — never malicious but definitely cutting. And it paired well with his self-effacing approach. When he left the FDIC, he told a group of reporters that he understood they would not be calling anymore, because no one would care what an ex-regulator had to say. Of course, he remained a vital part of the public policy debate, both as a CBNC broadcaster and as a source for journalists covering financial services.
I met Seidman when I joined American Banker in 1987. Many regulators have marveled at how he got such good press for so many years. It was easy. He picked up his phone. He listened. He answered questions. And he took an interest. Like Guenther said, he drew people to him.
After I wrote a story describing why American Banker gave Seidman its Lifetime Achievement award in 2007, we met for lunch at his favorite spot, Morton's on Connecticut Avenue. He asked me to come back to his office across the street at CNBC. He had something to show me: a mobile he had made as a gift. He explained that after years of rebuffing his invitations to his home on Nantucket, he decided to bring a little of Nantucket to me. He had carved five sailboats out of driftwood, painted them, and strung them up into a mobile.
Guess where he learned to make mobiles? Alexander Calder. He studied with him in France.
It was just one more of the many things that made Bill Seidman exceptional. The longer you knew him, the more fascinating he became.