By the New York Bureau Chief
John J. Mack, Morgan Stanley’s ex-CEO and current chairman, has gone on Charlie Rose only three times: a brief post-9/11 sit-down to talk about Wall Street after the attacks, a long 2009 interview about the financial crisis, and last week’s discussion of China. This relatively small number of appearances is a little surprising—not only have “Mack the Knife” (his nickname as CEO, you can figure it out) and Charlie known each other for many years, they have lived uncannily parallel lives. They’re like fun-house reflections of one another—embodiments of what each man, with slightly different choices, could have become.
A quick run-down of the similarities:
Charlie was born in North Carolina in 1942.
Mack was born in North Carolina in 1944.
Charlie’s father owned a grocery store in Henderson, North Carolina.
Mack’s father owned a grocery store in Moorseville, North Carolina.
Both of their fathers were named Charles.
In high school, Charlie was a basketball star.
In high school, Mack was a football star.
For college, Charlie went to Duke.
For college, Mack went to Duke.
During college, Charlie met Mary King. They were married for twelve years.
Later, Mack met Mary’s younger sister Christy. They’re still married*.
Introducing Mack in 2009, Charlie acknowledged these parallels (and then some) in what must rank very high among his greatest openings:
In a point of full-disclosure, I note that he’s been a friend for some 40 years; we went to the same school; our fathers, at different ends of the state, were in the same business; I occasionally do things with Morgan Stanley; and we were married to sisters. All of that and a long-term relationship with a man I admire and consider a friend.
Tabling the very worthy question of what it means exactly to “occasionally do things with Morgan Stanley,” let’s focus on how Mack and CR’s remarkable commonalities affect the broadcast or, at least, how they express themselves on it. Mack, in the tradition of modern Wall Street bankers, is a studiously dull interview—entertaining only in the contortions he undertakes to avoid expressing an opinion. “You can argue the pros and cons” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Mack tells CR, coming down neutrally on an event that’s widely considered an act of mass-murder. A good businessman doesn’t want to offend a potential client, even (or especially) when he’s the Devil.
But more notable than Mack’s commitment to appeasement is his embrace of a very Rose-ian belief in the power of conversation. For much of the episode, Mack gripes about American politicians telling the Chinese what to do on issues like the economy and human rights. Live with them! Read about them! And goddammit talk to them! Only after you’ve built serious relationships, Mack tells us, can you begin to really do business. Sure, you’re granting the Chinese a free-pass to do things you know are bad, but it’s in the service of a farther-reaching goal of mutual harmony and understanding. It might sound wishy-washy, but wait a minute, could Mack’s position toward China be any more similar to Charlie’s approach to his guests? Don’t confront, inquire! Don’t stake out a position, let your guests feel comfortable discussing theirs! Gain their trust, whatever their faults! And from such respect and patience, great rewards will come.
This North Carolina good ol’ boy diplomacy is music to Charlie’s ears. About midway through the interview, our man pounces on Mack, trying to hammer home their shared values: “Are you saying to me that all the trips you’ve took [sic] to China, many of them were not about making a deal, most of them were about building a relationship so there’d be the possibility…” Charlie’s brain is salivating; but Mack, a step ahead, knows better than to throw himself unequivocally behind anything. “Well, Charlie, you’ve known me for a long time. I can multi-task.” It’s the kind of coy response that we’ve come to expect from Charlie’s powerful guests, and one that—in an inverted world—we’d expect our man to make himself.
*A CR episode with the King sisters ranks pretty high on my top fantasy broadcasts list.