It was bound to happen. With Goldman, Sachs & Co. suffering a barrage of bad publicity and bumbling its public image for two years running, the media would eventually find and expose the executive responsible for managing the firm's relationship with the press and the world. It was all well and good for reporters to poke fun at Lucas van Praag, the firm's notoriously haughty, British spokesman, famous for what The New York Observer termed "majestic Victorian taunts." But van Praag had to be taking his cues from someone more senior on the Goldman food chain. And shining a spotlight on that person -- well, that would be a story.
So it wasn't surprising back in July when New York magazine, in a lengthy piece on the casting of Lloyd Blankfein as Wall Street's Dr. Evil, introduced its readers to John F.W. Rogers, Goldman's chief of staff in charge of government, media and client relations. The piece fingered Rogers, "a Zelig-like personality" for nurturing a culture of "extreme secrecy" at the firm, which has made it an easy target for those who would liken it to a vampire squid. It also suggested, through an anonymous quote, that Rogers and van Praag have kept their jobs only because "they have photos of someone in Tijuana, with a 16-year-old girl and a donkey."
Entertaining, to be sure, though not very informative when it comes to explaining who Rogers really is and what he exactly does. But it certainly opened the door. And through it strolled Bloomberg Businessweek, with a feature-length story on Rogers in its Sept. 6 issue.
Written by William D. Cohan, who recently published a history of Goldman Sachs called "Money and Power" (a project, he discloses, Rogers' blessing helped make possible), the article begins with a gimmicky opening spread featuring nothing but a minuscule photograph of Rogers -- he's rarely photographed, we're told -- tons of white space and a small headline declaring that he "might be the most important person at Goldman Sachs." The story then rolls out supporting evidence: Rogers' Goldman office is next to Blankfein's and near Gary Cohn's; Goldman's hypercompetitive partners won't talk about him for fear of angering him; and in 2006, he led a push to prevent Blankfein from taking both the CEO and chairman titles when Henry Paulson left for Treasury.
That gambit didn't work, of course, and the story quotes van Praag flatly denying that Rogers was behind it. No matter. The hagiography continues with the story of Rogers' career, which began with an internship at the White House and a fateful encounter with David Gergen, who recounts reporting for work as director of communications for President Ford and needing to furnish his office. A bureaucrat tells him to call Rogers, who, in a single day, secures for Gergen a desk, a couch, a TV and some artwork -- a process that would've taken months had Gergen gone through normal channels. "He became a legend within the White House," Gergen is quoted as saying, before taking credit for discovering "the phenomenon of John Rogers."
It's a central anecdote of the story, which is chock-full of instances of Rogers getting things done and making himself indispensable to big machers such as Gergen and James Baker in Washington, or Jon Corzine, Paulson and Blankfein at Goldman. Unfortunately, the same Gergen anecdote was prominently featured -- nearly word for word -- in a profile of Rogers in The New York Times in 2006, when rumors circulated that he would join Paulson at Treasury. Like the Times, Businessweek noted Rogers' friends compare him to John le Carré's George Smiley. And both pieces discuss at length his skills as a technocrat and his ability to make trains run on time.
Written five years after the Times' piece, Businessweek's story eventually gets around to Rogers' role as the architect of Goldman's nonresponsive response to its critics after the financial crisis. We learn that he and van Praag often disagreed about Rogers' hard-line approach and that even Blankfein "concedes that the firm has made its share of PR mistakes." But the story ends on an up note, with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick remarking on Rogers' skill at using power with discretion.
All well and good, but does it make Rogers the most important person at Goldman? Upon finishing the Businessweek piece, it's still difficult to articulate exactly what Rogers does -- other than lots of administrative tasks -- why he called the PR shots he did and what is the source of his mysterious power. Which makes you think maybe Rogers really is all-powerful. Anyone need a chair?
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.