Between the lines

IF YOU were an employer seeking to fill a job vacancy and you happened on James D Wolfensohn’s curriculum vitae, chances are you’d offer him the post on the spot.

And, then you’d probably offer him your own job, into the bargain.

For the Wolfensohn resumé is a most remarkable thing: prodigy attends university two years before his peer group; invited to join elite young Australian tennis squad with Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, Federers and Nadals of their day; Australian Olympic fencer; officer in the Royal Australian Air Force; Harvard MBA; amateur cellist, tutored by Jacqueline Du Pre, plays private concerts with Yo-Yo Ma; chairman emeritus of Carnegie Hall and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and so on.

Mighty impressive stuff, all back-boned by undeniable drive and a huge capacity for hard work. But there is a lingering feeling that each achievement results as much from calculation of its worth to his career as from any personal interest. And what a career: highly successful international banker/financier in the private-jet-multiple-homes category whose unparallelled networking skills find him mingling with the great and the good in all walks of life, not just high finance. Which all stood him in good stead when it came to attaining his crowning achievement, two terms as head of the World Bank.

Wolfensohn was born in 1933 in Sydney, Australia and, with only one sister, 10 years older, was effectively raised as an utterly doted-on only child. His cultured but down-at-heel parents had left London in 1922 after his father had endured some mysterious fall from grace as a favoured factotum in the house of Rothschild. His early hard-scrabble upbringing instils in Wolfensohn a lifelong aversion to poverty along with a marked fondness for acquisition. Despite the lack of money, his parents ensure he has every opportunity and it is only after failing his first-year university exams that he realises his parents’ relentless deification of their prodigy is in fact something of a hindrance. So, he assumes the role himself, relegating them to the sidelines as he doubles his efforts and unleashes his brazen chutzpah and self-confidence to ensure he will never fail at anything ever again. And the way he tells it, in what could be termed an auto-hagiography, he almost never does.

The facts of his life have been researched and pieced together by a team of hired writer/editors but Wolfensohn doesn’t appear to be of a mind to add much flesh and blood to the skeleton. The manner in which the mysterious reason for his father’s falling out with the Rothschilds is dangled tantalisingly before us — “it would be many years before I would find out” — but then never revealed illustrates Wolfensohn’s disinterest in ‘entertaining’ the reader. So we take to reading between the lines, gleaning clues and motivation where we can.

During an early clerkship with a leading Australian law firm, he overhears one of the partners saying: “give me a clerk with Wolfensohn’s willingness and (a fellow clerk’s) brains and I will have a good one”. A seemingly deprecating quote but in fact it heralds his sublime social skills and his appetite for hard work.

His banking career coincides with the arrival of the eurodollar; in 1964, the US introduced a 15% transaction tax on foreign borrowers to prevent money flooding from US shores. The financiers simply took their business — and their dollars — elsewhere, to the markets of London, Frankfurt and Zurich where there was no such tax, hence the ‘eurodollar’.

This and the development of technology saw the beginning of the globalisation of the financial markets and business in general. Wolfensohn, however, never traces the line between this and the NGOs, many of them staunchly anti-globalisation, with whom he would later butt heads as leader of the World Bank. A shame really, because Wolfensohn as head of the World Bank often appeared to sing from the same hymn sheet as many of the NGOs.

Despite repeated reassurances that fences were subsequently mended, his family must have suffered from his workaholic ways, dragged from pillar to post in the wake of his burgeoning international career. In one rather tawdry episode, he persists in taking on the major — and extracurricular — fundraising role for the aforementioned Kennedy Centre in Washington even after his wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the “situation being too dangerous”. Not his wife’s “situation”, but the perilous financial state of what, in the grand scheme of things, is an entertainment venue. He says that in retrospect he was possibly running from the reality of his wife’s illness but either way you slice it, it doesn’t read well.

Wolfensohn did achieve a legacy at the World Bank bringing debt relief and anti-corruption practices to the fore but in his telling we are treated to none of his temper tantrums which Sebastian Mallaby documented in his far more entertaining book, The World’s Banker, a revealing insight into Wolfensohn’s tenure and the workings — and many failings — of the institution. And Mallaby’s book was largely sympathetic to Wolfensohn.

Wolfensohn may have often sacrificed his family but neither did he spare himself. After leaving the World Bank, he became the international envoy for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. It ended in failure and Wolfensohn turned out to have been nothing more than a decoy for the machinations of a George W Bush not really interested in resolving the situation. It also left Wolfensohn with a serious heart condition. It is also the only time in the book he expresses real anger — towards Bush — although, consummate politician that he is, the criticism is attributed to another while Wolfensohn allows it might be a misinterpretation.

All told, a classic tale of your financial conservative, social liberal but Mallaby’s book holds the monopoly on entertainment.

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