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Bull Run

THE GREAT GAME; The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000; By John Steele Gordon; Scribner: 320 pp., $25

January 02, 2000|STEVE FRASER

America, apparently, has become a nation of traders; not old-fashioned street peddlers, to be sure, but rather a remarkable new subspecies, the "day trader": mostly guys, so it seems, wearing T-shirts and baseball caps, moonlighting from their day jobs as construction workers and accountants, some in it for an occasional goof, some for the blood sport. And indeed a culture of risk, born and bred on Wall Street, is savored everywhere. Fueled by airborne speculation in the shares of virtual companies, it declares skepticism verboten and abandons itself to a lightheaded faith that the illusion of success breeds success. There's a virile assertiveness in the air, nicely captured in a stark, full-page ad for a mutual fund depicting a lean iron signpost, marking the intersection of "Wall Street" and "Power Street."

Power! For 200 years, and still counting, Wall Street has lived in its radiance. What's changed, it would seem, is that once that power was feared and reviled, but now it's embraced and revered. This migration of The Street from the dark side to the light side suggests a stunning tale of cultural revolution, a kind of global warming of the American psyche producing a decisive shift in the temperature and atmosphere of our public life. That story is at the heart of Wall Street's rise to greatness.

In "The Great Game," John Steele Gordon sets out to tell that story; at the outset he even compares the great power of The Street to the once all-powerful papacy. But "The Great Game" is a great disappointment. The letdown is all the more telling because Gordon has in the past shown himself to be a fine historian. His earlier "The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street" is a deeply researched and vivid account of the Erie Railroad wars of the 1860s. "The Great Game," however, is thinly researched (its footnotes hardly deserve the name, they're so sparse), analytically shallow and devoid of interesting ideas. Two reasons come to mind to account for this. "The Great Game" has all the telltale signs of a made-for-TV book, which in fact it is, serving as the companion volume to a CNBC docudrama about the history of Wall Street. It is amiable, with plenty of factoids and anecdotal nuggets, easily digested in bite-size chapters that all seem to be precisely the same length, as if scaled to fit a formula imposed by another medium. So the book goes down easily but leaves the reader famished, with nothing more to chew on than gaseous references to "great men, great themes, great powers."

The second reason "The Great Game" fails to capture The Street's greatness may be ideological. Gordon comes by his interest in Wall Street honestly; several generations of his family have made their living there. He thinks highly of The Street and, while acknowledging its lapses, sees it as exemplifying the many virtues of the free market. In that regard, the book is a perfect mirror of our millennial moment, taking a celebratory and triumphalist approach to the history of The Street. Although Gordon was as open about his ideological views in "The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street," he didn't allow them to interfere with that often darker story of stock market larceny. But in "The Great Game," they get in the way, resulting in an often banal, small-minded book about a great subject. This shows up in silly ways, such as Gordon's references to publications he deems too critical of The Street: He attaches some damning descriptive label, i.e., the "left-wing periodical, the Nation"; but he never adds such a characterization to a paper with a conservative bent like the Wall Street Journal.

More important, Gordon's ideological bent spoils the clarity of his own message. He despises Jefferson for despising Wall Street and bemoans the Virginian's long-lasting and pernicious influence, and he adores Hamilton. The confounding problem is that Gordon's overriding belief, reiterated throughout the book, is in the free market, that is, a market free of government meddling, and it was Jefferson who, after all, was the avatar of limited government, while Hamilton came closer to advocating state capitalism than anyone in a position of power until the Roosevelts came along. As a matter of fact, during most of its first century, Wall Street lived off the largess of the state, trading in the securities of government-owned or government-subsidized enterprise: canals, turnpikes, railroads, banks. And, fatally, this obsession with the free market subverts Gordon's own attempt to capture vital aspects of The Street's greatness. That would have required him, among other things, to take seriously rather than to disdainfully dismiss all those reasons Wall Street was, for generations, an object of fear and loathing.

II

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