They say the rich are not like us. Greenberg is not like us, and not just because he is rich. For one thing, when I was with him, he didn't walk. He sort of glided, like a hovercraft. For another, wherever he went, people shrank back in genuine awe, or perhaps terror. He didn't seem to notice. He just floated past them.
Our first meeting was an interview scheduled to last eight minutes. Another journalist had landed the interview; I was there as backup. When my colleague's questions ran out, it was my turn. I asked a couple of dumb questions and learned that I wasn't going to elicit anything earth-shattering. Greenberg is cleverer than I am, which I had not hitherto thought possible of anyone. I switched to the more user-friendly question, "What do you do when you're not working?"
Two men in dark suits and sunglasses, who had been sitting quietly to one side throughout the interview, became animated. "Mr. Greenberg does not wish to answer that question," one fellow said. "Yes I do," said Greenberg, and we chatted about skiing and tennis.
"Your eight minutes are up," the other Matrix wannabe suddenly said. Greenberg waved him aside and we spent a pleasant 20 minutes chatting. Now came the revelation that Greenberg is indeed human, and very much so. He was like my grandfather, only eminently more likeable. The printed interview eventually ran 12 pages.
When it was over, we went outside and people did the shrinking, verge-of-fainting thing that Greenberg and other members of the global royalty must tune out if they are to get through their day.
Downstairs, at a reception, I found Mrs. Greenberg, who was equally charming. We chatted about their honeymoon in Bermuda. From nowhere, two more fellows in suits and shades appeared and whisked me off to a corner. I lacked permission to speak to Mrs. Greenberg and was warned against any further contact. When they left, I went back and finished my conversation with a woman every bit as charming and friendly as her husband.
Later that evening, Greenberg flew off to a meeting at the White House. In the Greenberg diary, my appointment was immediately followed by Bill Clinton's. That would be something, if I had any respect for the former president.
When I met Mr. Greenberg again, a few years later, he didn't remember me--why should he?--and was therefore comparatively guarded, although equally charming. He is the most powerful man I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet. He built the largest financial services empire this world has ever seen, which is hard, if not impossible, to square with the avuncular and witty man I met.
Were I an AIG employee, Greenberg would have been a remote figure who inspired fear. Instead, I thought of him as my best buddy. On balance, then, although working at AIG would have made me infinitely better off financially, I'd rather have been a scruffy reporter for whom Greenberg, beyond the call of duty, found all the time in the world.
ROGER CROMBIE, a writer, editor and former accountant, is a regular columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He also covers issues on alternative risk.
May 1, 2005
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