Going downhill fast

Gathering at the elite Deer Valley ski retreat, the newly humbled masters of the universe bemoan the Bush economy but express high hopes for his war.

Published March 13, 2003 9:54PM (EST)

The masters of the universe are feeling grounded. Last week I was a guest at a CEO conference, hosted by one of the major banks, at Deer Valley Resort in Utah. Utah is less chichi than Aspen, Colo., but it has become the snow venue of choice for many of the big shots who run the world. It's one of the few places in America where CEOs look forward to going downhill fast.

This was the conference where, at the turn of the century, irrational exuberance ran wild. Attendees like Enron's Jeffrey Skilling were kings of the mountain. In the shadow of war, the economic mood is darkly different. So is the hair. A cool mogul off-duty ensemble today is a pastel cashmere sweater and a fully shaved head. (See two of the Dreamworks SKG partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, sporting cueball pates on the cover of last week's Forbes Global magazine.)

The moneyed monk look is appropriate for the era of the hair shirt. The airlines are going bankrupt. Power companies are in tatters. ("Siting your nuclear plant is tough enough, but now we can't even put up a windmill without getting a whole lot of shit about the goddam flying squirrels," grumbled one oil-and-gas capo.) Retail stinks. Telecommunications is a wipeout. Theme parks are empty. Baseball? No money in it. Publishing? It's perishing. The hotel business is down the unscrubbed toilet. Most chains have cut maintenance costs by 10 percent. If you stay in a supposedly chic boutique hotel these days it feels about as glamorous as lipstick on someone else's towel.

Things are not helped by the lack of confidence in the administration's new secretary of the treasury, John Snow, who replaced the gaffe-prone Paul O'Neill. As one chairlift-bound hotshot commented with a harsh laugh, "Their first treasury secretary was in aluminum. This one ran a railroad. What's the next one gonna be? A blacksmith?"

The only happy campers are the private equity boys. The companies that were the biggest acquirers, such as Vivendi, AOL Time Warner, Tyco and Enron, are now the biggest sellers. Between them, the three major equity companies -- Blackstone, the Carlyle Group and Texas Pacific -- have a staggering $10 billion of spare cash, or "dry powder" as it's known in the trade, waiting idly for the next round of jumbo leveraged buyouts, soon to be upon us. The first whopper has already happened. The apparently healthy Burger King was snagged by the Texas Pacific Group for the price of a hamburger -- and the seller financed half the acquisition.

The Deer Valley crowd represents the cream of American business. Some were at Yale with George W. Bush or knew him in Houston. At Yale he crossed their paths only as the animal house undergrad from the lucky sperm club. Later he was the amiable but butterfingered businessman who was on the board of such Texas business fiascoes as Caterair, a debt-ridden airline catering company, known as Crater Air after it disclosed $263 million in losses and write-offs. They used to shake their heads and marvel at how he stumbled from one failing oil company to another, beginning with Arbusto -- which lived up to its name.

Now all their businesses depend on his actions and they are surprisingly OK with that. They may liken his diplomacy with the allies to a botched merger, but they give him credit for the way he ran America in its worst crisis in history. After 9/11, he turned out to be a surprisingly effective executive who didn't indulge in endless Clintonian seminars before booting out the Taliban. They think Iraq, too, is "a good bet." The president, after all, is at the helm of one of the few businesses that still works miraculously well, the U.S. military. Bush had a road-to-Damascus experience over 9/11, those who know him say, and he is still in the grip of it.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a recovery technique they call "As If." Every hour of every day, you're supposed to act as if you are a punctual or committed or hardworking or polite person. Sooner or later, if you do it enough, the act will stick and become the truth. Perhaps something like As If has happened in W's case. Which was the truth last week? The steadfast, religious gaze of the president who thanked the nation for lifting him up in prayer, or the accomplished political player who halfway through his speech winked at Sen. Chuck Schumer? Both, probably. There is no doubt that W loved the clarity of the movie role he played after 9/11 -- the inspirational leader with the bullhorn, his arm around a fireman at ground zero, called upon to lead the free world out of its moment of darkness. Dealing with issues of life and death. Liberated from demeaning domestic hassles like unemployment insurance or the dismally unheroic healthcare for seniors. Rumsfeld loved that movie too. Now, with Iraq, they get to do the sequel. "As If" became "I Am."

America is a proactive culture. It is not in its DNA just to wait to get hit again. Bush's popularity, despite the nation's profound doubts about the war, derives from his appeal to a basic American instinct: Do it yourself. It's the same instinct that makes the housewife in Michael Moore's film "Bowling for Columbine" say, as she dandles her baby on her knee, that she carries a gun to protect her family. "I mean, cut out the middleman," she says. Like the police. Or the U.N.

It's nervous-making. One of the young bankers at Deer Valley told how he went to buy a Superman costume for his son's 9th birthday party and found the label weirdly appropriate: "Wearing this Superman costume does not enable purchaser to fly." He was talking about the economy, but he could have been talking about Bush.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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