Louis the Second

Welcome to the private sector, Mr. Rukeyser.

Louis Rukeyser, an oldie-but-goodie
Bullish Gibbs and her bear of a co-host, Colvin

Louis Rukeyser, the esteemed host of Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street (CNBC), which premiered on April 19, looks like he belongs to another time: He has sad, collapsing eyes, a formal bearing, and motionless white hair, the color and texture of a powdered wig. The papers keep reporting that he is still very, very angry to have been fired from his old show, Wall $treet Week (PBS), and that he’s calling for resignations and apologies, but he looks none the worse for the ordeal. His semimuted vanity and his trademark grandpa routines are intact. In fact, his recent choler may explain only improvements in his complexion, which used to be cadaverous and now glows with a warm retiree’s tan, thanks no doubt to the NBC dermatology squad at his service. Welcome to the private sector, Mr. Rukeyser. Rukeyser’s new sky-high living room, which commands a view of a photograph of the Chrysler building and dimly recalls the apartment in Hitchcock’s Rope, makes his new show feel just like it should: like a cocktail party with very rich people. As the viewer, you’re the caterer, listening for tips. The opening monologue is still original, enjoyable, and senile, though recently Rukeyser’s been leaning on an old toastmaster’s trick. He retails a vivid line or two about corruption, long-term investing, or fickle markets, and then asks, “Was this written today?” After a brief pause: No! It was written 25 years ago—50 years ago—a century ago! Plus ça change. Last week Rukeyser even said, “1912—I remember it well.”He also revels in opulent understatement. Two weeks ago he reported, “This week we learned that WorldCom had made a very slight arithmetical error in its petty cash accounting: a mere $3.8 billion or so.” How Rukeyser loves that strenuous “mere”—and who can begrudge him the pleasure? (A joke I like less is Rukeyser’s favorite one-liner, which he addresses lately to his fund-manager guests: “What do you advise people to buy now, assuming anyone you’ve advised has any money left?” At which point, he and the guest laugh so hard and raucously that I almost have to turn away.) With his attachment to playing things down, Rukeyser disdains others who hype the exceptionality of any market, bull or bear. Last Friday, he pointedly criticized market sophomores for ignorance and alarmism. “Many investors were asking whether there has ever been such a hostile and skeptical attitude before now. The answer, as it happens—and this, apparently, will surprise many of those without long experience in the market—is, ’Yes.’ “As this shtick suggests, Rukeyser is very serious about being old. He has made a watchword of “trust” on his new show, implying with every reference to economic history (and his own history) that only he can be trusted because even, say, your bosses and your colleagues and public television will betray you in the end. This approach beautifully suits today’s angry investors. Rukeyser speaks as a representative of routine, diligence, and temperance—old money, which now seems like an excellent thing to have. In contrast, the aggressive premiere of Rukeyser’s PBS replacement, Wall $treet Week With Fortune, lacked both rigor and humor. Following a forgettable, ‘90s-looking opening—images of the Wall Street bull, young brokers dashing around—two hosts stepped out of the dark parlor set: Geoff Colvin and Karen Gibbs, financial journalists connected to Fortune magazine (a bonus twist: Rukeyser’s brother William was a managing editor at the magazine). On their first evening together, Colvin and Gibbs split an opening monologue, during which Colvin’s voice cracked like a teen-ager’s and Gibbs acted recessive and smiley. Describing himself, Colvin said, “I think the new investigation of investment bankers by New York’s attorney general [indicates] a complete system failure.” Next Gibbs stepped up: “And I think there may be more than a few bad apples out there, but American managers on the whole are still honest and ethical.” Finally, they agreed (weakly): “There’s still long-term value to be found.” OK, we got it. I’m bear; I’m bull. I’m white; I’m black. I’m man; I’m woman. We’re all lit in TV orange. Colvin and Gibbs summarized the week’s market, with elementary Ross-Perot-style graphics showing a steep decline in everything. That night they had booked the generally impressive and preternaturally telegenic former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who, disappointingly, was nervous and didn’t seem to be sharing everything on his mind. He used Geoff’s and Karen’s first names so many times it seemed coached. And although he emphasized the need for reform in accounting, he could propose only “oversight” as a solution. Neither Colvin nor Gibbs pressed him. I imagine this will be the chief problem with Wall $treet Week With Fortune. Colvin and Gibbs don’t have the stage presence to disarm their guests or pry them away from truisms. Rukeyser, by contrast, can undo an arrogant kid or a blowhard plutocrat with a well-placed, just-curious question (typically, “But what about how all your predictions have been wrong?”). On Rukeyser’s new show, if he himself doesn’t get the guest with a good question, he gives his other guests chances to nail each other. The second episode of the Fortune show, on July 5, was less intelligent than the first. For one thing, mauve was everywhere—on lips, ties, all over the Ethan Allen set. Moreover, somberness had gone out with the orange: Colvin and Gibbs were practically hysterical about the market’s July 5 rebound. Rukeyser, over on CNBC, considered it a blip, but the Fortune duo was popping corks. Soaring! Bright! Celebrate! Explosive rally! They flipped through a series of charts showing the deep V of all the major indexes: Stocks were down and then, yes, up. Gibbs went through the list of corporate firings as if she was calling off raffle winners. Colvin then pulled out the show’s high card: their “All-Star” investment team. “Best on Wall Street—here to play ball.”After evaluating thousands of stock analysts, Fortune has settled on an elite clique whose stock picks will appear on the show and the show’s Web site. Individually, the analysts are just more analysts, but the idea of this team is impressive. To assemble it, Fortune had, we viewers were told last week, done months of work—way more than one man of 70 could do. The terms of the battle are clear: Rukeyser has his integrity. And Fortune has its manpower. So: Buy or sell on these shows? Here’s my equivocation: Both shows need to maximize their assets. No more lawsuits, trash-talk, or offscreen vengefulness from Rukeyser. (If the market works as he says it does, the better show will win out.) As for the entrepreneurs at Fortune, they need better writers—and they need to grill these wily “advisers” harder and perform sustained, clever, and relentless audits. Finance and the individual investor, as subjects for television, offer endless opportunities for gripping melodrama, not to mention genuinely useful parables about avoiding both hubris and diffidence. In good financial shows like both of Rukeyser’s, the American market is invoked with awe and irony: It is our own Mother Nature, savage, heartless, bountiful, mischievous, not to be fooled with. In this context, the little guy, the caterer, is trying to take care of his family, save for his retirement, buy himself a Nissan. This American story—the pride of such homegrown writers as Frank Norris and Thoedore Dreiser—is a great one, if told well. Maybe the Fortune people will find a way to tell it well, too. Still, what a quarter we’ve had. Only in this topsy-turvy market could CNBC end up with the blue chip, and PBS with telecom and biotech.