Me and the S&P

The guy who downgraded America’s credit rating is an old friend of mine. Here’s what he’s like.

S&P’s John Chambers discussing the U.S. credit downgrade on Bloomberg

This will read like a confession: John Chambers, the chairman of Standard and Poor’s sovereign debt committee, which downgraded the nation’s credit rating—pitching global markets into panic and roiling the political battle in Washington—has been my friend for many years.

We were classmates at Grinnell College, in Iowa, in the 1970s, both English majors—hyperstimulated juveniles competitively wringing obscure meanings out of Chaucer and Eliot and then bruising one another in debates carried over from the classroom to the student union.

Bonds formed in that way never quite break, even if years of silence intrude; some time ago we reconnected and now stay in touch. We meet for lunch and email about classmate things: Grinnell’s new president, books we’ve been reading, the lives and careers of friends, their kids and ours—and lately, of course, John’s sudden leap, or plunge, into infamy.

The last time I saw him, in April, John had recently returned from Washington and a tough grind with budget grandees at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Those sessions are reflected in the S&P report released two days before our lunch. That document sent the first tremors of the jolt that came last Friday.

I realize few are in the mood just now for a testament to the sterling character and high moral intelligence of someone absorbing much of the blame for their shriveled stock portfolios and depleted 401(k)s and whom Christiane Amanpour identified on Sunday as “the most disliked man in America right now.” That millions of his fellow citizens should have an opinion at all of John is a remarkable development for some of us—John’s classmates, I mean, particularly his fellow English majors. Even as I’ve been swapping emails with him, I’ve been in almost hourly contact with a handful of them. Together we’ve been parsing John’s TV appearances and public statements, and dissecting the fine points of the S&P report, just as we once parsed Book IV of Paradise Lost (“Infinite wrath and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell”).

Those who lost touch after those ancient days have been acutely studying his video image, peeling away the austere dark suit, the banker’s close haircut flecked with white, in search of the 20-year-old we knew, with his wide-shouldered swimmer’s physique (he was a standout on the one good sports team we had) and flowing golden mane.

Some mostly note the changes, but I’m more struck by how much I recognize. Watching him trade GDP estimates with Peter Orszag on Bloomberg TV, I remembered the same cool actuarial gaze that didn’t waver the time John caught me out in the lie that I’d read Absalom, Absalom.

John, for his part, is treating his newfound villainy with wry humor—even the demonizing reports in the New York Post, which included the address of his apartment building on Riverside Drive. The point, seized on the other night by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, was to depict John as an out-of-touch elitist.

Actually, John is from Kansas—a cluster of towns the U.S. post office labels Shawnee Mission, and not long ago he told me he arrived at Grinnell barely literate, which helps explain the tenacious drive that sent him careering beyond the syllabus into Beckett and Proust and also, with the French he doggedly mastered, into the linguistic maze of post-structuralist theory.

This last will seem a cliché. In his new novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, another heartlander, satirizes the fetish for lit theory at Brown when he was there in the early 1980s. But Grinnell in the mid-1970s was an altogether different place. It had the reputation for being a hippies’ paradise, druggy and cool, and to some extent it was. Yet our tiny egosphere spun on a strangely innocent course. Outside influences, what we called “the real world,” scarcely impinged on us. Once you left campus and the tiny cross-hatched streets of the town, with its Red Wing boot store and exquisite miniature bank designed by Louis Sullivan, and pressed on past the truck stops and the feed stores, you entered a void of cornfields, stretching on for miles beneath an often-lowering sky. The closest true cities, Chicago and Minneapolis, are each almost 300 miles away. Milwaukee and St. Louis are farther still. Even now you have to change planes to get from New York to Des Moines, and it’s another hour by bus to Grinnell.

All this encouraged an atmosphere of curiously monastic devotion to our “work,” as we thought of it, along with an intense belief in privacy and even propriety of a certain kind. When in an email the other day John told me the Post reporter had camped outside his building and was phoning all his neighbors, while a photographer circled nearby, my first thought was that at Grinnell I’d never once seen his dorm room, as I’d not been in the rooms of others I’d known far better. The reason wasn’t timidity or fear of being unwelcome. Twelve hundred young people flung together, jazzed up by all the usual stimulants, we needed clear space and time apart from one another. We developed an unspoken code of deference—a curious but reassuring mix of friendly distance. Everyone said “Hi,” but no one knocked on your door. It was our version of “that weird Midwestern niceness,” as another of our band of English majors put it recently. She grew up in Illinois, an hour from Chicago. Many others, in fact the best of the English majors, came from the Midwest, too: Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota. Some had the uprightness of the Minnesotan Nick Carraway, who longs for the world “to be at a sort of moral attention forever,” others the laconic force of the young stoics in the Illinoisan Hemingway’s early fiction.

These same values infused our impassioned study of English literature, which in those years chiefly meant British poets and novelists along with civic-minded critics like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold. I have remarked on the limitations of this particular approach to literary study, its stickling axioms and ecclesiastical certitudes. What I didn’t say is how intoxicating it could be to learn to read in this way, how it left so many of us convinced that literary study, which some thought an escape from life, instead could yield up its deepest truths. It made us permanent close readers—and not just of books.

The supreme Midwestern novelist of our moment, Jonathan Franzen, who grew up in the same St. Louis neighborhood as one of my English-major pals, is especially eloquent on the paradoxical condition of being raised in the deep heart of America. “You are just so far from a border or a coast,” Franzen once told an interviewer, “that the possibility of cynicism takes just a little longer. … I know that I was an unbelievably innocent 18 year old in every way. But not stupid and not unaware of the world . … I somehow still thought it was a nice world.”

I have never heard John Chambers plead innocence of any kind, and he isn’t doing it now. And I have never heard him complain. When I asked him what he thought of Paul Krugman’s column on Monday, John acknowledged it was “rough,” but added “I read him regularly, both in the Times and on his blog. I’ve also read a good deal of his academic work and even his textbook.” He is still the student, even of his harshest critics.

There has been much dispute about the budget calculations in the S&P report. But not about its language. John has told me the most important thing Grinnell taught him was how to write a well-argued paper. He learned his lesson well. The S&P report, whatever one thinks of its conclusions, is a model of clarity. Even an English major like me has no trouble making sense of the following: “The effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy-making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” Or: “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” John Chambers is now the author of a work being dissected as closely as the poems we quarreled about all those years ago, though for reasons neither of us could have imagined.