Wall Street Icon John Whitehead Feared No Bullies

Back in 2005 New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as opposed to the former governor with a penchant for prostitutes. Indeed, if you worked on Wall Street back then Spitzer  was a scary guy; he loved headlines and press conferences during which he would publicly lambaste his targets. Spitzer wasn’t much for the presumption of innocence -- just ask the people he went after, several of whom would ultimately be exonerated.

To say most of the Wall Street establishment cowered in fear of Eliot Spitzer would be an understatement; to say John Whitehead laughed in the face of Spitzer’s threats wouldn’t be.

I met Whitehead back in 2005; I had been covering an accounting fraud case brought by Spitzer against former American International Group chief Hank Greenberg, who received the full-on Spitzer treatment. During a television interview Spitzer accused Greenberg of fraud even before filing charges. Whitehead took issue with such an abuse of power, penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed, and with that he became a target of the so-called sheriff.

The story I heard from several sources went something like this; the 83-year-old Whitehead, the former head of Goldman Sachs who not only survived years of Wall Street but commanded a boat that landed on Normandy Beach during D-Day, was sitting in his car when the telephone rang. It was Spitzer, who quickly dispensed with any pleasantries and launched a diatribe about Whitehead’s column, taking particular umbrage at Whitehead’s critique of Spitzer’s behavior.

Spitzer finally hung up, Whitehead had told people, but not before he uttered this threat:  “I’m coming after you.”

Great story, if I could get Whitehead to cooperate, which he wouldn’t -- at least at first. Until one day he finally picked up his phone and I asked him if he could just verify what I had been hearing. Whitehead sat and listened and then told me calmly that, yes,  indeed that’s how it went down. I asked if him he was scared, and that‘s when he began to laugh, making the following statement: “I survived World War II, I can survive Eliot Spitzer.”

I told him I was going on air with what happened (I worked at another business network at the time). Spitzer, I should point out, denied the account, which I found incredulous since if you know anything about John Whitehead it’s that lying isn’t in his vocabulary. Whitehead then asked me who at the Wall Street Journal he should contact so he could put the episode in his own words in another Op Ed.  I directed him to a reporter and the next day his column appeared under the headline “Scary.”

I always thought that was an odd headline for a column about Whitehead’s Spitzer experience because this was a guy who was never scared to stand up for what he believed in, especially when it came to a tyrannical bully like Spitzer. I got to know Whitehead a little better as the years went on. He was a gentleman of the no-bullshit school. He helped build Goldman Sachs, but you would never know it from his demeanor. He served in the battle of battles during World War II but never bragged about it.

Spitzer used cases like the one against Greenberg to become New York State governor, but in short order he was exposed for all his shortcomings. The Spitzer governorship was marked by his inability to do anything concrete other than start fights, even with members of his own party. He used state resources to spy on a political opponent, and then was caught sleeping with prostitutes, prompting his resignation.

During this time his case against Greenberg—who had been forced to resigned from AIG—was whittled away by the courts to almost nothing. A shell of it still exists, which Greenberg is still fighting, but the case in its current  form is a far cry from the sensational charges unleashed by Spitzer years ago, which Whitehead had the guts to fight.

It’s easy to mock Spitzer now; he’s a shell of his former self. But Whitehead did it when it mattered and people should have listened to him back then.

John Whitehead died over the weekend at the age of 92. He survived the Great Depression as a child, then World War II and later built one of the world’s great investment firms. In retirement, he worked in government and dedicated his life to philanthropy and public service.

And he wasn’t afraid to take on a bully.