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tv   Book TV  CSPAN  April 18, 2010 10:00am-11:15am EDT

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but we've got even more -- even freer capital. so there is no question that it is more global. i think one of the interesting things -- and i've never really quite figured out the answer to this, charles kindleberger who wrote a fantastic book and was the inspiration for this book, what the world needs -- the global economy needs is one country to act as a leader. that in times of distress, you need one country to do more than its fair share of causing the economy to recover. of sort of acting as the locomotive for world economic growth. and he argued in the '20s and '30s, britain had served that function before the first world war. britain was no longer able to.
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and the u.s. was too insular and parochial too. -- to. so britain could not and the u.s. would not. the question now is, you know, are we in a position -- 'cause to be a leader, you actually are going to do more than your fair share. you're going to basically say small countries are going to freeload off me but that's my job. that's the one question that i have about this -- you know, if it keeps me up at night in this current crisis. >> host: the subject of your next book. it's fascinating and your timing is exquisite. and i appreciate you taking this time to help educate us on what happened and what happen now. thank you very much. >> gue: thank you. ...
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>> "the first tycoon" takes its place this year as the biography of record, one of the greatest and most selected figures in american business history. cornelius vanderbilt's career in shipping, railroad and finance spent an incredible epic in the industrial development of this nation. from the very beginnings of steam powered transportation to tying together of the entire north american continent in a steel web of rail. as t.j. stiles writes, a few 19th century businessman equals bad about in his impact in american history. and of those who did, arguably none proved to be so influential and so fundamental a level over
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a period so, did for so long. born in 1794, the commodores live to be 82 and played a significant role in so many of the leading events in his tumultuous life. from the beginning of steamboat travel on the hudson river, to the seminal supreme court case, given the ogden right to regulate interstate commerce and destroying the revenue of feudal culture in america, to transatlantic travel, the california gold rush and the growth of the united states to a continental nation. the start of travel across central america and a planting of the sea that was to become the panama canal. the crushing of the notorious american filibuster, william walker, in his attempted up scarred with the country of nicaragua. the construction of the confederate ironclad merrimack and the safeguarding of the union gold shipment, the fabled stock manipulation of the gary mill road and the birth of modern corporation. the consolidation of the great
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new york rail lines in the unarmed new york central and hudson river railroad. the growth of new city and to the first day of america. and at major world of a finance and trade complete with its first grand central station. vanderbilt played a major part in all of these events, and more. as t.j. stiles writes the commodores live left his mark on america's most basic beliefs about equality and opportunity did he start a business at the very epitome of the jacksonian ideal am a working man's desiring only a level playing field to compete against the vested interest that he ended it as a symbol of any quality of unmovic as the gilded age, would've made americans question for the first time the dangers of didacticism and business. is testament and acquainting americans with the very idea of the modern corporation of the enormous be depersonalized business entity. what cornelius vanderbilt was a young man americans work almost exclusively as farmers and small
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businessmen and what money they saw was mostly solid going. corporations were a rarity. entities of direction for multis to complete large public projects such as roads or cannot ask before being disbanded. by the time and about died, americans have been introduced to paper money in stocks and bonds, and even more abstract representations of wealth. even if they were still uneasy about it, getting more uneasy all the time. vanderbilt owned life served as an epic within the epic. he start out as a teenage farmboy with a few years of grade school education saving a homemaker across new york harbor from staten island that by the time of his death he was estimated to be the second richest man in america with a fortune of roughly $100 million. to give you an idea of what that meant, if vanderbilt had somehow been able to liquidate his and entire estate he would've received one out of every $9 then in circulation. by way of comparison, if bill
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gates were 57 billion at the height of his precrash wealth in september 2008, had been able to liquidate all his estate, he would have been entitled to one out of every $138 in circulation. he did not come by this money easily. vanderbilt was a tough, capable and stunningly intelligent man, and his life was one of almost constant competition. he fought in almost every arena been available from this lives on the new york talks to racing a steam boats up the hudson, defining and defending himself countless lawsuits, to badly for the business of dozens of steam ship and rail lines that ran from connecticut to california, london to panama. launching endless coups on wall street and corporate boardrooms to along the upper reaches of what was then the bloomingdale road. contest that went on at least under two occasions in his old age left him pitched out head first on the road and what looked to be fatal accidents.
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he was a hard man who was hard on those around them. including a wife he seems to driven to a sanitarium sanitarium, sons in law who served as a personal minions but felt the need to concentrate prove their worth. daughters who spent his second wife and bitterly contested his will, a sudden suffered a nervous breakdown and put up with all manner of insult to win his confidence, and his place as his successor. and two more sons who lived tragic lives and never did gain his approval. he was also a man capable of love, great works of charity in the last years of his life and even of sentiment. as witnessed by his repeated attempts to contact old friends and loved ones through séances that it is both a great personal and the public story and t.j. stiles is done a magnificent job of guiding us through a life crowd with events and with a wonderfully named -- colorful supporting cast full of such mcentee names as james baker, henry cruise, george law,
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fernando wood, frank work, simon chase, daniel drew, big jim fisk, jake gold, emily thorne, curtis peck, tennessee class on, vettori woodhall, erastus korn, chauncey debut, horace greeley, augusta show, john green, or and that more and. am i pronouncing that right? and horace clarke, to name just a few. in short, is a is a terrific read. -- is a terrific read. so james once wrote of the young thomas jefferson, that along with his command, five foreign-language is, he could catch a late and eclipse, survey and the state, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dancy menu at and play the violin.
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in the same thing one could say that cornelius vanderbilt could design a steamship, sale it over open ocean and jungle rapids, racy champion horse, run a shipping line, consolidate a railroad, short a stock, rader corporation to lobby president, build a rail depot, found a university and raise an army, and all before lunch time. [laughter] >> justice goes i think there's a great deal about what america became in his time and who ran it. but i think also in view of what's going on in the country's economy and on wall street over the last few months, doing general motors, mended plan for some rescue, for example, which it revised the miles per gallon of its future cars are expected to get downward, anyone has seen that comparing these executives with their bonuses for going bankrupt i think is tempted to look at a vanderbilt or morgan or carnegie or a henry ford and ask, what happened? how did we go from bad to this?
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>> well, presidential candidate to debate. first of all thank you for having me. as jeanne mentioned i was a fellow at coleman center and was an end of experience in without which my book would have been possible. very much thank you to it is definitely the many steps department, a lot of them are here. you do superb work. is want to make that very important thank you. that different, that transition is visible during vanderbilt's life. and what did i point out that vanderbilt himself with both the pioneer paving the way toward the corporate future and also in some ways representative of an older business world. he served as the merchant print. by creating this huge corporation, the new york and hudson railroad, it was i think in many ways kind of pioneer of the giant corporations we have
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been talking about. but his primary rival was the pennsylvania railroad. one of the before primary railroads in the country after the civil war called the trunk lines that the pennsylvania railroad is very interesting because its managers represent very much kind of the modern model of management. and their managers were mentors. thomas a scot who was superintendent and vice president of the railroad of njn good times and eric and and a belt with someone who purchase a controlling share of the stock and the corporation, moved into management, and then what he would do is he would not take a salary. he would take only remuneration through dividend on his stock that this is of course a model he moved away from. now he expects stocks and shares to grow in value. there are dividends but that's not the primary interest. at the time it was the primary
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thing investors look for. steady return every year in dividends that vanderbilt had to make his railroads stay. yet to make it profitable year in and year out to get any money out of it. by contrast the pennsylvania railroad to the also pay dividends am a fairly successful at up to point. this is just explain this up mostly how stocks work at the time. you mostly paid dividends. investors weren't so concerned with a stock going up or down, just making it sure it paid them. >> prices tended to fluctuate but you didn't see steady ever increasing growth. as a matter of fact, it would have been fishy. people would've thought the wooden dealings going on. and so the pennsylvania railroad had these professional managers who were not majority shareholders. what they did is they did things to make money out of the railroad on the side. they were pioneers of the show corporation. thomas a scot was famous in one case for getting him he was so
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politically influential that he got a bill to the pennsylvania legislature and he got the governor to sign a 34 mins after it was introduced. so they were very powerful, and they would use their political influence to set the shell corporations and they would file the railroads business through the corporation corporations so they controlled come and in many ways like this, they would funnel money out of the company. and they ran fairly well up to a point. but when the panic of 1873 hit, their railroad had stopped being dividends and the shareholders finally begin to look at what they were doing that vanderbilt railroads continue to pay dividends. as he ran, they were personal property and so how did we get here? you see the origins of that within vanderbilt's lifetime, the separation of management of ownership. and owners and shareholders who weren't paying attention and that creates an incentive for the agent for running the company to start to engage in stuff on the side and not to be
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looking over toward the long-term health of the company. it's an incentive but it isn't guaranteed. you see that origin. >> what has been the always seem to have been amazingly hands-on. >> i think that's true. at the end of his life, much less during when he was a railroad chief, he testified before a state legislative committee that they said are you a practical matter, are you someone who is outside tying tables? he said not a i don't manage anything. and that's not entirely true because what he thought something was wrong all of a sudden he was on top of it. and people felt his wrath of which the onset and abundance. but for the most part when he got the railroad years, he relinquished operational control, but he always had that and was watching. >> it seemed able to outcompete other lines, whether steamships or on the road, always had that
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certain how expenses could be cut at how customers could be lured away. >> it's not a very sexy subject, but that's a consistent trait that you see in managers of successful managers, the most successful so-called robber barons. rockefeller, because cost and they were more successful than their rivals at cutting costs. and vanderbilt once said if you could run a steamship or a railroad, for a 20% less than the guy who ran it before him or someone running alongside him, that he should just close up and go out of business. >> when you have the start of the grange and the spotless movements from out west, we have a huge complaint against the railroad which is preferential and often secret pricing system with their moving so people's good for free and and about as asked for and he said basically fine, we be happy to compete on an equal basis. no problem with that. >> what they're saying is that complaining about the special
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legislation. railroads get special laws passed in certain states. and vanderbilt, his or sponsor out to the complaint was great, as long as those are the same for everybody i'm on board. you know, as long as the rules on the same i can beat anyone. >> in that sense, but was a very rough-and-tumble business time with few defined business or public ethics, you get the sense he really was something of an honorable man in a sense i had at least some of his own sense of honor and how he conducted business. >> that's a really interesting trait of his. because his business peers had sort of love-hate is a long way to go, i don't think anyone will object to that. was in business with him, but one of the things, one of the reasons why the book is longer than it might have been is i try to write more than a business
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story. it's about the making of modern culture. you allude in your comments to the end of sort of the traces of feudalism, the culture of deference. that was held over in the 19 center for while from the 18th century. and in vanderbilt's very first years in a steamboat, i found these letters from these old families say they are undercutting prices. it's scandalous that have ever heard anything so scandalous. they're cutting prices. competition is awful. and the idea of an individualistic competitive economy where it was basically no holds barred was this major cultural shift, and actually gordon wood talks about this, the pistons wasn't just business. it was changing america culture but the idea of individualism and competitiveness was a huge shift and vanderbilt was a much in the forefront. but meanwhile, there was a new
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code of honor that was emerging and it was sort of like the good sportsmanship almost in a way. and rather than let's cut deals with each other, which they did do also, but it's a long story, read the book. but the new code was more about rather than a gentlemanly code, he was kind of like a fair fight code. and he very much stuck to that and he would say, there are letters here in the library was something i sent for vanderbilt, we made a deal and i wanted it in writing. no, you know that my word is as good as my bond. it's very important to him did develop that reputation. >> it's interesting as you say, you have all these what is there might be putting a ferry boat across the peers so the other guys ferryboat couldn't die. tear up or burn down the other guys very station might be okay. he is really crazy races down, one thing, there's that insane
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race between henry clay and the other steamship down the hudson which lasts all day. is amazingly wild race. they're basically throwing people off the boat at the stops because they're racing each other. at the end of his the henry clay's boiler explodes and kills like a hundred 50 people or something. right outside junkers. this was basic commuter transportation at the time. >> like rival subway trains. and not only that it was a spectator sport. it really mattered to people that they were on the fastest boat. >> the ones who weren't panicked and hang on for dear life were cheering on their steamboat. >> to set the passage, the one who are excited about the raising and the ones who insist on being towed behind a boat so they would be close to the border. >> in your book, but that was, all that, we know sort of in a kind of consciously reworked
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sense of awe. that was okay. but then all of these people end up respecting the commodore who are fighting them to the death or steamship lines and realize. but then you get down to jake gold and big jim fisk, who seems to just hated. and a lot of people seem to have hated. because they stepped over the whole pound. >> and that's interesting, too, in the sense that you go from this early era of a steamboat for a lot of business reasons, really very competiticompetitive origin, competition oriented business because steamboats weren't that expensive. big piece of capital, physical capital. you could move it between markets. if you are competing for a while, you either want or lost that you could just take it somewhere else. one of my favorite examples of that era is, that's in the book,
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is in 1838, the staten island ferry owner ordered his captain of his fairies to ram a rival very. and i found these court accounts of people who are on that ferry, and is unbelievable. >> and and he almost did. >> and a passenger on the other very when they got to staten island, they ripped down at their house and nearly murdered to get into the present that unbelievable. it was good for the railroad era. and what's different about railroads? they are fixed piece of infrastructure so you have a price war but what could happen at the end? you have to come to some sort of terms because the other guy is still there. and due to the nature of railroads, because they were so capital intensive and larger workforce, that even if you had no business at all, you're running hardly any trade, your fixed expenses from just maintain and having a railroad
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were nervously high. they didn't go up very much when you start to run more and more trains. to a railroad that was in bad shape would cut prices, even if they were losing money, it is better than losing even more money from not having the business. so railroads, they are stuck. there isn't intended to undercut prices. so vanderbilt takes part in something that started before his time, which is gentlemen's agreements. what you had in early america under the culture of deference, reappears because of business logic we have these cartels. they had elaborate cartels got what they had commissioned and they would hire a commissioner, fire people from individual railroads who were undercutting prices. and at the same time are usually vanderbilt himself by the end of his life is rising in social stature. and so, he has taken on a business that is sort of inclined towards gentlemanly agreements is the nature of the business. and he himself is becoming more
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and more gentlemanly and sell. toward the end of his life, his personality, his demeanor was much more defined that he was when he was a young steamboat captain. personal business parallel, and then jay gould and jim this come along, brash upstart and they are doing things like telling about secret deals to the press, they are delivery trying to insult and demean the commodore. and he became sort of obsessed with them. gave in to their railroad, the erie, was never much in a position to do an on farm, it became kind of his famous rapper in the american press between the business didn't. >> and they start printing, stock certificates to make a pretty press and start earning stock certificates without anything behind them. just pure larceny. these are no envoy. they flee at some point. they avoid actual jail time over the some of. >> they were strict laws that
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regulate how much down, how much education of economy. business on the i don't need to go up to him on stage, but it has to do with all kind of cultural ferment around the rise of securities. people felt that stock a share of stock ribs and $100 worth of fixed capital. it was represented something tangible and real. so when you increase the number of shares without building new businesses, new physical infrastructure, it was widely seen but even the most intellectual figures as fraud. and so when vanderbilt got in the business fight with jay gould and jim fisk over the erie really, they started and he was trying to corner the market, they just are printing shares like crazy. and it was very famous episode where vanderbilt got a judge to issue arrest warrants. who they are, they are office on the leading largest corporation in america. scampered onto a ferry and racing away from the place was
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literally build greenbacks and stock, and they set up shop in what they called port ann taylor. over in new jersey. the garden state welcome them and they did a corporation in new jersey. and so to try to sell them out of, jay gould literally went to albany with a suitcase full of cash, and there are some hilarious figures from the newark legislature who could see both sides of the issue, depending how big is the case was. [laughter] >> and it finally, vanderbilt miraculously managed to force them to back a lot of what he lost it it's an incredible episode spirit and he can never forgive them for. he would try to contact big jim fisk. >> one of my favorite example of that, about the time of the civil war is when vanderbilt started to go to the séances. and as i pointed in the book the high point. the civil war, the better part
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of a million people died. so people start to go to meetings all the time to contact the dead. and i don't think, vanderbilt deathly did. i don't think you do any business, based in e-business decisions on these and thank you. not all because he continued to be successful, i person to believe in spiritualism side don't believe they're contacting the dead. i think they're saying about nonsense when they would conjure up it goes. and the concluded that to him until he went. there's a great incident you're referring to what he called up the ghost of jim fisk after jim fisk had been shot by the rival of his mrs. so he asked him a few questions about stock and, of course, the edges made no sense at all. vanderbilt said what are you talking about? all right, we will see who's right, you are me. he is arguing with the ghost of jim fisk. then they start to joke with each of the how to like thing on the other side? this cassette you will find out soon enough. so it's a hilarious incident and
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it shows he found comfort with seances but i don't think he made any decisions on it. but that rivalry, there's a quote that i never found, a good source for it. for bad about saying like so many of vanderbilt coach, but it's a one of my favorites because it does summarize his attitude towards jay gould that he supposedly said it never pays to kick us can't. i unfortunate i wish i could document it. i couldn't document it. i looked it up in a book i would tell you now. because it was his attitude towards jay gould. >> a good attitude to have. >> in the end though i have to say in the most important battles he even held his own our came off a little better with jay gould. jay gould managed to embarrass him, which is one of the reasons why he was so embittered about him. for example, during one rate war
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the erie railway, jay gould and jim fisk cut the price of cattle cars from the western of course the other railroad car. finally, the new york central railroad went from i do not want a $50 a car per capita, 21-dollar a carpet some he was equally jay gould and jim fisk were buying thousands of heads of cattle out in chicago and they were shipping it over the new center for almost nothing. and once they did they made a loud announcement to the president they could make a profit. they had to embarrass vanderbilt. it's in business a trivial dispute. but it was that kind of getting under his skin that drove him nuts. and by contrast, something we talked about before, with other businessmen they would have vicious fight and then they would end up being friends afterward. >> not personal. it's business. and it's funny, because the story showed the whole span of vanderbilt live in that he's one of the people is competing against daniel true, notorious
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character, who supposedly, probably not true, but started watering stock, by driving little stock into new york. that's a you got beef to market in the early 19 change. you go down it and he was supposedly getting lots of salt and water it at the collect on, which is where the court houses are now in downtown. he would try to cow down there, they would pick up water and gone. that was became the five the 5.0 the whole city grew up around you. and by the end of his career, he is fighting in these wars over transporting, unit, cattle by the thousands halfway across the country. the change of the railroad have brought. but talk about another skunk for a moment, william walker, who was what was called a filibust filibuster, have to do with the senatorial maneuver, but at the
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time referred to kind of a free putter, somebody who would go down and try to take over a country. it's quite a rashid in the 1840s and '50s, american cities i to go down, often a handful of mercenaries and maybe start fighting in a civil war in a latin american country and then try to take it over. and it's considered a great thing by kind of southern confederate leaning individuals who thought this would be a natural feel to expand slavery. . .
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walker and the dup landing in san francisco, he needed to mexico on successfully and then he got a contract to fight for one side and the not barack when civil war so they sell-off with 67 men to fight for one side and nicaragua's almost perpetual war in nicaragua was a country where two times in vanderbilt's life he made radical changes in his career and the california gold rush was the first where he'd been involved in steamboat lines at of new york in the northeast then when the gold rush started he abruptly got out and went into transatlantic and kalif
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donna -- california down steamships. the main route of congress -- migration was steamship down to panama crossing at panama, up to another steamship on the pacific and vanderbilt started a rival line across nicaragua but could get funding. they would carry people across the waterways of nicaragua by boat to, very successful. he sold out, went on a grand tour of europe and then started to buy control of this company the accessory transit company, once again. at the moment he was doing that walker sell-off to nicaragua and by lot he was a terrible -- >> you say it consisted of a frontal attacks against completely well dug-in positions. >> which reflected the filibuster attitude, the north american attitude toward latin america was we are americans so
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one of us is worth 10 of them so even though he dug in behind fortified walls and has a rifle, go get your americans. fortunately once he'd buy loch really carries the one maneuver, by lackey manages to win, by lack of a leading general and head of state for his side it dies and he has that been the straw man. can't even speak spanish. he is the strongman in nicaragua and thousands of americans excited by the success want to come down and made while this is a story which completely overturns the core presumptions of how this played out. the papers i found, legal papers a lawyer has in the manuscript is department, most people said vanderbilt's rivals within the company knew he was taking control so they convinced walker, give us control of the
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rights of carrying passengers and then we will bring a free reinforcements and vanderbilt realized he was betrayed. in fact, a friend of walker's went to the san francisco agent of the company, garrison, one and set be trained vanderbilt and says you're company's going to be destroyed. how do you know? walker is my friend and i'm going to tell him to destroy it and i think he's going to give me the rights. if you do i will give the rights to you. there was this hilarious exchange where garrison is said, well, i can do anything against the company but if they fall i don't want to fall with them so okay. this whole story plays out with these political correct figures cover the self-interest of characters who are woven through the 1850's especially. it was a political corruption and walker carried off nicaragua. so walker does this then gives
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the right to vanderbilt's enemies who become his enemies and vanderbilt tries to get -- they destroy the company as vanderbilt buys control and vanderbilt unsuccessfully tried to get the u.s. government and the british to intervene. >> walker brings back slavery in nicaragua, horrible unbelievable how. >> he had no interested in that, he had this napoleonic vision he would, for all of latin america so needless to say the neighbors of nicaragua got worried about him so vanderbilt carried out this private foreign-policy and negotiated with the neighbors. he sent off and found this guy who had been acquitted of murder when he was a first mate, because no one saw him do it, came out and the captain had been bludgeoned to death. vanderbilt sent him to nicaragua with a crate of gold and a bunch
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arrivals and led a commando raid, wonderful scenes, seized all the steamboats and cut off walker from his reinforcements. it really is something out of the conrad novel and is remarkable. >> war marquez. >> this one american captain scott was down there and that vanderbilt owes him money from something so because of this his obstructing everything vanderbilt is doing or refusing to hand over these ships and is pulling out until vanderbilt pays him mack. >> the entire war, thousands of people would have lived if vanderbilt sent out a guy initially to said tell us got to that i own the company can take control of the steamboats, the british have a fleet and would have protected the steamboats from walker, and would have cut everything off almost at the beginning. in this local guy who vanderbilt hired when he was 17 years old steamboat captain said, hell no,
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ibm 017,000 for the company and until i am paid of not cooperating so as a result of this entire international war involving three countries plays out. then later when they win the war and vanderbilt's sends out a man they chased him off with a revolvers and i'm going to shoot unless you pay me. this one on known character because of his personal debts that hasn't been paid as upstaging the history of 45 countries. >> almost seems like vanderbilt himself. probably most logical to go through nicaragua in terms of the water was available. >> it seems that way. i don't know the later history of what happened. i do know that one of the consequences of this entire episode in which william walker reinstitute slavery in nicaragua what vanderbilt found when he tried to get the business going
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again, he won the war, the nicaraguans wouldn't allow him to carry passengers across nicaragua and then said we just can't accept the idea of north americans coming in in large numbers again. we almost lost our nationality and a can do it. >> one of walker's things in the midst of this he ends up burning down most of the capital in horrible defense and ruined the country. >> absolutely, it was devastating. truly international criminal. he was a doctor of evil in his day. >> we have completely blank from our past and doesn't exist in america anymore. and was made into a very bad -- with a very weird ed harris marlee matlin a movie several years ago. >> a movie with a message with helicopters. >> and cars, very strange movie. another part of vanderbilt's --
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vanderbilt at war, the whole thing in which you went to fight with the merrimac which is the first ironclad the confederacy had billed which was threatening the entire civil war plan of the union to basically blockade the south and all of a sudden the south has built this ironclad ship that can sink two american warships immediately, it looks in vulnerable with cannon shells bursting -- bouncing off it's so vanderbilt has come up with his own ship to come back this. >> yes and again this goes to the kind of complex nature of vanderbilt because he was somebody who firmly -- i'm sure he never read adam smith but he firmly believed in the invisible hand and he believed that we made progress in society by everybody pursuing their own interests as fiercely as possible. he firmly believed that it's almost my duty as a citizen, you pursue your interest and you
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fight for them and he thought that's what everybody should do, but one of the exceptions to that is he was deeply patriotic and he named -- he had three sons and named them as i put after his heroes: george washington, william henry harrison cornelius vanderbilt. [laughter] so when the civil war came around he tries to give his largest steamship which cost nearly a million dollars, he tried to give it to the union navy and they said no. of the secretary of the navy was prickly and didn't think the war would last that long, it's going to be a white elephant for the navy and said no. so vanderbilt and the data being forced actually against his will to lease for a very large sums to the war department, complicated story that will have a free market people shaking their head in. because it really was a crazy results, but then the merrimac as you put it came steaming out
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of north harbor and since these union ships and the monitor came down the union ironclad, battles to a standstill and the version is and a story but at that point there was only one ship that could handle the merrimac and if the monitor has simple mechanical breakdown would have been helpless. >> so secretary of war stanton telegraphed vanderbilt and said can you help so he rushed to washington and met with lincoln himself and lincoln said what can you do. he said i will output by largest in ship and bring it down so that probably what will happen is they won't risk the merrimac against it and bottled up in port. that's actually what and of that happening so lincoln said how much will you charge a said its free. within a few days he outfitted with a ram, did various things to protect it from a shot and shell and brought down personally with extraordinary authority from lincoln two
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personally decide how to be deployed. some the union met with him, they said you can't take it and that's how it worked basically allowing up the merrimac and never did frisket against the vanderbilt. >> it was much faster than the merrimac and had a rinceau could maneuver and possibly iran at. >> or simply running down and sink it. then he requested as a cruiser to go after the confederate, straighter alabama and my chapter on the civil war there is this whole long distance duel between capt. sans of the alabama who wants to get revenge against teeone for giving this expensive shipped to the union navy and he -- there's a great little story that played out as a result of that. >> a hard man to live with it seems, hard man on his family, constantly -- you can't that he took out a lot of his possibly
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business anxieties at home. and was briefly hard on his son's -- one of them to live up to a standard he himself set. so the oldest william has a breakdown after working for a short time on wall street ended starts a farm on staten island. that's very successful. and he eventually comes back and inherits most of the fortune and the business, but the other two, cornelia's, is an epileptic and has a huge gambling problem and is kind of a ne'er-do-well his whole life. and then george washington vanderbilt is almost mysterious, signs up for the -- goes to west point and then is in the union army, but goes awol. >> he actually -- something that i found on the national archives with the help of the staff
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there, the august sun george washington vanderbilt was by all accounts his pride and enjoy because of the three sons he was the only one who like vanderbilt himself was athletic. vanderbilt was somebody of immense personal capabilities. 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, straight as an indian standing straight and tall as his longtime kirk put it. this was a guy who got involved in the end one fist fights into his fifties. he was not just good in business, he was also a good card player, an excellent source research, somebody who was always out to compete and win under all circumstances and hear his sons were, one as he put it is a gambling addict and epileptic, william -- >> may have been de. >> yes and his son william was very good in business but he was
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kind of apology and an athletic and kind of a sad sack of a personal -- personally in his demeanor so here was george washington vanderbilt, tall and athletic. started the civil war, when a wall and was court-martialed and convicted which didn't end a career back then, return to duty but never signed a combat duty. ended up getting sick and died during the civil war of consumption. he didn't even died in the battlefield and vanderbilt was broken up and contributed to his interest in spiritualism. >> the thing about corneal is that he takes up a lot of spake -- base in the book not only because he was a born in vanderbilt life and not only because there's material about him but because he's everything his father was. physically evicted, morally weak, it didn't have the language for addiction than we have now, he was a real addict so he was post poll, he was a
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cheat, stealing money. he ended up a chorus really for some reason became his special patron and friend and horace greeley died with cornmeal allow him tens of thousands of dollars. a source of great shame and anchor for vanderbilt and yet he never cut him off completely. his first wife said his attitude toward him was stubborn and consistent so this relationship, it is important in and of itself a one of the ways in which i got access to the emotional complexity of vanderbilt. a man who because of these great personal capabilities comes across as this kind of two dimensional figure, the statue in front of dad and grand central where as in corneal the conflicting feelings bring out the human side and understandably complicated side. >> the whole tortured relationship with the first wife who he put in an asylum for a while and took her out to, seems
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to have a lot of ups and downs mostly around vanderbilt's probable again for various mistresses possibly. >> it's very hard to know. >> the thing about the statue for a moment. in the physical city that vanderbilt shape. he was this land speculator among everybody else in new york at the time, loaned money here and there, and build these depots. it's amazing to me the rise in the fall at the time. you have st. john's park which was gramercy park is modeled after to get an idea of what it looked like and it was in the space of 40 years went from being sort of a plot of land owned by trinity church to being the most fashionable neighborhood in the city to being something of a rundown abandon neighborhood to being a real depot that vanderbilt built there to being the entrance to the tunnel holland tunnel right
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there. nobody knows this place existed in a more in new york. for gone out of modern memory. >> somebody taking gramercy park and having a title like this there. >> 150 years later nobody ever heard, of course, the park. it's kind of amazing how fast new york was changing and that's where they built the freight depot and but the original statue of the commodore up. it has been lost. >> i don't know, i haven't been able to track down and maybe people know what happened. this freeze on either side in, it was very much like the gaited park in lower manhattan very much like gramercy park and a ripped it down and put it this huge freight depot. at the top was the statute of vanderbilt and this huge bronze freeze on either side that
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depicted his career in sailboats and steamboats and railroad and what not. that part was moved in front of grand central terminal. i don't know what happened to it, but it's interesting because i keep saying it's interesting, obviously it is with this book. [laughter] but i know in archivist's wells fargo, i don't know if you like the book because william fargo is kind of enemy in the book and he said wells fargo is still around, new york central railroad isn't. [laughter] that's a good point except in addition to his legacy in treating the corporate world and developing this kind of financial and economic as i put the unseen architecture of our world, he also built this infrastructure, the original grand central, he built what is now the tunnel that runs on park avenue, constructed of a lot of
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the real infrastructure that to this day is a vital part of the city. there's good reason for having a statue in front of the modern grand statues. >> metaphorically the last band, the commodore and the traffic breaks around him, the cars are overwhelmed in society and his means of transportation hasn't been exceeded in tearing down grand central even though they came close. it's amazing how this came about. the depot was there because there was a lot in the city against having steam-powered rail below 42nd street because most of the city was below their and catastrophe per people being run over by it. on top of this you had the trains coming down and i love the description that early on when the trains were coming to the original grand central they would actually decouple the engine from the rest of the train at a precise moment to keep to much steam from coming
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into huge smoke in the train shaft. actually coming to new york the engine would slide off into a railing and the u.n. powertrain would collide in. to think about how you must have been able to judge that and what a skill that must have been two not send the whole thing. >> presumably slowed down a bit. >> still, what an amazing -- >> we have to the bank about how new york at this time was a low-rise city. as dickens described in the 1840's which applied to the 1860's and '70's, he was a jumble of heard of the buildings with here and there a steeple sticking out. that was new york. their original grand central was massive, the largest railroad depot and the world and largest in the western hemisphere. just by jet -- gigantic building
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with enormous glass building ceiling. when they constructed grand central and much of it was paid for by vanderbilt personally came right out of his -- he bought the stock that was issued for a personally. this nervous piece of infrastructure coming even though that isn't there today, it was a major contribution to the whole development of midtown. it was there because of certain laws but it was his financial capacities and the planning of his son that brought in to being. >> of putting into modern industrial power and transportation and infrastructure into this usually crowded city which new york has always been fairly ingenious about. >> he tried to build an underground railroad system to city hall and decided it just wouldn't pay in the end. >> looked into a subway. >> actually chartered a corporation to do it and decided it would not pay.
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>> once you charge everybody $2 and cents. how was then in terms of a -- in terms of writing the book how was it being with -- you always survivors say they do or don't do so many things and want to spend that time or don't. >> that's a good note to go out on. brenda maddox is a great biographer, i think she once wrote an article called the, what's love got to do with it? [laughter] i think it's a good point. summit is interesting and the things that surround their life is interesting, then it's okay if use and so be some of the time, it's okay -- i mean, this secret for me is whether big questions, is there drama surrounds their life, the story is interesting, are the big questions so that its peace is something that interests me intellectually and then finally
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they don't have to be nice but they have to be human and much of a struggle for me as a writer was as a put with cornmeal pulling down to the emotional complexity so that we may not want to spend an hour and a railroad car with him that we can understand where he's coming from and his full complexity as a human being comes out so when i started to get into that it was fascinating for me and the big and on a level. then it was okay for me if it was sometimes a hard man because he was a human being. that is something that i could be connected with. >> the complexity certainly comes across in this outstanding book. thanks very much for writing. >> thank you. [applause] >> i guess if we have questions. >> [inaudible]
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>> do we have a microphone for questions? remember, no thronging. >> one of the quotes attributed to vanderbilt that may, in fact, be apocryphal i think comes from the william walker era but it may not and it may not be true, he was very sad people and said, dental and you have robbed me, i would sue you but the lawsuit takes a long time and i will ruin you. >> yes, that is considered the most famous letter probably in american business history. gentleman, you have undertaken to sue you, yours truly, cornelius vanderbilt.
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[laughter] however, the first time that i could find that and i spent time looking was in his obituary in the new york times in 1877 and i think that a not too careful writer took probably something he had heard that actually echoes the testimony he gave in 1867 in a completely 20 years later unrelated issue when he shut off all train traffic in new york city. you know the story. he said the law to my mind is too slow when i have the power in my own hands to punish. he said i'll take things into my own hands when i can. that was a specific incident years later and i think it got translated into this letter which i don't think he ever wrote. what happened is he had gone off on his grand tour of europe in 1853 in a private yacht that was
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the size of its transatlantic steamship, became a weiner after words. while he was away his partners in the accessory transit company betrayed him and kicked him out of the company, held back money owed to him so when he came he was outraged and said it business battle. what he did was wrote a letter to the press saying i'm going to sue. actually what he really did was exactly the opposite and said if we can settle this the courts will decide. of course, in the and the court didn't decide, he started a rival line, and competed until they paid him off essentially. >> so he was essentially american and going to sue first. >> in fact, this is something that was interesting in researching this book that court records were absolutely critical and i stumbled into the old records division of the new york county clerk's office and i mention records here and lawyer's papers, i decided --
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the new york county clerk office never cited history in this and they completed a computerized index of all the surviving court papers. in the papers are going back to the 1600's and they would bring out, i'd be nice to people getting certified copies of old divorce decrees and i was almost the only historian working there and to bring out these bundled paper is wrapped in red tape and be asked to be careful and it would have all this testimony about secret deals that today would be illegal and then they asked the court to enforce. they were suing because of insider trading but because they didn't divide the profits properly. so his lawsuits, he sued again and again and he was sued again and again and was often a leverage in business negotiations but he was never afraid of the courts. if he could deal without them he preferred that, but to the end of his life he was in court all
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the time. >> interesting when we talk about the society today. >> the first lawsuit that he filed was in 1816 when he was 22 years old. lawsuits for which the paper survive. and so he was a litigious society goes all the way back to is it the beginning. do we have another question? >> two questions. first, do you watch gossip oral? >> not really. >> there is a sentence on a show of the vanderbilts on gossip girl and last week said they had season tickets to the mets game and i thought that is what it comes to, you have to be a vanderbilt. the second question -- >> let me give you a chance to
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answer that. go ahead and. >> in your estimation, did any of the later figures, the ones we now know as robber barons, the day approached vanderbilt's achievement? let's say andrew carnegie is probably the greatest of the group and i was wondering what you thought about the ones that followed, the next generation of. >> this is a difficult question because if you are a biographer automatically are convinced you're writing about the most important person that ever lived. ..
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so i don't want in any way to diminish the importance of people like rockefeller and carnegie or later on ford or many of these others. what they did is incredibly important. in developing thec;h economy an also in creating a lot of practices. jp morgan, of course, in a very different way, you know, jean strauss has written very brilliantly about his importance. and as a banker he intersected
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and dealt with so many areas of industrial america, railroads and other areas. so i don't want to diminish their importance. and to a certain extent it's kind of meaningless to say well, who's up and who's up. but the distinction i would make is vanderbilt covered this very formative period. born in the presidency of george washington. starting in business as a teenager before the war of 1812. and ending his days after making deals with john d. rockefeller personally. it's hard to match a career of that length and over such a formative period as well. so, you know, the case that i make sort of humbly because these other guys are so important that's much of the key to his particular significance. >> and the most prominent figure is ford who is somebody who built the first cars he had, you
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know -- adapted the assembly line. raised these cars as an advertisement for them. worked out the whole plan to pay his workers enough, you know, to create a market for product and ford didn't switch midlife go into building airplaning. -- airplanes. but he built tractors but that's when he's quasi senile and they take the plant away from him. vanderbilt built amazing the hands-on part of it, i think, is very -- is almost unique. >> the giant leaps he made.wcju one of the things about the book is it's almost a history of the american economy just because he had such an unairing sense of the kind of primary channel of commerce. and he would seize upon it and become the most successful competitor. when philadelphia and new york
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were the two financial centers that's where his transportation line ran. and then the erie canal opens up he's operating on the hudson. so he enters the trade -- the steamboat and railroad lines with new england and new york. then the gold rush and he gets into that traffic. and just one step after another he had an unairing sense for where the vital center of commerce was and goes directly to that and manages to find a route and a transportation system that had a decisive strategic advantage over his competitors. and then, you know, made it pay in a way nobody else could. the microphone is coming. >> are there personal threats in terms of his own life of security? that he had so many enemies? >> that's an interesting question. there's a book the day wall street exploded. we've seen a lot of attention
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given to, you know, these titans have been threatened and attacked in the past. in vanderbilt's case, not that i know. in fact, vanderbilt was famous even late in life when he was in his '70s and '80s for -- and whether he did this is an open question. he had an reputation for accepting all callers at his private office on west fourth street in the washington square district. he would race as kevin baker mentioned -- he would race his fast trotters personally through the uproads in manhattan and engage in pickup races. and in the 1840s, you know, the man was in his 50s. and he occasionally got into fist fights. and he had this reputation that i found in court records where vanderbilt gently laid his hands upon him to remove him. the guy ends up somehow unconscious locked in the pilot house. i like that even kind of drag racing in upper manhattan.
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so he was a guy who always felt he could take care of himself. and i don't think he ever came in for personal threats. at least none that he couldn't handle. >> it's interesting, too, he dies just before any kind of class war before the u.s. heats up. the year he dies is a huge nationwide rail strike that gets very ugly. i guess he would have probably would have been in the thick of that if he would have lived. >> that is something i try to bring out in my book. one reason why i'm glad that, you know, you're the -- doing this event is that, you know, your novels bring out the multilayered society in new york. >> right. >> and so well and that's something i, of course, i'm focusing on a wealthy individual i could only touch upon. i could only talk about a fact that this is a society that is growing more polarized with the large of the giant enterprises
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and a labor movement and, you know, mass armies of people working for wages. the social complexity of america develops through his life. so vanderbilt -- it would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if he would have remained alive or in control for a year or two or more. because 1877 was a violent nationwide labor conflict. it's really an interesting and troubling episode. >> and he goes from this guy who can't spell really to having his daughter -- is it his daughter that starts the society 400 with the big ball? >> yeah. and i think it's interesting that william vanderbilt -- you know, vanderbilt had what was considered a substantial mansion but late in life it's very much like edith wharton's novel "custom of the country" old even though the people in that novel would havetioned him for much of his life. you know, he had a substantial
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brown stone but nothing fancier than that. but as soon as he died, and as soon as the will trial was settled his children and grandchildren put up the gilded mansions it's interesting they would have thought the old man was gone. you could spend $18,000 on a racehorse but, you know, building a fancy palace would have been extravagant. >> did he ever think of science, medicine? was that sort of -- >> that's good question. you know, as a little side note, he through much of his life what we would think of modern science and technology education and development didn't exist. and he was a self-educated engineer essentially.
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he was probably one of the leading maritime architects of the paddle wheel era. he personally designed his steamboats and steam ships often going beyond conventional wisdom. he was technically himself quite accomplished when it came to naval engineering. but when it comes to charity, he was a man who was not known for charity. his friends claim that he hated boasting. he hated braggerts and they claim he had private charity. but at the end of his life he made a point of vanderbilt university in nashville. however, i think there's good reason to think, yes, he wanted to create a institution of learning because he did feel throughout his life the fact that he was uneducated. and every chance to speak, and this is a great era of oratory you couldn't have tea without somebody getting up and giving a two-hour speech. he refused to speak. he would always have someone else speak for him. i think he did feel his lack of education. but also part of his project
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with vanderbilt university reflected part of his patriotism. having given a million dollar steamship to the navy it was a personally project to reach out to the south after the civil war. of course, he was thinking of the white south. his second wife was an unrepetant confederate. he thought that was great. general bragg would announce the abolition tyrant in his wartime orders as a witness at his second wedding. when he reached out to the south we're talking the white south. but it did reflect a sincere taking him on his own terms a sincere patriotism that he wanted to kind of show northern men who fought for the union wanted to restore the union afterwards. so that's why he very much wanted to endo you a university in the south. >> what would vanderbilt say to obama right now? [laughter]
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>> about what's going on with our financial system, with our economy? what would his advice be? >> he'd wonder first of all how a black man became president. first that would astound him. that's a difficult question. i think -- shall we make this the last question? this is the sort of question that historians hate. because, you know, frankly any one of you could make a pronouncement on this and it would be probably as accurate as i would say. it's utterly unprovable. what i would say is this. there's two counter balancing sides to him. one, he always -- he believed n in -- laissez-faire. he did not believe the government getting involved in the economy. as he once put it, when they were trying to pass a law in new york state to regulate the railroads, he saw it in terms of private interests being the key to a well functioning economy.
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and he said well, if you can pass a law that makes men serve their interests more effectively than their interests then themselves will compel them, that's fine. he thinks it works best for everyone pursuing their interests. on the other hand he grasp the economy which after the civil war the federal government had taken on unprecedented new involvement in the economy. and when the panic of 1873 hit, he stepped him and said treasury should be issuing greenbacks. and he was calling for a limited but a clear type of federal intervention in the economy. very much limited compared to what we're doing now. so, no, i can't tell you what he would say to president obama. but i can say that at the very least he would have had -- he would have a sophisticated view and a pragmatic view. so he did have these clear laissez-faire jacksonion beliefs on the other hand, he took the world as it was.
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he saw what was needed to be done to make it work under the rules that existed. and so he probably would have, you know, at the very least a sophisticated but pragmatic view of what's going on now. >> i think he would be a little astonished by businessmen who expected the government to bail them out and who then still expected to have a major say in how they would run things. i think he would be amazed at that. the idea that you could rely on somebody else for the money and still expect to be in charge. that would go against him philosophically. >> you make your bets and you live by the results. that was his belief. and when he lost he did everything to get back his. he said you pick your friends and you have to suffer the consequences. thank you very much. [applause]
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>> t.j. stiles winner of the 94th pulitzer prize for biography for his book "the first tycoon." booktv continues its look at pulitzer prize winner for david hoffman for "the dead hand." this program is 50 minutes. >> thank you, blair, and thanks to everybody for coming. i'm going to try and get some a little bit peas -- there. and thanks to the woodrow wilson center and to the cold war international history project and everybody that's working on and interested in these issues. it's really a pleasure to be here. i want to tell you a little bit first about how this whole project got started. it was 1998. the ruble had just crashed. russia was a sullen, dark, very, very unhappy place that automatic. banks were closed. people were waiting in lines.


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