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When Wall Street bankers were put on the carpet

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Fifty years ago I wouldn't have stayed in the office; I would have taken a 25 -cent taxi to the tension and excitement of the high-ceilinged Caucus Room in the Senate Office Building and listened to Ferdinand Pecora, counsel of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, asking top leaders of the financial community why there had been a crash. It was there that I saw the circus midget sit in J.P. Morgan's lap.

Today we are just emerging from the worst recession since 1933 and I am a little surprised that there is no congressional follow-up inquiry into the economic system. (After all, only a few years ago Detroit automobiles were dominant; now Americans like as not buy foreign compacts; what happened? But that is nothing like the post-Hoover collapse of course.)

The Pecora inquiry and the Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC) under Sen. Joseph O'Mahoney could not be stayed. Just last month comments by George E. Reedy, press assistant of Lyndon Johnson, brought it all back to me. ''I first came to Washington as a very, very young newspaper- man,'' Reedy testified. ''One of the first stories I covered was the hearings of the TNEC. We got the picture of our economy as it had evolved in the mid 1930s. I think there is crying need right now for such a thorough-going assessment of our economy.'' How did Pecora do it? He hired a hundred investigators and accountants and sent them coursing through Wall Street like a pack of bloodhounds.

Was it fair? That can be debated even today. But the Banker had till then been one of the most august figures in American life. Now the public - with FDR leading them in his initial galvanic ''Hundred Days'' - demanded to know what had happened. ''Now in 1933 and 1934,'' wrote Cabell Phillips of the bankers in his book ''From the Crash to the Blitz 1929-1939,'' ''their degradation was augmented as the greatest champions among them were forced to confess their fallibility (and often their larceny) in broad public view before a committee of the US Senate.''


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