This Week: The best and the worst behavior

January 31, 2009, 6:03 AM UTC
Fortune

This was a week of extreme behavior. From embarrassment to enlightenment. We learned that John Thain, ousted by Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, redecorated his Merrill Lynch office at a cost of more than $1.2 million. People who worked with Thain pre-Merrill tell me that he was not a really extravagant guy. But he was, at times, clueless.

Three people who worked with Thain at the New York Stock Exchange, after he replaced Dick Grasso as CEO there, say that he called for the removal of photos of Grasso from the 6th floor, where the top brass resides. Granted, Grasso was a pariah by then, but many of those photos related to what may be the most memorable day in NYSE history: 9/11. Thain’s actions came across to some people as cold and inconsiderate. (Says a Thain spokesman, “This is categorically untrue.”)

Before the NYSE, at Goldman Sachs , where Thain rose to co-president, he ordered a refurnishing of his office on the 30th floor. But Goldman, unlike Merrill, wouldn’t pay for it. So Thain shelled out his own money. His boss at Goldman back then: Hank Paulson. Fast forward a few years and now here’s Thain spending shamelessly as well as bidding for big bonuses while BofA, his new employer, takes in TARP money – courtesy of Paulson, U.S. Treasury Secretary. Shouldn’t Thain have seen the end coming?

The week’s worst behavior, no doubt, belonged to Rod Blagojevich, the bombastic Governor who fought all the way to his impeachment, which came yesterday by unanimous vote in the Illinois State Senate. We also learned that Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, sold his Florida mansion to his wife, Kathy, for $10-or $100. Whatever. Fuld, I hear, is trying to line up old cronies to start an advisory firm. Who would go there?

And there is Dr. Antonia Novello, the former U.S. Surgeon General who, as New York State health commissioner, reportedly had her staff act as her personal chauffeurs and assistants for outlet-mall shopping sprees. You know who Novello’s brother-in-law is? Father Guido Sarducci. Well, actually, actor Don Novello, who played the wacky priest on Saturday Night Live.

These times test us. We see people’s true colors. I’ve been talking about this with a lot of people lately. You know when you’re going through a personal crisis or tragedy, and you learn who your real friends are? Now we’re going through global crisis – with tragedy on the fringes. We’re seeing more clearly than ever which leaders (and friends) are good and who are the bad people.

The good stand taller than they used to. On Monday, I listened to Bill Gates explain on a conference call that the assets of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are down some 20% since last year. Yet he and Melinda decided to increase their philanthropic giving to $3.8 billion, from $3.3 billion in 2008. The need is greater than ever before. Meanwhile, New York City’s Mike Bloomberg, my mayor, was the No. 1 individual philanthropist in 2008. He donated $235 million, vs. $205 million in 2007. The best measure of a philanthropist is that the check to the undertaker bounces, Bloomberg says.

One other good guy I met this week: John Wood, head of a not-for-profit called Room to Read. A decade ago, when Wood was working in Asia for Microsoft , he noticed that by giving a poor kid a book, he could change a life. He quit his job. With the help of corporate donors like Credit Suisse , Goldman Sachs, Qualcomm , Scholastic and Microsoft, Wood has raised $70 million and put 7000 libraries and 750 schools in eight developing countries around the globe.

These people are role models for what President Obama calls “the new era of responsibility.”

P.S. For more on Thain and and BofA’s big acquisition gone awry, read my colleague Shawn Tully’s story, Divorce, Bank of America-style.