What Did Robinson Know, And When Did He Know It?


By Bryan Burrough

Harper Collins -- 494pp -- $25

For American Express Co., image is everything. In just the past decade, it has spent billions bolstering its aura of prestige, affluence, and exclusivity. For a time, no one embodied the mystique better than CEO James D. Robinson III, who took the helm in 1977. Robinson's patrician good looks and jet-set style fit perfectly with AmEx's glamorous ads. Yet a series of corporate missteps gradually sullied his and his company's self-created myth.

One of AmEx's biggest blunders was revealed in 1988, when Robinson delivered an apology to Edmond Safra, a Lebanese banker, and AmEx gave $8 million to Safra's favorite charities. "Certain persons acting on behalf of American Express," Robinson admitted, had attempted to "use the media to malign" Safra.

Bryan Burrough, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and co-author of the best-seller Barbarians at the Gate, has exhumed this incident in Vendetta: American Express and the Smearing of Edmond Safra. In telling the tale, Burrough aims to prove three things: that Robinson knew of the smear campaign, that it was motivated in part by his alleged anti-Semitism, and that Safra is innocent of any crime.

On the first point, Burrough convinces us only that Robinson probably knew. The relationship between AmEx and Safra had soured in 1984, after Safra left Trade Development Bank, which he had sold to AmEx the year before, and began laying the groundwork for a competing operation. In 1986, in an effort to stop Safra from getting a Swiss banking license, Robinson initiated an investigation into whether Safra was involved in the Iran-contra scandal. He was posted regularly on its progress. Burrough says the probe escalated into character assassination for reasons ranging from AmEx's desire to keep Safra from hiring its employees to the overzealousness of AmEx flacks who figured--correctly--that they could manipulate the press. As for Robinson, either he "knew and approved of what his aides were doing, or he knew he didn't want to know," concludes Burrough. "It's hard to say which is worse."

On the question of whether Robinson is anti-Semitic, Burrough is not particularly persuasive. He is more convincing, however, in absolving Safra of alleged crimes from murder-for-hire to money laundering. "As far as I've been able to determine," he writes, "none of these charges have ever been substantiated."

What the author proves most successfully is that he can deliver another good read, a fly-on-the-wall account of the twists and turns in this bitter feud. He styles Vendetta as a whodunit told from the viewpoint of Safra's battalion of lawyers, detectives, and employees as they try to prove that American Express is masterminding the negative stories. The climactic moment comes when Safra's investigators photograph Tony Greco, whom Burrough describes as a "consort of Mafiosi, assassins, and thieves," meeting with an American Express employee. Since Safra's men already know that Greco has been spreading dirt about Safra, this is the "smoking gun" they need to lay the smear campaign at AmEx's door.

Vendetta doesn't have Barbarians' relentless snap-crackle-pop. Burrough's technique for sustaining suspense is strained: Time and again, Safra is outraged by a negative article, and time and again his lieutenants scramble to trace it to AmEx. Burrough's account of some important issues, such as whether Safra was really involved in Iran-contra, is irritatingly confusing. And any way you slice it, the subject is less compelling than a Wall Street brawl over a $25 billion company. Still, you won't find a more sordid tale of corporate dirty tricks. Through the piling up of detail, what comes across most strongly is how repugnant a wrong was done to Safra.

Burrough struts some of his best stuff in his book's rich tangents. About AmEx's 140-year history and the origins of Safra's Sephardic Judaism, he tells too much. But his portrayal of complex characters, such as Susan Cantor, an AmEx employee who misrepresents herself as a reporter--and whom Burrough depicts as a loose cannon--is absorbing. And the book's milieu--the international intelligence underworld, peopled with 300-pound Peruvian tipsters, Spanish counterfeiters, and bureaucratic FBI agents--has a seamy fascination.

Press manipulation is also a compelling theme, as Burrough documents the frightening domino effect of AmEx's global disinformation campaign. At one point, Greco, acting as an FBI informant, delivers a "dubious tip," which another federal office passes along in a query letter to the U.S. Embassy in Bern. Greco then gets ahold of the incriminating letter and gives it to an impressionable reporter, who prints it. Vendetta is an emphatic reminder to journalists and readers to consider the story behind the story.

Which makes it mandatory to consider that Vendetta is itself part of a counter-vendetta against AmEx. It couldn't have been written without the willingness of Safra's camp to bare their souls--and file cabinets--knowing they were spearing AmEx's Achilles' heel: its image. The reader is in the middle of a feud that Safra won't let die, Burrough implies, because he is convinced that AmEx and Robinson are still driven by virulent anti-Jewish feelings. AmEx, for its part, did not cooperate and denies the book's accusations. "I was not aware of, did not authorize, and did not condone any effort to spread false information about Edmond Safra or his banks," Robinson recently told shareholders.

Burrough comes closest to grappling with his role in Safra's counterassault in his final paragraph. The vendetta, he says, has swung full circle: "Now it is Safra who looks for ways to humiliate and topple Robinson."

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