John Chambers of S&P is an old friend of mine. You know him as a villain. I know him…

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Aug. 11 2011 2:37 PM

Me and the S&P

The guy who downgraded America's credit rating is an old friend of mine. Here's what he's like.

John Chambers on Bloomberg TV. Click image to see video.
S&P's John Chambers discussing the U.S. credit downgrade on Bloomberg

This will read like a confession: John Chambers, the chairman of Standard and Poor's sovereign debt committee, which downgraded the nation's credit rating—pitching global markets into panic and roiling the political battle in Washington—has been my friend for many years.

We were classmates at Grinnell College, in Iowa, in the 1970s, both English majors—hyperstimulated juveniles competitively wringing obscure meanings out of Chaucer and Eliot and then bruising one another in debates carried over from the classroom to the student union.

Bonds formed in that way never quite break, even if years of silence intrude; some time ago we reconnected and now stay in touch. We meet for lunch and email about classmate things: Grinnell's new president, books we've been reading, the lives and careers of friends, their kids and ours—and lately, of course, John's sudden leap, or plunge, into infamy.

The last time I saw him, in April, John had recently returned from Washington and a tough grind with budget grandees at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Those sessions are reflected in the S&P report released two days before our lunch. That document sent the first tremors of the jolt that came last Friday.

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I realize few are in the mood just now for a testament to the sterling character and high moral intelligence of someone absorbing much of the blame for their shriveled stock portfolios and depleted 401(k)s and whom Christiane Amanpour identified on Sunday as "the most disliked man in America right now." That millions of his fellow citizens should have an opinion at all of John is a remarkable development for some of us—John's classmates, I mean, particularly his fellow English majors. Even as I've been swapping emails with him, I've been in almost hourly contact with a handful of them. Together we've been parsing John's TV appearances and public statements, and dissecting the fine points of the S&P report, just as we once parsed Book IV of Paradise Lost ("Infinite wrath and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell").

Those who lost touch after those ancient days have been acutely studying his video image, peeling away the austere dark suit, the banker's close haircut flecked with white, in search of the 20-year-old we knew, with his wide-shouldered swimmer's physique (he was a standout on the one good sports team we had) and flowing golden mane.

Some mostly note the changes, but I'm more struck by how much I recognize. Watching him trade GDP estimates with Peter Orszag on Bloomberg TV, I remembered the same cool actuarial gaze that didn't waver the time John caught me out in the lie that I'd read Absalom, Absalom.

John, for his part, is treating his newfound villainy with wry humor—even the demonizing reports in the New York Post, which included the address of his apartment building on Riverside Drive. The point, seized on the other night by Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC, was to depict John as an out-of-touch elitist.