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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
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.


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.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Launching a Serious Run at Apple and Samsung


Slim Pickings at the Network TV Bazaar

Three talented actresses in three terrible shows.


More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?