Sounds Like An Opportunist and A Wannabe

There’s an in-depth profile of Steve Bannon over at The New Yorker, [newyorker] which refrains from the “ooh, he’s a genius of strategic darkness” meme, and goes into some depth about his history as a Hollywood Big Shot (spoiler: not much big)

To me, he doesn’t seem like a brilliant deal-maker: he’s knocked around, and gotten his fingers in lots of pies, and managed to get very rich in the process. I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with people like that, many times – mostly venture capitalists and investment bankers. In America, the most validating thing that can happen to you is to get rich. And, when you do, suddenly you attract a small flock of butt-kissers (who are after your money, or your rolodex) and then you’re important in addition to being rich. Suddenly you can forget that you once were ignorant and made mistakes: now you have people who make mistakes for you.

The “Seinfeld” story first became widely known after the Bloomberg Businessweek profile. Bannon said that, in 1992, Westinghouse Electric hired Bannon & Co. to sell its small stake in Castle Rock Entertainment, a TV production company. It soon emerged that Ted Turner was interested in buying all of Castle Rock, including its minority shareholders. Bannon advised Westinghouse to accept Turner’s offer, which included an interest in a package of several Castle Rock shows.

Bannon claimed that the Westinghouse executives told him, “If this is such a great deal, why don’t you defer some of your cash fee and keep an ownership stake” in that package? He agreed. One of the shows was “Seinfeld.” “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” Bannon said. “We were wrong by a factor of five.” Bloomberg Businessweek said that Bannon continues to benefit from “a stream of ‘Seinfeld’ royalties.”

Some of those who were responsible for “Seinfeld” became agitated by Bannon’s story. Larry David, the show’s head writer and executive producer, told me, “I don’t think I ever heard of him until he surfaced with the Trump campaign and I had no idea that he was profiting from the work of industrious Jews!” Rob Reiner, one of the founders of Castle Rock, has said of Bannon’s profits from the show, “It makes me sick.” [newyorker]

Getting lucky by owning a chunk of Seinfeld after someone suggested keeping an ownership stake: right place, right time. Hollywood, business, the start-up scene, tech – they’re all full of people who thrash around for a while and sometimes make the right decision or know the right people. For every one that makes the right moves, there are fifty that don’t. Catching (or being missed by) a golden bullet is more or less random, and when we do catch a golden bullet our 20/20 hindsight makes us out to be the geniuses that positioned ourselves in the path of opportunity.

He sounds to me like he’s not really that ideological: his drives are money, power, selfishness, and self-importance. In that sense, he fits right in with the rest of the deplorables in Washington. Humanity produces an endless stream like this and they mostly leave very little mark on history unless they screw things up particularly memorably.

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One of the funny things about venture capitalists (and I expect Hollywood types are similar) is you run into these guys who’ve caught a golden bullet and then suddenly they’re geniuses. I met with one guy who was the college roommate of the founder of a hugely successful start-up, who got some stock by helping do some basic systems stuff when the company first started. So he got out with $50m in his pocket, and spends his time eating lunches in nice restaurants on Sand Hill Road (god, if I ever have to eat at Il Fornaio again, I may just hang myself!) and lecturing people who’ve actually done stuff about how to run a business. I remember one lunch I had with a venture capitalist and a Greek immigrant who had funded his first business by carrying yoghurt his mom brewed to Greek restaurants all over town on a bicycle, who taught himself how to code in C, assembled a server out of parts his friends were getting rid of, built a product, sold it, and executed a flawless $24m exit. It was only a decade or so of relentless, hard, all-hours work. So I have to sit there choking down the urge to reach out and snap this venture capitalist’s neck like a pencil, while he’s lecturing the other guy about how “you should only work if it’s fun.”

I was talking to an old honky tonk musician once, and, he said, “those ‘overnight successes’ – usually it’s 15 years of hard work and then suddenly, overnight: success!” I don’t want to name-drop but the guy who said that was Ray Wylie Hubbard, and if Ray isn’t qualified to say that, nobody is.


  1. says

    Wow. In that screenshot, he doesn’t look like the Picture of Dorian Gray.

    Unfortunately, opportunistic wannabe or no, the Mercers are besotted with him, and that’s major money.

  2. says

    The Mercers are always going to be surrounded by fly-clouds of douchebags attracted by their money. Not that that doesn’t make Bannon any less annoying.

  3. says

    (god, if I ever have to eat at Il Fornaio again, I may just hang myself!)

    Heh. I like the strange places. I’m much more likely to be impressed if you told me you used to hang at Bill & Nada’s in SLC, and even more impressed if you ate the Brains ‘n’ Eggs.

  4. says

    Heh. I like the strange places. I’m much more likely to be impressed if you told me you used to hang at Bill & Nada’s in SLC, and even more impressed if you ate the Brains ‘n’ Eggs.

    The first board meeting I ran at my start-up, instead of taking my investors to an expensive steak house, I brought carryout from the Chinese restaurant across the street from the hotel. After that, my board meetings usually ended by 5 and all the board members got the hell out of there (presumably to the big name steak places) — the staff used to eat at the pit beef place – The Char Hut – across the street. They served pit beef on home made brioche buns with cream horseradish sauce and baked beans. It was fantastic but too good to waste on venture capitalists. For big risk takers they seem to like predictable under-salted over priced over prepared chain food like Il Fornaio or Ruth’s Chris or whatever. #Sad.

    I actually don’t think I ever had a cool food experience at a meeting with finance types. Expensive food experiences, lots. Cool? Racking my brains… Nope.

    I had a bibimbap burrito the other day!!! But that was with another computer security nerd… Frequently, I wind up leading unofficial expeditions for interesting food instead of the catered conference lunches. I’ve had so much hotel food in my life I am practically a museum of culinary horrors.

  5. says

    even more impressed if you ate the Brains ‘n’ Eggs.

    I have a rule which has stood me in good stead: I will never eat anything for someone else’s amusement. So, when (as has happened) I’m in Australia and someone offers me a plate of bugs, or I’m in North Carolina and someone tries to feed me chili made with lethal doses of hot peppers, I just say, “No thanks, I don’t eat to amuse other people.” If I’m genuinely curious about something, I’ll try it, because then that’s amusing me.

    (From what I’ve read about CJD I don’t think eating neurological tissue is a good idea. I also avoid eating livers – poison filter? no thanks. Or kidneys – more filters? No. I tend to stick pretty much to muscle except for fatted muscle such as ham or bacon. In fish I avoid filter feeders and scavengers – having grown up on the Chesapeake Bay that meant forgoing a lot of crab, and probably forgoing a lot of tasty mercury and PCBs. I’m not a health nut by a long shot but I’ve done OK steering away from the more exotic materials. Prepare them in an exotic way, sure. I eat a crabcake or some pate every couple years.)

  6. says

    Oh the brains ‘n’ eggs were a staple at Bill & Nada’s. Lots of people ate them. I didn’t, because I’m not keen on eating organs, but Rick had them more than once. Baked veal heart was another staple. Neither one of us ate that one. If you do a search on Bill & Nada’s, you’ll come up with an overwhelming amount of hits, the place was legend. It opened in 1946, and never changed at all. The menu stayed the same, the interior stayed the same, and Bill McHenry stayed the same (Nada was long dead, although a big portrait of her stayed front and center). The interior scheme was beige with plastic flowers, and mini jukeboxes in all the booths, and along the horseshoe shaped counter.

    Bill & Nada’s was also, famously, always open, and it was. It was never closed, and it was consistently popular for generations of people. I miss that place. Everyone felt at home there.

  7. kestrel says

    Oh, Bill & Nada’s! I have not thought about that place for years! Yes, what a legend. I have eaten there. Although I did not eat the Brains ‘N’ Eggs.

  8. Owlmirror says

    So, when (as has happened) I’m in Australia and someone offers me a plate of bugs, or I’m in North Carolina and someone tries to feed me chili made with lethal doses of hot peppers, I just say, “No thanks, I don’t eat to amuse other people.”

    Now I’m remembering yet another Pratchett scene…

        ‘My food is your food…’ Jabbar went on.
        ‘Vimes stared down at the dish by the fire. It looked like a sheep or a goat had been the main course. And the man bent down, picked up a morsel and handed it to him.
        Sam Vimes looked at the mouthful. And it looked back.
        ‘The best part,’ said Jabbar, and made appreciative suckling noises. He added something in Klatchian. There was some muffled laughter from the other men around the fire.
        ‘This looks like a sheep’s eyeball,’ said Vimes, doubtfully.
        ‘Yes, sir,’ said Carrot. ‘But it is unwise to–’
        ‘You know what?’ Vimes went on. ‘I think this is a little game called “Let’s see what offendi will swallow”. And I’m not swallowing this, my friend.’
        Jabbar gave him an appraising look.
        The sniggering stopped.
        ‘Then it is true that you can see further than most,’ he said.
        ‘So can this food,’ said Vimes. ‘My father told me never to eat anything that can wink back.’
        There was one of those little hanging-by-a-thread moments, which might suddenly rock one way or the other into a gale of laughter or sudden death.
        Then Jabbar slapped Vimes on the back. The eyeball shot off his palm and into the shadows,
        ‘Well done! Extremely good! First time it have not worked in twenty year! Now sit down and have proper rice and sheep just like mother!’