If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Among ordinary shakedown artists and stickup men, the phrase is axiomatic. Anybody who hasn’t the fortitude to survive prison without breaking down or turning stool pigeon has no business knocking off a 7-Eleven, much less contemplating a career in crime. But among the Gucci-clad, Ferrari-driving Wall Street hijackers described in James B. Stewart’s consistently fascinating Den of Thieves, no such code of honor survived much past their various indictments.

With a few exceptions, no sooner had federal prosecutors and Securities and Exchange Commission investigators put the squeeze on the massive multibillion-dollar inside-trading conspiracy centering around Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken than the self-styled pit bulls of American finance were breaking down in tears and ratting on each other like a group of ninth graders caught with a six-pack.

But seeing the mighty crawl is only one of the pleasures of watching Stewart, the Wall Street Journal‘s front-page editor, chronicle the rise and fall of the junk-bond and leveraged-buyout empires. More disquieting is Stewart’s pungent analysis of how and why much of the financial community was so easily taken for a disastrous joyride.

Evidently, for example, short guys and leggy bimbos had a lot to do with it. The corporate execs who put up the money for hostile takeovers were encouraged to see themselves as sexual and financial buccaneers. To Milken’s operatives, the ideal corporate raider was ”short, unhappily married and insecure…In (Drexel Burnham investment banker Donald) Engel’s view, there were only two things that motivated these clients: the next deal, and the next sexual conquest….’Corporate America likes women. Find a hooker and you’ll find a client.”’

On another level, Den of Thieves reads like The Best and the Brightest rewritten for the 1980s. Like David Halberstam’s chronicle of the generation of cold warriors who led America into Vietnam, Stewart’s massively documented book depicts the Milken-Boesky circle as an academically brilliant group of hothouse flowers who evidently confused their SAT scores with destiny. At least one knot of Princeton, N.J.-based conspirators bragged before trial that their scheme was too complex to be understood by a jury. Sixty-three guilty counts later, they got a big surprise. After all, the criminality of insider trading is not so hard to grasp; you don’t have to be a professional gambler to know you can get shot for playing poker with a marked deck.

As the world knows, Boesky and the rest lived with a tasteless ostentation that made Scrooge McDuck look like a Benedictine monk (with the singular exception of Milken, who hoarded his pile). Even so, the details — Boesky’s arriving by helicopter at a seagoing bar mitzvah on the rented QE2 the very night before agreeing to become a government informant, for example — are endlessly enjoyable. Equally persuasive is Stewart’s analysis of how reckless and finally stupid it all was — essentially a classic pyramid scheme based upon the touching human illusion that time and chance happeneth not to the Wall Street anointed. All proving that there may be no fool like a fool with an MBA. A

Den of Thieves
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