All it took to make bond trader Michael Milken a household expletive was for the public to get a look at his 1986 salary—$550 million. Anybody making that much must be doing something wrong—and he was, though just how wrong is the quibble in this feisty reconstruction of the fall of the Drexel Burnham Lambert junk bond king. In the end, Kornbluth suggests, Milken was guilty of crimes "more cultural than criminal."
Unlike James B. Stewart in his best-selling Den of Thieves, Kornbluth does not see the prosecution of the '80s insider-trading scandals as a shining legal crusade. Too often, he writes, the while hats wore badges tarnished by ambition, lack of financial knowledge, or bullying tactics.
Kornbluth's view of Milken, though sympathetic, is less precise, even though the author was granted prison interviews. (Citing both his cooperation with further government prosecutions and his good works within prison, federal Judge Kimba M. Wood last month reduced Milken's 10-year sentence. He is scheduled to be released from a minimum-security work camp in Pleasanton, Calif., in March, after two years of confinement.) Evasive and secretive—surprise!—Milken emerges as a man befuddled by events, procrastinating when it comes time to plea-bargain and completely undone by his sentence. Milken's friends and family would have us believe his bottom-line sins are of generosity and accommodation, as he tried to make everyone happy.
Indeed, compared with his truly loathsome accuser and fellow thief, Ivan Boesky (a "reptilian amnesiac," in one of Kornbluth's more colorful phrases), Milken seems a lesser villain. But then there's the matter of that money. And among the many revelations in this smoothly and often wryly written account (recently optioned by Robert De Niro) is the fact that, in 1986, Milken did not make $550 million: He made almost $715 million. (Morrow, $23)