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The Smartest Guys in the Room By Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Portfolio/Viking Penguin, 435 pages, $26.95) 24 Days By Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller (HarperBusiness, 400 pages, $25.95) Probably the most educational paragraph in the newest book about the Enron scandal is, sadly, applicable to corporation after corporation that screw shareholders with the tacit or overt assistance of lawyers, accountants, bankers, and government regulators. That paragraph � on Page 161 of The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron � explains how the officers and directors of Houston-based Enron accomplished a multibillion-dollar fraud: “They needed accountants to agree that pre-pays were not a trading liability. . . . They needed lawyers to sign off on deal structures. They needed the credit-rating agencies to remain sanguine in the face of frightening levels of off-balance sheet debt. Most of all, though, they needed the banks and the investment banks to help them carry out their machinations. . . . Every bit as much as the accountants at Arthur Andersen, the banks and the investment banks were Enron’s enablers.” (Don’t worry about the financial jargon. The authors explain everything clearly sooner or later.) Put another way, the institutions that small investors traditionally trusted enabled Enron and other greedy corporations to bend and break the law. Perhaps that conclusion does not seem shocking in a society jaded by corruption, but the details of the Enron case are almost certain to shock all but the most jaded of readers. Is there really anything new to be written about the unexpected collapse of Enron two years ago, given the millions of words pouring forth from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, talk shows, listservs, Internet blogs, congressional hearings, Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission deliberations, and court cases � not to mention at least a dozen books published before these two latest entries? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes. Furthermore, the approaches are so varied that it’s possible to remain captivated through readings of multiple books. The two new books are the best so far � so good, in fact, that each might become a classic about corporate corruption along the lines of Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar or Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street by David McClintick. Still, it is quite likely that anybody wanting to read about the destruction of Houston-based Enron will stop after one book. So, is it wisest to choose 24 Days by two Wall Street Journal reporters or The Smartest Guys in the Room by two Fortune magazine reporters? Readers curious about how great journalism evolves will want to read 24 Days: How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered the Lies That Destroyed Faith in Corporate America. Rebecca Smith, the energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and John R. Emshwiller, a senior national correspondent, place themselves at the book’s center. They thus add to the small but growing number of “journalism procedural” books that have become commercially viable thanks to the success of All the President’s Men, written 30 years ago by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Woodward and Bernstein refer to themselves in the third-person throughout their account of how they uncovered a partisan political scandal leading into the White House of Richard Nixon. Smith and Emshwiller also refer to themselves in the third-person as they develop sources inside Enron, its multinational diversified competitors, Wall Street brokerages, investment banks, accounting firms, and federal regulatory agencies to explain how within less than a month (hence the 24 days of the title), one of the most respected corporations in the United States could lose its good reputation so thoroughly that bankruptcy court became the only option. The Smartest Guys in the Room is written more traditionally, in the omniscient third-person. Although about the same number of pages as 24 Days, it has a far broader scope than its bookstore competitor. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind delve far more deeply into the lives of the three Enron executives with the most to lose � Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow � than do the Journal reporters. The population of The Smartest Guys in the Room is much larger; thank goodness that the authors provide a “cast of characters” for handy reference. The number of Enron business deals examined is also much higher. McLean and Elkind are aiming for a more or less comprehensive corporate history, while Smith and Emshwiller pretty much stick to the business deals they personally investigated. Not so incidentally, a third Enron book published in March of this year, Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron (Doubleday, 400 pages, $26), uses a third fruitful approach. It combines the research and writing of an experienced journalist, Mimi Swartz, with the inside knowledge of former Enron insider Sherron Watkins, the main character of the book and from whose perspective the story is told. One similarity between the books overrides all the variations, however: Each is an inherently depressing chronicle of greed run wild. That so many accountants, lawyers, Wall Street traders, investment bank analysts, government regulators, and other professionals kept their doubts to themselves until the system collapsed speaks volumes. Sure, Enron finally went under. Sure, many of the greedy men and women who took it under have been punished by the justice system, or will be punished eventually. But those outcomes do not mean “the system” worked. The system failed miserably. As a result, an Enron executive killed himself, thousands of Enron employees lost their life savings, other large employers such as Enron’s accounting firm Arthur Andersen imploded, and millions of common-folk investors who thought they could trust the markets learned the hard way they cannot. That is a terrible legacy. Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter living in Columbia, Mo.

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