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The Story Behind the Brooksley Born Story (and Other Gems)

By Andy Alexander

Today’s Post contained several gems.

It’s hard to not be moved by the poignant photo (on today's front page and 11th in this gallery) of the mother and 8-year-old daughter of Air Force Capt. Todd R. Bracey touching his gravestone on Memorial Day in Arlington National Cemetery. Bracey was killed when his aircraft crashed in Albania in 2005. The image was taken by Post photographer Gerald Martineau.

Reporter Daniel de Vise offered an uplifting story on the perfect attendance record of Darnestown high school senior Stefanie Zaner, who hasn’t been marked absent in her 13 years of attending classes. When she shows up Friday for her last day of classes at Northwest High School in Montgomery County, it will be her 2,340th straight day of public school. She’s among only a handful to achieve the feat. The story, a refreshing change of pace from sobering topics like North Korea’s nuclear blast, was atop's “most-viewed articles” list throughout the day.

But my favorite was the profile of Brooksley Born, the former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission whose decade-old warning about financial upheaval went unheeded.

As Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote, Born “foresaw a financial cataclysm, accurately predicting that exotic investments known as over-the-counter derivatives could play a crucial role in a crisis much like the one now convulsing America.” It’s an important piece that chronicles Born's lifelong battles to overcome sexism, including her struggles to be heard by the male-dominated cadre of top government financial leaders in the late 1990s. In Roig-Franzia’s telling, it’s Born's modesty that gives her immense stature, even now that she’s retired at the age of 68 and out of the public spotlight.

I was particularly struck by the story’s third paragraph, which noted that Born had granted The Post “her first interview with a major news organization since last fall’s economic collapse.” The key to this powerful piece was getting in the door. I asked Roig-Franzia how he did it, when so many others were unsuccessful after months of trying.

“I think persistence paid off,” he said.

He began last Fall, after his editor urged him to try to get Born to talk. “Like so many reporters, I got nowhere,” he recalled.

“But in late March, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation announced that Born would be awarded the Profiles in Courage award in May. I thought this could be a possible opening. I called her on every number I could find. I sent e-mails to her, to assistants to press relations people at the Kennedy Center, to anyone I could think of. Still, I was frankly shocked when I picked up my phone the next day, and heard a woman saying, softly “Hello, this is Brooksley Born.

“She refused to speak with me on-the-record, but agreed to a confidential chat at her office in Arnold & Porter’s downtown law offices. She told me, as I think we reflected in the piece, that she had been reluctant to speak publicly because she did not to want to gloat or say ‘I told you so,’ especially while people were suffering because of the economic crisis. I chuckled, and told her that plenty of other people we’re saying ‘I told you so’ for her. I also pointed out that I thought her reticence to speak publicly was an interesting and revealing element for our piece. And I told her that I was interested in the totality of her career -- including her work in behalf of feminist causes, in addition to her time as head of the CFTC. I really thought these were ‘blind spots’ in the narrative of her uniquely Washington life story.

“She took a day to think about my request for an on-the-record interview, and agreed to what became a series of four increasingly more revealing interviews -- three at her Arnold & Porter office, and one at her home in the Kalorama neighborhood. She was cautious and measured, which is her nature, but she also laughed and seemed to enjoy our leisurely chats. In the end, I think we got a better sense of just who this ‘Cassandra’ we’d been hearing about really is.”

By Andy Alexander  | May 26, 2009; 5:36 PM ET
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Why was this important interview of Brooksley Born that revealed so much about those who rejected essential regulation not on the front page? Larry Summers ought to be given another opportunity to speak to Mr. Roig-Franzia.

Posted by: ephor2008 | May 28, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

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