Circus Fabulous!

Senator John Ensign came in and out, carrying what looked like iced tea. The morning became afternoon. A protestor in a prison suit yawned twice. Ms. Dowd went out. Senator Mark Pryor asked if any of the witnesses’ personal actions contributed to the financial downturn. “Regret, to me, means something you feel you did wrong. And I don’t have that,” said Mr. Sparks. He was the group’s de facto leader. His voice was monotone, crisp, unexcited and unemotional. His answers were long and dry. The room stayed still. Three hours became four.

Even when Mr. Tourre admitted that he should have disclosed that Mr. Paulson had a role in building the deal that the S.E.C. has sued over, the momentous admission sort of melted into the rest of the testimony.

The room exploded when the gavel came down. “How do you sleep at night, Fab?” a protestor said, pressing up to him. He led an ocean of photographers out of the room, half-smiling.

Chief risk officer Craig Broderick and chief financial officer David Viniar, who came next, were even more leveled. Weathering the mortgage meltdown was much more mundane than betting on or against anything, Mr. Viniar’s opening remarks said. It was about positions and risk management.

Then something spectacular happened. When Senator Levin reminded the executives that his firm thought its deals were “shitty” as they were peddling them to clients, he asked what Mr. Viniar felt when he read that word in the committee’s exhibit book. “I think,” he said, “that’s very unfortunate to have on email.”

The room gasped. Here, cutting through the tedium, was true villainy!

Gorgeous and theatrical! An executive who was sorry not for what was said, but that it was recorded! On cue, because a vote on the financial bill had been called, the committee disappeared for a recess. Mouths hung open. The committee returned. When Senator Levin sat down, Mr. Viniar corrected himself; he took out the email part.

Just after 5 p.m., seven hours after the hearing began, in the middle of a senator’s speech, Mr. Blankfein entered the room. The hugeness of the crowd of photographers who gathered around him—their clicks making a noise that nearly drowned out the senator—was dreamlike.

But it was late. The group of protestors dressed in prison outfits left before he finished.

When the chief executive, reading from his prepared remarks, said that the day the S.E.C. announced the suit was one of the worst days of his professional life, it just didn’t sound like he meant it. As the hearing, which had just two momentary breaks, ticked into its 10th hour, the pugilism was long gone. One out of the 10 committee members stayed for the end.

It was almost serene. In the wake of one of the worst financial catastrophes in the country’s history, the chief executive of one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world sat alone at a table. But the circus had left. It was boring.

mabelson@observer.com