Wall Street 2: The Return of Corzine

“I’m 58 now,” he said in 2005, “and I’m the last person on every committee I sit on. I’d have to stay in Washington until I’m 80 to be a committee chairman.” That November, he won New Jersey’s governorship, though the race wasn’t easy. After the dissolution of his marriage, his wife, whom he’d met in kindergarten, spoke about him as tainted by ambition and state politics. “Jon did let his family down,” she said publicly, “and he’ll probably let New Jersey down, too.”

“It’s a crazy political system. As feral as New York politics can be, New Jersey in some ways is preternatural,” Professor Baker said, describing the localized boss system and extreme fragmentation. “People cling tenaciously.”

On April 12, 2007, he was being driven 91 miles per hour in a Chevrolet Suburban to a meeting with Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team when the SUV hit a pickup that had swerved to avoid another car. He was not wearing his seat belt. His femur, broken in two places, was sticking through the skin of his left leg. He received 12 pints of blood; spent eight days on a ventilator; and fractured 11 ribs, his sternum, his collarbone and a vertebra.

Joshua Zeitz, a senior policy adviser and now Mr. Corzine’s chief of staff, said that the accident was, in retrospect, a minor event in a mostly successful governorship. “To me, it’s not that he’s leaving something that was too tough to handle,” he said, offering that Mr. Corzine had cut the size of government while increasing funds for education, avoiding cuts for vulnerable senior citizens and taking steps toward ending the state’s infamous property taxes. “It’s a success story that I think historians will someday appreciate,” he said. He pointed out that he himself is a professor of history.
As for his more notable failures, like his attempts to privatize New Jersey’s toll roads, and especially the reelection loss, another source with knowledge of Mr. Corzine’s thinking said he doesn’t feel that he was vanquished by New Jersey’s gruesomeness, just that the economy got tremendously horrible. The voters, he feels, were only voting with their pocketbooks.

“FOR ME, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN totally debilitating. It wasn’t for him,” said Dan Neidich, a former Goldman Sachs management committee member. “He’s one of those guys who can keep his eye on what he’s trying to achieve.”

It takes seven days to turn a cast-out businessman and exiled politician into a new chief executive. On Tuesday, March 16, a 36-year-old managing director at J.C. Flowers & Co.—the buyout firm founded by, named for and led by the bespectacled former Goldman dealmaker, J. Christopher Flowers—flew to Chicago for a meeting. When the executive, David Schamis, landed, he got a call saying that the CEO of MF Global, which Mr. Flowers owns a sizable portion of, was resigning. “Not good,” he said into the phone. Mr. Schamis went to the hotel and called up his boss. “Chris, we have a problem,” he said. “How do you feel about asking Jon to do this?”

Mr. Flowers and his former colleague had been talking, loosely, about working together. On Wednesday morning, he called Mr. Corzine up. “I’m happy to talk about it,” the former governor said. Meanwhile, Mr. Schamis called MF Global’s board to say he had an idea about a CEO replacement. He called him Mr. X and said he had “extreme credibility.”

When he hung up, he was supposed to go to the Chicago meeting, but he decided there was too much going on in New York. He got back on a plane. When he was standing at the American Airlines gate, he got a call from Mr. Corzine. As they scheduled a meeting for later that day, another former governor, Rod Blagojevich, happened to walk by.

At the meeting, Mr. Corzine greeted MF Global’s general counsel, Laurie Ferber, Goldman’s former co–general counsel of the fixed-income, currency and commodities division, with a hug and a kiss. That made Mr. Schamis happy, he said.

Mr. Corzine was given an annual report to read, which he brought back on Friday with highlights and questions written into the margins. A number of other executives came in. There was talk. When they left, Mr. Schamis asked how the former governor might feel about joining as an interim chief executive. “If I’m going to do this,” he said, “I’m going to do it full time.” Over the weekend, details of his compensation were hammered out. Everyone settled on a $1.5 million salary, a $1.5 million signing bonus and a $3 million target bonus for the next fiscal year.

On Tuesday morning, a few hours after Mr. Corzine had a 7 a.m. Yale Club breakfast with Mr. Schamis and the firm’s outgoing chairwoman, the deal was announced. He is chairman and chief executive of a Wall Street company again—its third CEO in a year and a half.

“There’s no regret, believe me. I’m excited,” Mr. Corzine said. “There will be nothing that makes me feel better than the purpose of the next several years of my life, as long as I can still see my grandkids: that I’m part of a recognized, growing, successful, respected institution.”