On Dick Fuld's trail, no dinner but I got hugged

KETCHUM, Idaho Mon Sep 7, 2009 10:21pm EDT

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KETCHUM, Idaho (Reuters) - Dick Fuld gave me a hug.

It was the end of two days I had spent on the trail of the former Lehman Brothers CEO, a man who has been excoriated for his role in the financial crisis.

I had tracked Fuld to his wood and stone house in Ketchum, a beautiful corner of Idaho, last Friday, and I took the same flight as him to Salt Lake City on Saturday before he flew on to New York and I returned home to San Francisco.

The hug, the second he had given me in the two days, was warm -- far from what you might expect from a banker nicknamed "gorilla" for his combative and intimidating behavior. It was accompanied by a departing "goodbye, sweetie."

I had been trying to get Fuld, who said I reminded him of his daughters, to do something he said he just couldn't do -- to tell his story about the collapse of Lehman on September 15 last year and the massive recriminations that have followed.

Repeatedly, over a series of meetings I had with him -- at his house, on a plane, at an airport -- Fuld indicated he really would like to get his side out there. But possibly for legal reasons and also because he doesn't think the world is yet ready to give him a fair hearing, he says he won't.

"You know what, people are saying all sorts of crap and it's a shame that they don't know the truth, but they're not going to get it from me."

"I want to get through the 15th and I want to get all that crap out of the way -- when all the news comes out, all the books come out," he said.

When pressed further about why he wouldn't defend himself and try to preempt some of the negative press before the anniversary of his former firm's collapse, he said: "No. Because I don't want to. I promised myself I wouldn't."

"Because, look, it sounds defensive and I don't want to be defensive. And I do believe at the end of the day that the good guys do win. I do believe that," he said, sounding beaten down and tired.

This is a man who clearly feels trapped. Trapped by the hurtful things that are going to be said and written as the anniversary of the Lehman failure approaches early next week, trapped by knowledge that some people he trusted have turned against him, and trapped by ongoing criminal and civil investigations that seem to be targeting him as public enemy No. 1.

He is addressing it with a mixture of anger, sadness and defiance.

We were walking through the Salt Lake City airport when I asked him about his views of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner -- the three key figures in the decision to let Lehman fail rather than use public money to bail it out.

He abruptly stopped, turned toward me and grasped my forearm.

His face tightened, he paused, and in a voice that was firm, but quick and pitched higher than normal, he said: "I'm sorry. I'm not going to do it. I'm just not going to do it."

Outside his house the day before, with mountains and a river as a backdrop, he had hinted that the past year has been very difficult.

"You know Freud in his lifetime was challenged, but you know what he always said, 'You know what, my mother loves me.' And you know what, my family loves me and I've got a few close friends who understand what happened and that's all I need," he said when I asked him how he was holding up.

Fuld looks healthy and, at least when I met him, he wasn't living large. He spent his morning hiking the mountain behind his house and said he was working when I showed up on Friday afternoon.

And despite not really wanting me there, Fuld was very courteous.

He didn't need to allow me to drive beyond his gate and up to the house, or talk to me when I arrived at his doorstep. He didn't need to say anything when I met him on the plane or at the airport -- he could have just ignored me.

Instead, after chastising me for "crossing a line" by coming onto his private property and suggesting I should leave, he caught himself: "I guess I did invite you in here. I don't even know why I'm talking to you. I guess because you had the guts to come in here."

And then: "I wish I could invite you to dinner but I just can't. I respect you, I respect your profession."

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin; editing by Martin Howell and Richard Chang)

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