Charlie Keating chose to base his Ponzi game in Phoenix for the same reasons quite a few of its residents have chosen to settle there—it looks wide open. What Keating didn’t anticipate is that in Arizona the one thing which can’t be explained away is stiffing your buddies. Keating’s habit of treating everybody’s money as his own caught up with him, with the help of a very few brave men like Henry Gonzalez, Ed Gray, and Mike Manning but it was when he started taking down the state’s senior population that his markers were finally called. All the charitable donations and sponsored swim teams weren’t enough.
Bowden, an old Tucson hand at understanding Arizona politics, and Binstein, a veteran of the Washington scene, make it clear that Keating’s world was pure fantasy: the tacky parties, the brutalization of his employees, the attempts to buy his way into what passes for a Phoenix social life. Keating had no more understanding of the difference between his money and anyone else’s than the slowest kid in the ethics class. As long as no one of “importance” was minding the investors’ business, then Charlie Keating was prepared to keep on looting everything he could get his hands on.
The story of the Reagan administration’s eagerness to please would-be robber barons like Keating tells a good deal about the way the U.S. government really was bought and paid for in the 1980’s. Binstein and Bowden’s account is cautionary as well. It could very easily happen again.