Ackman joins the green-ink brigade

By Felix Salmon
June 1, 2009

Joe Nocera’s column on Bill Ackman led with Ackman crying during the Target AGM. He continued:

He made it sound as if he had achieved a moral victory just by the fact that he had waged this proxy fight. Somehow, he seemed to believe, it was going to make corporate America a better place.

Then — I kid you not — he started quoting John F. Kennedy. “We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” he said. And that’s when the tears started welling up.

Ackman did not take this well. In fact, he fired off a 5,238-word letter to the New York Times, addressed not to Nocera but to “the Editor”, and signed “Sincerely, William A. Ackman”. Along the way — after accusing Nocera of having penned “the pettiest form of hateful and destructive journalism” — Ackman admits that maybe he went a little bit too far with the whole JFK schtick:

I wrote my brief remarks in the hotel the morning of the meeting and looked for inspiration from some of the great speeches I had heard and read over the course of my life. I wrote these words alone. I shared them with no one. Clearly I got somewhat carried away.

But in the annals of getting somewhat carried away, Ackman’s speech at Target’s AGM is nothing compared to his letter to the NYT. He even manages to drag another youthful and charismatic president down into a rather silly dispute:

President Obama would never call his next-term election opponent a distraction because our President understands, as Mr. Nocera should, that our country’s democratic system and American corporations’ success or failure depend upon incumbency being challenged by strong competition, no matter what the quality of the sitting president or a company’s board members.

It’s hard to square this kind of tone-deafness — it’s a column, guy, get over it — with Nocera’s portrait of Ackman as Man of the Media:

Over the years, he has also become increasingly comfortable using the news media as a way to help put pressure on companies. When he first appeared on my radar screen, Mr. Ackman was so press-shy he refused to allow Fortune magazine, then my employer, to take his photograph. Now he happily co-hosts CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” trading bons mots with Becky, Joe and the gang. He has gone from being awkward in public to silky smooth.

The single biggest risk facing any hedge fund manager is overconfidence — and I think that what has happened here is that Ackman, in the wake of all those hours wallowing in CNBC obsequiousness, has lost his initial — and perfectly natural — fear and mistrust of the media. Instead, he can fire off a monster siwoti letter like this one without stopping to think of how it will be perceived. Big mistake: he’s now much more of an object of ridicule than he ever was before the letter was published.

But desperate men, I suppose, will do desperate things. Let’s hope that GGP investment works out better for him.

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