Bill Ackman Is a Brilliant Fictional Character

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Before last month I knew next to nothing about Bill Ackman. I probably would have recognized his name. I guess I knew he was a hedge-fund billionaire, and his reputation as kind of a jerk. “He has been straddling that line of public recognition for some 20 years now,” a New York writer explained last week, with a “formula for notoriety” based on “making big controversial calls” as an investor “and picking messy, high-profile fights.”

My interest was piqued when I learned that he was part of the group publicly attempting to purge Harvard’s first Black president. Ackman attended Harvard roughly a decade after I did, and he has donated roughly $50 million more to the university than I have. Claudine Gay had just started the job last July, but he was angry because he thought she hadn’t condemned (or disciplined) Harvard’s anti-Israel, pro-Palestine, Hamas-apologist protesters quickly enough or strongly enough. That gambit failed to convince Harvard’s governing board, even after Gay’s very inept congressional testimony about free speech and the advocacy of genocide. But then a number of arguably minor instances of plagiarism were unearthed in her Ph.D. dissertation and other writing, which Ackman and the gang promoted as additional reasons for her to resign or be fired—and two weeks ago, that worked.

The first news story I ever read that focused on Ackman came shortly thereafter, in The New York Times: Journalists at Business Insider had found a number of arguably minor instances of plagiarism in the Ph.D. dissertation and other writing by Ackman’s wife, who’d been a tenured professor until 2020 at MIT, just down the street from Harvard.

Karma, people said online, and I figured that was the end of my curiosity about Bill Ackman. Until last Thursday, when I came across a post of his on Elon Musk’s website, the first I’d ever read. The self-promotion of his little preface was exceptional: “This is the best and most important thing I have ever written.” He writes this about a tweet. “Don’t miss it.”

This was a post that went on and on and on and on, a 5,626-word piece of prose about the Business Insider articles on his wife’s plagiarism, longer than the articles and longer than I thought social-media posts could be. But I was hooked. I had never hate-read anything at such length. Then I found more of his recent posts, many more, one (5,297 words) about plagiarism, another (4,054 words) explaining why diversity, equity, and inclusion “is racist because reverse racism is racism, even if it is against white people” and asserting that Harvard’s pursuit of DEI is “the root cause of antisemitism at Harvard.”

Taken together, these recent posts of Ackman’s are like a novella, an exquisite piece of satirical fiction in digital epistolary form. They have the voice of an absurdly self-regarding unreliable narrator, a hot-headed, self-righteous, born-rich billionaire investor who considers himself intelligent and virtuous, persecuted by villains as he fights for justice and the honor of his defenseless goddess wife—and reveals his foolishness and awfulness and possible derangement in the course of a week-long public tantrum.

The Ackman character is a dark-comedy hybrid of Kendall Roy from Succession and the narrator/protagonist of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, whose punctilious academic analysis of a long poem by someone he knows morphs into a delusionally grandiose conspiracy theory starring himself. If Ackman’s posts were actually a work of fiction, some readers would find it too over-the-top, too filled with implausibly pat parallels and ironies, the protagonist’s surname a bit too Nabokovian or Pynchonesque. But all in the permissible range of satire, I say, and in this instance brilliant.

His monologues struck me in this way just now, I’m sure, because I’m in the middle of writing a novel set in the near future, all of it in first person, with one character an activist trillionaire. Maybe also because I’ve published a novel in the voice of Donald Trump, and once co-wrote an off-Broadway theater piece in which actors performed unintentionally funny transcripts of scenes from real life. And because years ago I had a relevant relationship with one of the main characters in Ackman’s little drama.

“When former President Gay was hired, I knew little about her, but I was instinctually happy for Harvard and the black community,” Ackman posted while on holiday in the Caribbean, the day after he’d helped force her out over her plagiarism. But now, given her handling of the Harvard anti-Israel protests, he’d realized she was “not qualified,” having been chosen by a board looking for “a DEI-approved candidate.” And by the way, “in light of the amount, nature, and degree of plagiarism that had surfaced in her work,” why wasn’t she also booted from her tenured Harvard professorship?

The very next day, speaking of pat parallels and ironies standard in fiction but not so much in real life, came the first Business Insider story about plagiarism by his wife, an artist-designer-technologist and former MIT professor named Neri Oxman. In real life, one would expect a response from the plagiarist like the abashed explanation and apology Oxman immediately posted on X, and then the chatter would run its course over the weekend, and the attention and embarrassment would dissipate.

But that would have been too boring for the Bill Ackman character. Ackman, with his 1.1 million followers on X, surely saw an opportunity for a fight, for more attention, for the story to continue with him as its star. He simultaneously complained and bragged about the attention being given to the news stories about his wife’s misdeeds. “It is now the number one trending item on X,” he posted a couple of days after the articles appeared, “with 35,600 posts versus number two which is the Princess of Wales with 3,174 posts.” Even before he’d really put his weight behind it. An effort that would—tragic irony!—inevitably make his wife’s mistakes still more widely known, extending and perhaps deepening her pain.

What a character. And so many fine little fictionlike character-revealing moments in his posts. Such as his aside to the rich people who have entrusted him with investing $16 billion of their wealth: “And for investors who are concerned about my time management,” given the tens of thousands of words he was tweeting, “I am posting while on the elliptical for better time management.” And his repeated stock phrases: “first class” (three times, two of them about people with whom he had only a phone call), “around the world” (13 times), and “unethical” (five times, all concerning Business Insider).

And metafictional touches as well. Like quote-posting a news story containing a quote from the spokesperson for the company that owns Business Insider, about how “most people underestimated the way that Bill Ackman is completely losing it.” And his side conversations on X, in which he’s a tiny investor, with the owner of that company, the king of arrogant anti-woke attention-addict billionaires, whom Ackman declared guiltless of “antisemitic intent” last fall. And Elon Musk telling him: “I recommend a lawsuit” against Business Insider and that in his experience as Tesla’s CEO, “BI is the new Gawker: evil to the core.”

A fictional character like this—the graceless, rich bully desperate to convince the reader that he’s magnanimous and noble—always goes overboard. “I have spent the majority of my life advocating on behalf of and supporting members of disadvantaged communities,” Ackman writes—and “have always believed in giving disadvantaged groups a helping hand”—just before concluding that affirmative action is too much help.

A few days after proudly gloating about the firing and humiliation of one successful woman—“Today was an important step forward for the University”—such a character naturally says about the humiliation of his wife, “Try to imagine how she feels. Seriously, try hard.” Be empathetic, like Bill Ackman, who “in business and in life” has “always believed that the best way to understand someone’s perspective is to reverse places with them. Pretend that you are sitting in their seat.”

Such a middle-aged character would naturally have a new second wife he preposterously overpraises, blurbing the greatest trophy wife of all trophy wives ever. Her “scholarship is breathtaking in its creativity, vast in its scale.” She is “one of the most acclaimed designers and scientists in the world,” indeed “one of the most creative, brilliant and talented people in the world, and she has been recognized as such.” She “is also one of the kindest, most loving, and gentle human beings in the world,” as well as “a gorgeous, incredibly talented and charismatic person.” And then the perfect punch line for the elitist in his bubble addressing his million randos on X who don’t know anyone who’s ever heard of his wife: “But don’t take my word for it, ask around.”

He had slagged Harvard’s announcement of its investigation into Claudine Gay’s work for having “characterized the plagiarism as ‘unintentional’ and invented new euphemisms, i.e., ‘duplicative language’ to describe plagiarism, a belittling of academic integrity that has caused grave damage to Harvard’s academic standards and credibility.”

As in a movie or novel, cut to a week later and the ironic comic payoff, Ackman going to far more ridiculous lengths to pretend that his wife didn’t really plagiarize at all. His invented euphemisms include clerical errors. He invents a statistical metric as well: because only a few of the 2,774 paragraphs in her thesis contained text copied from elsewhere without quotation marks, she had “an error rate of 0.1141%,” which is “pretty darn good,” and her “error rate for sentences” “even better.”

Defending her 15 uncredited cuts-and-pastes of passages from Wikipedia, of all sources, the pathos and comedy are extreme. “I am sure that when Neri wrote her dissertation”—she was 33—“she thought that there was nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a dictionary,” he writes the day after the story broke. In his later, longer apologia he reveals what he thinks is a gotcha loophole that exonerates her completely. “The good news” is that their lawyers used the Wayback Machine to discover that “MIT’s Academic Integrity Handbook did not require citation or even mention Wikipedia until 2013, four years after Neri wrote her dissertation.”

Another only-in-fiction parallelism: This bit of absurd lawyerly hair-splitting recalls Gay’s lawyerly hair-splitting in her congressional testimony. When asked three times whether calls “for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment,” she just kept answering that it depends on “the context.”

And if you hadn’t already gotten the idea that the Ackman character at his most witless thinks he’s being brilliant, he posted a new 2,137-word-long chapter this past weekend. “I found a great leader who is looking to run a huge business that has lost its way,” he writes. “I recently made a large investment in this opportunity.” This goes on for 600 words—a 600-word-long blind lead vibrating with pride in its own cleverness—before getting to the point: that Ackman, once a fan of the horrid, rich MAGA Republican Vivek Ramaswamy, would now be backing the liquor heir and gelato merchandiser Dean Phillips’s vanity campaign for the Democratic nomination. “This is not a joke,” Ackman oddly says. “I am totally serious.” “I am wiring $1 million a political action committee that supports Dean’s run” he writes, making “by far the largest investment I have ever made in someone running for office.” “Dean has meaningful skin in the game”—a few million of his own. “This is how democracy happens”—rich people financing their own campaigns. A preening multibillionaire acting as if $1 million is a game-changing presidential-campaign donation: If this were fiction, coming just after “this is not a joke,” readers would understand it as a reference to Dr. Evil in Austin Powers announcing his plan to “hold the world ransom for … $1 million!”

But back to the main plot, the exposure of his wife’s embarrassing minor plagiarism and his decision to make the collateral damage he brought down on her a much bigger, messier, more memorable episode than it would have been otherwise. And putting the Ackman persona—hyperbolic, entitled, imperious, sanctimonious, self-serving, perpetually somewhere between peevish and furious—on spectacular display.

For starters, the Business Insider pests were seeking prepublication comment about their first plagiarism story while Ackman and Oxman were on vacation in the Caribbean with only “weak WiFi.” The journalists gave them until noon to reply, and then four hours more, but that required Ackman and his wife to “postpone our flight” back to New York—on my Gulfstream, the character would have revealed in fiction—and “arrive about four hours later than planned.” The next day, back home, when Business Insider sought comment about Oxman’s at least 15 uncredited lifts from Wikipedia, he noted that the email arrived at 5:19 p.m., “after sundown last Friday, after the beginning of Shabbat.” (I will note that the arrival of sundown on Fridays does not seem to prevent Ackman from posting to social media.)

“The good news,” he writes after the Business Insider articles appeared, “is that none of the above will interfere with Neri’s success,” because she’d made the “brilliant decision to leave academia behind” in 2020, “in some part due to her marriage to me,” and that she had already “in stealth mode” raised tens of millions for her start-up business, OXMAN.

In his mammoth post on January 10, however, four times he called the Business Insider reporting “catastrophically damaging,” not just to his wife but somehow also “to me and my … business.” The articles about her (minor) plagiarism, which he insists is so inconsequential that it isn’t plagiarism at all, are nevertheless “much worse and more damaging” for her than being charged with insider trading—a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison—would be for him. “Business Insider’s campaign to destroy Neri could have literally killed her”—and did not only because of the “profound love and support from me.” Don’t forget: I’m the hero, her savior.

“We all should be grateful that X is owned by Musk,” he wrote on X about the thousands of words he was posting, because “Musk is a free speech absolutist which I respect,” and otherwise “Neri and I would not have had the ability to respond in a rapid fashion in a public forum where free speech is allowed, encouraged, and respected.” Such over-the-top ironic hypocrisy, like in fiction: Because Claudine Gay had said that Harvard’s “commitment to free expression” means “we do not punish or sanction people” for “views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous,” such as the extreme anti-Israel rhetoric of student protesters, he wanted her to be fired or resign. “I was simply trying to help her address the rise of antisemitism on campus,” he explained in one of his long posts. “Unfortunately, she did not respond to my first letter or any of my efforts at my outreach to her, nor did the Corporation board. To this day, neither former President Gay or the Corporation board has ever responded to any of the three letters I wrote.” The nerve.

His off-with-their-heads threats to individuals and large groups are like those of a fictional villain. Last fall, he wanted Harvard to publish the names of all the members of student organizations that signed onto an imprudent pro-Palestine letter so he could compile a blacklist for prospective employers.

The exposure of his wife’s plagiarism, he writes, “has inspired me to save all news organizations from the trouble of doing plagiarism reviews. “We will begin with a review of the work of all current MIT faculty members … for plagiarism”—1,000 academics, as well as MIT’s president (whom Ackman also wants fired for her indulgence of pro-Palestine protests) and all of its many dozens of board members. “Last night,” he posted the next day, like a boy imagining that he’s a Bond villain, “no one at @MIT had a good night’s sleep.” After his post about his MIT plagiarism review, “I am sure that an audible collective gasp could be heard around the campus.”

His wild threats are always cloaked in pseudo-virtue, like those of gangsters, at least the ones in fiction. “It has been the case since as far as I can remember in business and in media,” he writes, “that family was off limits,” but “Business Insider broke this sacred code.” And this, exactly like some fictional tough-guy character’s line of dialogue: “The code of the road was that you can attack the protagonist as much as you want, but not his wife and not his kids.” Indeed, it was metafictional, with the protagonist telling this story by referring to “the protagonist.” Throughout these hypotheticals about players in the arena, Ackman refers to his wife.

The passage is also another fine illustration of the character’s hypocrisy: Apparently as part of his ongoing campaign to get MIT to fire its president, last fall he accused its board chair of tax fraud because MIT had made donations to the man’s wife’s charity, a “non-profit in the DEI space.” And when he was called out the other day on X for using her to besmirch her husband, who is, like Ackman, a rich professional investor, he protested—so tautological, so perfect—that he’d simply “had to mention her” because he’d chosen to besmirch her husband by alleging that he was corruptly funneling money to her nonprofit.

And then, inevitably in such a story, the protagonist tries to pull strings, certain he can get other rich and powerful and prominent men, his peers, to order Business Insider’s journalists to make the articles he didn’t like disappear.

“I assumed that with a call or two, I would be able to convince BI or AS”—Axel Springer, the large German media company that owns the publication—“to suspend the stories,” says the master of the universe blithely, oblivious as ever to his self-own. “This seemed like an easy request to me.” But should they not agree to fold right away, “I proposed that AS announce that an investigation was pending … The stories could then be corrected, or I thought, more likely, depublished.”

In his short X prologue that hooked me in the first place, Ackman also says the sort of implausible thing a character might say at the beginning of a certain kind of novel. “Toward the end is the best part,” he promises, “because I name names.”

The first of the names he names is Henry Kravis, “one of my inspirations for going into the investment business.” He’s a co-founder of KKR, which is Axel Springer’s largest shareholder, and sits on its board. “I have known Henry Kravis, not well, but for 20 or more years … and have always had a good but not significant relationship with him.”

Kravis’s appearance as a character in this particular role is ironic, and in a work of fiction would prompt a quick flashback—in which, irony upon irony, I turn up as a minor character. I knew Henry Kravis, not well, nearly 30 years ago, when KKR controlled the media company that owned New York magazine. In the mid-’90s I was New York’s editor in chief. One day Kravis invited me for breakfast in his 26-room Park Avenue triplex to tell me that the magazine’s coverage of Wall Street displeased him and his friends and associates, and that I should end it. I didn’t, and six months later I was fired. In other words, I had a significant but not good relationship with him. (At the time, Kravis declined to comment, and the company that ran New York denied he played any part in that decision.)

So now, in 2024, Bill Ackman says he “reached out” to Henry Kravis, obviously to ask him to inappropriately intervene in Business Insider’s journalism. As Kravis had done with New York on his own account in 1996.

In his introduction of the Kravis character, Ackman immediately veers toward a sneaky violation of the code of the road, whereby wives are supposedly off-limits. “Henry is married to Marie-Josée Kravis,” Ackman writes, neglecting to identify her as the chair and former president of the board the Museum of Modern Art, “who happens to be a big fan of Neri’s [artwork]. Neri does not sell her work to individuals except in extremely rare cases. There are only four people in the world who own Neri’s art, and I am one of them. The other three are special people for whom Neri has made an exception. Marie-Josée is one of them.” This odd digression is a perfect satirical twist—the narrator trying too hard to guide the reader to share his sense of betrayal by his intimate when it happens, as if forgetting he’s just admitted that he has a “not significant relationship” with Kravis.

Before Kravis replied, Ackman called a Business Insider board member he knows for help. They “spoke for 31 minutes,” and Ackman says the guy, whom he agreed not to identify publicly, promised to “resolve the issue with a four-part plan including an investigation of what went down, an opinion piece he was writing for BI on plagiarism … and two other steps which I don’t remember.” So unintentionally funny, that two other steps I don’t remember at the end.

A call or two, an easy request, boom, done—so he texts Kravis to say never mind, it’s all good, “but Neri and I would love to see you and MJ.”

But the fix was not in. That afternoon, Axel Springer announced that it was looking into how the Business Insider articles had come about, but that “the facts of the reports have not been disputed.”

Ackman persists. “I had multiple people reach out to me from around the world to tell me that Mathias Döpfner, the Chairman and CEO of AS, is a wonderful, first-class person.” Yet when they finally spoke, “he was remarkably unaware that there were factual issues with the BI stories”—by which Ackman evidently means his own curious insistence that his wife’s plagiarism doesn’t fit the definition of plagiarism.  Fantastic little character detail: Imagine the megalomania required to say it’s “remarkable” that someone running a multibillion-dollar media company isn’t focused on the details of some inconsequential stories about you in one of his scores of publications.

“I sent a short-form summary of the facts in a series of Whatsapp texts” and “asked Mathias to get back to me,” Ackman says on January 10. “He has not returned my texts or emails since. Early this morning, I sent Mathias an email proposing we sit down and resolve this. I have not heard back from him.” Given that Döpfner was a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 20 years before he became an Axel Springer executive, one imagines he has encountered and proceeded to ignore many, many angry Bill Ackmans.

(After the internal investigation, the CEO of Business Insider announced on Monday that it had found “no unfair bias or personal, political, and/or religious motivation in the pursuit of the stories,” and Axel Springer said it “stands by Business Insider and its newsroom.”)

“I was misled by the BI board member,” Ackman writes grimly. And now “after 110 hours or so of trying” to get Business Insider to capitulate—oddly precise-but-imprecise number; nice detail—“I haven’t been able to achieve this objective.”

But on the tantrum goes. Kravis and the others are “responsible for Business Insider’s illegal and unethical journalism,” he says, then amends that a few minutes later. “I should have said: ‘Those responsible and profiting from Business Insider’s illegal and unethical journalism.’” Profiting, adds the ruthless professional-investor character with evident disgust. “Now, why do I say you are responsible? Because,” he explains, answering with a line only used ironically nowadays except by cringe characters like Bill Ackman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” He is “incredibly shocked”—shocked!—“by the conduct of a company controlled by KKR, a firm that I have had enormous respect for.”

He’s desperate to convince readers that he is the good guy, seeking only to improve the world. “We need to decide what kind of world we want to live in.” And then a rhetorical question: “Do we want to live in a world where journalists go after your life partner and your kids?”

But he’s also the angry weenie working hard to seem sinister, as usual, threatening anyone who’s dared to disrespect him––here in implicit gangster fashion. “In that world, one would respond to an attack on one’s wife and family by going after the owner of the media company and his wife and family.” If you get my drift. “How would [the co-CEOs of KKR] feel if it was their wives and kids rather than mine? How would Henry Kravis and [his co-founder] react to this experience?” He says one of the co-CEOs could “stop this madness,” and had better, because “his inaction here is about to cause enormous reputational damage to KKR.”

On X, Ackman has been hinting at litigation—“Business Insider’s and @axelspringer liability just goes up and up and up”—and this past Sunday issued another of his would-be tough-guy lines: “Business Insider is toast. You will hear from us in a few weeks. It will look something like this,” pointing to a clip from Gladiator with a decapitated head and Russell Crowe telling his soldiers, “At my signal, unleash hell.”

Is he playing a manic character? Or has he actually become unhinged, maybe delusional? At the end of a weird 375-word passage beginning with the title “Being in the Spotlight,” in which he repeats the word spotlight a dozen times, he announces, “I am now going to turn the spotlight around to the people responsible for this unbelievably disastrous mess.” (At this point he begins referring to Mathias Döpfner as “Michael” five times, but intermittently, although in a correction says it was only twice and blames autocorrect.) Kravis and Döpfner and the rest “are finally in the spotlight, and yes, they are in the spotlight for wrongdoing.” Then he switches to the second person, addressing them directly: “How does that feel? Not great I am sure.” Ackman’s posts are “the spotlight”?

“This has been the biggest story on social media and the world, and you all are in the media business,” he finally screams at his new adversaries. “How could you not be following it?”

And then he issues them an ultimatum under the boldfaced headline “What Needs to Happen Now.” Axel Springer “needs to immediately depublish all of the Neri Oxman plagiarism stories,” and its board and management “need to issue a public apology for defaming my wife … Michael [sic] needs to get on a plane and come to meet me in New York immediately” and then “Michael [sic], Henry, and I need to sit down tomorrow and resolve this mess.”

Finally, he says, the money from “any settlement that Neri receives should go to her company OXMAN,” because “$70 million has been invested in her launch, but more capital will help.” Funny. And then the perfect last line as the protagonist very convincingly descends into madness: “The time for this madness to end is now.”

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