WASHINGTON — How's this for an image makeover? Someone on Wall Street is actually apologizing for any role he or his bank might have played in underwriting a housing bubble that burst and plunged the nation into a recession.
"We are sorry for it. I am especially sorry for what's happened to shareholders" and to all Americans, Morgan Stanley chief executive John Mack told a House panel Wednesday. "Clearly, as an industry, we have accountability, and we're taking responsibility. I'll take responsibility for my firm."
The seven CEOs assembled with him remained silent.
Rep. Michael Capuano didn't, rejecting the apology outright and stopping just short of calling the banking chiefs criminals.
"You come here today on your bicycles after buying Girl Scout cookies and helping out Mother Teresa," railed the Boston-area Democrat. "You're saying, 'We're sorry. We didn't mean it. We won't do it again. Trust us.' I have some people in my (district) who have robbed some of your banks, and they say the same thing."
It was unclear whether Mack's mea culpa did much to answer public fury over the conduct of an industry that got the recession ball rolling and was the first to receive a taxpayer bailout with virtually no strings attached.
Lawmakers on the panel weren't assuaged, many still bitter over passing the deeply unpopular $700 billion rescue that may or may not have helped slow the economic slide, only to see reports that Wall Street firms doled out more than $18 billion in bonuses to their employees last year.
Mere contrition and gratitude satisfied almost no one on the committee Wednesday, but the CEOs tried.
First point: They understand that everyone's furious.
"It is abundantly clear that we are here amidst broad public anger at our industry," Lloyd C. Blankfein, CEO of The Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said at the opening of testimony.
Second: They abandoned any attempt to defend what so many find indefensible.
Why, Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., wanted to know, does anyone need multimillion-dollar bonuses on top of million-dollar salaries?
"If in good times you were told you weren't going to be getting a bonus, what part of your job would you not do?" Frank asked. "Would you, like, leave early on Wednesdays? Would you take longer lunches?"
"It's complicated," Mack said. "All that has to be looked at again."
Third: They're making sacrifices, too.
Citigroup's Vikram Pandit reminded the committee that he canceled an order for a $50 million jet last month because it seemed unseemly just after his company received $45 billion from the government.
"We understand the old model doesn't work," Pandit said, adding that he's cut his own salary to $1 until Citicorp returns to profitability. "We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world. Let me be clear to the committee: I get the new reality."
He would have been blind and deaf to have missed it. Citigroup canceled the jet order after none other than President Barack Obama pressured it to nix the "outrageous" expenditure.
What about Citicorp's other jets and those owned by the other banks?
"You could sell them" and use the money to reimburse taxpayers, said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "The big show of not buying one particular type of new plane flies in the face of how you're really flying."
No one took him up on the suggestion.
Next, the CEOs tried to frame the debate in future terms by offering to take personal responsibility for any problems going forward.
JP Morgan Chase chief James Dimon even offered to personally deal with credit card rate complaints, one by one.
Maxine Waters, D-Calif., ridiculed "our captains of the universe" and demanded to know whether the banks toughened the terms of credit cards or loans last year.
Bank of America chief executive Ken Lewis tried a little recession humor. These days, Lewis said, he feels more like a "corporal of the universe," rather than a captain.
Not amused, Waters snapped, "Did you increase your credit card interest rates?"
Yes, Lewis replied, on about 9 percent of Bank of America's customers.