It was July 8 in New York City and eighty-year-old T. Boone Pickens was, once again, the toast of the town. Wearing wraparound Ray-Bans and a gray pin-striped oxford suit, he strolled into the ornate Palace Hotel, stopped to shake hands with some well-wishers in the lobby—“Hey, Mr. Pickens, what an honor!” bellowed one businessman, his eyes widening as if he were meeting a head of state—and bounded upstairs to a banquet room, where a couple dozen journalists and photographers were gathered to hear his plan to save America from its addiction to foreign oil. Boone had spent more than an hour that morning chatting about the plan on CNBC, and he had also appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and NPR’s Morning Edition. Later that day, he was scheduled to meet with CNN, Fox, and the BBC, followed by visits to the offices of the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the CBS Evening News, where Katie Couric herself had decided to interview him for that night’s newscast.
“Now, listen to me, we’re in a ditch,” Boone told the reporters in his slow, gravelly drawl. “We’ve got all these politicians talking about better health care and what all, but believe me, we’re not going to have the money to take care of sick people—or anyone else as far as I’m concerned—if we don’t fix our energy problem right now. I’ve got an idea what to do. It might not be a perfect idea, but hell, none of my best ideas have been perfect.”
The reporters started grinning. Sitting in the back of the room, I couldn’t help but grin too. I found myself thinking about another occasion more than a decade ago when I had watched Boone. He was eating dinner with some business associates at the popular Dallas restaurant Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and his trademark boyish smile was wiped from his face. Just a few months earlier, he had been forced out of Mesa Petroleum, the oil and gas exploration company he had started in 1964. He had formed BP Capital, a hedge fund that specialized in oil and natural gas commodities, shortly after his Mesa exit, but it was already on the rocks. Younger investors considered him a has-been. Even Bea, his wife of 24 years, had given up on Boone. She had launched a full-scale assault on his $78 million fortune in divorce court, going so far as to demand full custody of their dog, a brown-eyed papillon named Winston. That night, as I watched Boone walk out of the restaurant carrying a little bag containing