The epigraph in William D. Cohan‘s latest investigative book comes from fellow traveler Errol Morris. It reads: “We may never be able to uncover the truth. But we have to try. The truth is out there, and we, in principle, can find it.” That “in principle” sure can be pesky. But like Morris, Cohan remains undaunted by truth’s elusive quality–that shiftiness that persuades lesser seekers that truth is ultimately fungible, that it doesn’t exist. Cohan might have used a like-minded quote from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Facts are troublesome only to those whose ambitions and desires they inhibit–for the rest of us facts are helpful signposts on the road to a just worldview.
What Cohan has tried repeatedly to do is take the truth Morris acknowledges is “out there” and put it in there–that is, in between the covers of his books. A Wall Street veteran holding advanced degrees in both business and journalism, Cohan often takes stock–so to speak–of his own bailiwick: he’s written clear-eyed books on Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns and, in The Last Tycoons, the irresistible inside story of Lazard Frères–the very firm where Cohan made his Wall Street bones (and loot). But it’s not just the extraordinary world of finance that interests him–Cohan likes to explore value and fairness on other avenues too. That takes him to the inimitable art world sometimes, but his most recent report comes from inside the hallowed halls of Duke University–using Duke and its scandalous politics to expose corruption of the American university system more broadly. The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities is probably as close to the truth as anybody has come in looking at the whirlwind speed at which the very definition and purpose of elite universities is changing. It’s like watching a microcosm of climate change. Cohan might well have taken his epigraph from Ecclesiastes, a favorite source of modernist writers, for his exceptionally modern book: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Now that’s the truth he tells from Duke.