The Bankman-Fried Mystique

The obsession with S.B.F. in the Democratic party had to do with the theoretical role he was going to play in a few years, not the role he was playing until two weeks ago. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
November 18, 2022

“Is it weird I have this urge to say sorry for your loss?” a source-friend texted me last week as Sam Bankman-Fried began his catatonic implosion. My bud, like the half-dozen other people who wrote me with similar notes over the last few days, was of course just giving me shit. But I have charted the rise of S.B.F. and his kin closely over the last three years, and so there is an element of something lost here—although, of course, the narrative of S.B.F. has never been as astonishing. 

I first talked to Sam Bankman-Fried in late 2020 when I saw that he was a major donor to a new, somewhat mysterious super PAC, Future Forward, that I was following closely that cycle. He and I talked off the record, but it was clear even then that he was seriously considering becoming a major player in Democratic big-money politics. A few months later I published one of the first interviews with him, where he explained his goal to maximize his net worth, his distaste for CSR programming, and his desire to help Joe Biden think about crypto.

I’ve followed his work very closely ever since—one of my first stories at Puck was about his work alongside Dustin Moskovitz to try and jam a new pandemic agency through Congress; I also wrote about his effort to circumvent Congress through a new ballot measure in California; broke the news about S.B.F. becoming a media investor; and talked with Sam about his crazy $12 million bet on an Oregon congressional candidate that backfired spectacularly. Over the last three years, I’ve also gotten to know his family, friends and advisers in settings both official and unofficial, writing some stories they liked and some they didn’t. Not unusual in the world of philanthropy, there was almost a worshipful attitude toward S.B.F. from his orbit, a sense that they were in the service of one of history’s great men—and a belief from some that they were on a 50-year campaign for influence and impact.