The Phil hearings begin!

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It’s day one of the Phil hearings (because, after the Pujo hearings and the Pecora hearings it has to start with a P). I tuned in just as commission chairman Phil Angelides was starting to question Lloyd Blankfein, and I generally liked their back and forth. Angelides is a Sacramento real estate developer turned Democratic politician who spent eight years as California state Treasurer and then ran for governor and lost to Arnold in 2006. I’d  say he was pretty lucky in that—chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is a much better job than governor of California right now. I spent some time hanging out with Angelides during his Treasurer days (I was working on a CalPERS story for Fortune that never ran), and my impression was of a very smart if somewhat overly soundbite-oriented guy.

Angelides did a good job of getting at the conflicts inherent in the investment banking business. My favorite response from Blankfein was “those were typical behaviors in the context we were in.” Which seems to be the basic defense—we were just doing what everybody else was doing, but now we’re all smarter. Oh, and now Heather Murren, a former Merrill Lynch analyst, is asking Blankfein a bunch of questions about those AIG credit default swaps.

Anyway, I’m not going to give a play-by-play (here’s the WSJ’s; update: here’s Twitter’s), but I’m already thinking this commission was a really good idea. I don’t know that I’d put much stock in the report it eventually puts out, but Murren and Angelides have done a great job so far of asking questions that are both (a) pointed and (b) reasonably intelligent. Which is not a combination you see frequently in Congressional hearings. (Sure enough Bill Thomas, the Republican former House Ways and Means Committee chairman who is vice chairman of the commission, blathered on without asking any questions at all.)

It might have made a lot more sense, though, to bring the big-bank CEOs down to Washington one at a time rather than all at once. Almost all the questions so far have been for Blankfein. Oh, now Thomas is finally asking a question—about changes in compensation structure—of all four CEOs at the table.

The main value of such a commission seems to be not so much its eventual report but the videos and the transcripts of powerful (and formerly powerful) people being put on the spot to answer difficult, intelligent questions. And, most important of all, follow-up questions. It was in the Q&A that both Pujo (in 1912 and 1913) and Pecora (in 1932 and 1933) probably had their greatest impact. Tellingly, both of those committees/commissions outsourced most of the question-asking duties to a smart trial lawyer. It was Samuel Untermyer in the case of Pujo—Arsène Pujo, a Congressman from Lousiana, was chairman of the House Banking subcommittee that conducted the hearings—and Ferdinand Pecora in the case of, um, Pecora. The Phil commission doesn’t work that way, and I think that’s to its detriment, because having lots of different people ask questions doesn’t allow for the sort of persistent cross-examination that delivers the most interesting result. But so far at least (apart from Thomas’s weird initial monologue) the questions of the members (Bob Graham and Doug Holtz-Eakin have joined in the fray since I started writing) are actually questions rather than grandstanding.

Update: The commission finally has a Web presence. And Mike Konczal has a nice quick summary of what it’s up to.