All the giants of the buyout world were in attendance in 2005, when JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) Vice Chairman James Bainbridge Lee Jr. threw a party to celebrate 30 years at the institution he joined when it was Chemical Bank. The deal frenzy that would end in tears when credit dried up in 2007 was in full swing and Lee, a larger-than-life investment banker who many say "invented" the syndicated loan market, was squarely in the middle of it. JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon scanned the room containing the likes of private equity giants Henry Kravis and Steve Schwarzman, before making a brief speech. "Jimmy Lee has probably lent a trillion dollars to the people in this room," he said, adding after a beat, "and almost all of it has been paid back." The line got big laughs, and it was true enough at the time. These days, however, it would appear to be a different story. Most of the big loans are worth far less than when JPMorgan made them, which combined with Lee's outsized personality, would seem to make him an easy scapegoat for much of what went wrong during the M&A boom. There is no doubt Lee is still viewed by many executives in high places -- particularly among the private equity set -- as the man who holds the keys to JPMorgan's vault. While neither Lee nor JPMorgan spokesmen wanted to comment for this story, a litany of big names like The Blackstone Group's ( BX) Schwarzman, News Corp ( NWSA) Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and former General Electric ( GE) chief Jack Welch readily returned TheStreet.com's calls to give Lee a full-throated endorsement.
Both friends and foes are quick to point out Lee's overarching drive to win -- no matter what the arena. But with the Democrats running Congress, the White House and, many might say, Wall Street itself, Lee faces a landscape entirely different from any point during his long career. The new political ruling class is unlikely to warm easily to a man who was one of the top fundraisers for Republican John McCain's 2008 White House run.