BOOK REVIEW : A Cracked Icon: The Story of American Express : HOUSE OF CARDS; Inside the Troubled Empire of American Express by Jon Friedman and John Meehan , G. P. Putnam's, $24.95; 272 pages

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Green, gold or platinum, the American Express card is one of the icons of Western civilization. But, as we learn in "House of Cards," the icon is cracked and tainted nowadays, and AmEx itself--"a collection of purchases and personalities, not a cohesive corporation"--is yet another example of the decline of the American empire.

"We invented the yuppie," boasted one AmEx executive back in the glory days when "the Card" was the ultimate status symbol.

But status has not prevented thousands of businesses around the world from boycotting AmEx in favor of Visa or Mastercard, which have turned out to be more desirable precisely because they are cheaper to use for merchants and their customers.

"Jesus, you guys just don't get it," one Boston restaurant owner complained. "This isn't the '80s anymore."

How poignant these words must be to James D. Robinson III, the CEO who presided over AmEx's decline. Robinson is the central focus of "House of Cards," but he's a hero with a tragic flaw, an arrogant corporate bully who stumbled under the weight of his own grand ambitions.

"I want to help the card," Robinson intoned piously as he sought greater glories: a partnership with Warner Communications, a merger with the Shearson brokerage firm, the doomed "Optima" card and half a dozen other schemes that are depicted in "House of Cards" as a series of disappointments and catastrophes.

The authors, a pair of reporters who covered AmEx for Business Week in the late '80s, appear to gloat just a bit in chronicling Robinson's failures.

He is a corporate patrician, a hard-driving deal maker who started each day with 300 sit-ups, a powerbroker whose second wife doubled as an in-house public relations maven with powerful connections of her own--and yet, as we enter the '90s, Robinson and his company are in "a state of siege."

"Robinson's biggest fear was being labeled a failure," the authors write. "Robinson, the control freak, was out of control."

"House of Cards" is one corporate post-mortem that moves along at a brisk clip, and the authors bring some real wit, an ear for the telling anecdote and a sharp sense of irony to what threatens to be yet another litany of boardroom duels and stock market shootouts.

To their credit, "House of Cards" is a fast and entertaining ramble through the corporate jungle, even if the terrain and the traveling companions are all too familiar.

We learn, for example, that AmEx was a guileful competitor that once tried to crush a merchant boycott in Scandinavia by pouring $250,000 into a popular local environmental campaign: "Save the Puffin." But, more often, AmEx was brutal--when Carnival Cruise Lines stopped accepting "the Card," AmEx simply stopped booking cruises at 1,600 AmEx travel agencies.

The authors are especially sensitive to the stern and sometimes scary protocols of AmEx, which come across as something out of the court of Catherine the Great.

Robinson's first wife, we learn, once ordered another executive's wife out of a limousine because she had violated the strict hierarchy established by the corporate rank of their respective husbands.

"This is unacceptable," sniffed Betty Robinson. "You should know better." Above all, Friedman and Meehan appreciate the pious absurdities of a company whose real product is merely the image of affluence.

Early on, they tell us, AmEx customers were pointedly dubbed cardmembers, not cardholders: "To me," explained Robinson's predecessor as CEO, "a cardholder was a Communist."

Still, a terrible sameness has begun to attach itself to books about the crisis of corporate America in the '80s, and "House of Cards" is burdened with a kind of deja vu --we've seen all of these failed empire-builders and overreaching merger-maniacs too many times before.

"House of Cards" may be a creditable addition to the library, but how many more of these morality tales do we really need to hear before we learn our lesson?

Next: Richard Eder reviews "The Elephant" by Richard Rayner (Turtle Bay Books) .

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