Like all larger-than-life characters, Tim Geithner is smaller in person. Not Tom Cruise small, but smaller than you would expect the most important figure in recent economic history to be. It’s strange to see him here, standing under a French flag at bistro Les Halles Downtown in the midst of the diminishing lunchtime crowd, waiting for the host and a pair of Secret Service agents to escort him to a table, instead of in his usual context: in front of an American flag delivering discouraging economic news, standing behind the president while he delivers discouraging economic news, or on Charlie Rose, trying to make the economic news sound less discouraging. “Is anyone eating?” he asks his chief of staff and an aide, who shake their heads and resume BlackBerrying. Geithner orders an espresso. I’m not sure why he chose this place; we could have met at the New York Federal Reserve, where he’s going to visit some of his old colleagues later. Perhaps he is trying to get a feel for civilian life again, this being his fourth-to-last day on the job. It’s sort of bold of him to show his face in the vicinity of Wall Street, whose denizens don’t have a lot of love for him, even as they’re said to have formed an unholy alliance with him. “I think he is the croniest of the crony capitalists,” one money manager told me earlier that day. “I despise everything he ever did.”
This kind of emotional reaction is par for the course when you are the Face of the Financial Crisis. “People project onto me all their deep hopes and fears and their anger,” Geithner says cheerily, “and that’s my job and I get to absorb that.”
For the past couple of weeks, as Geithner prepared to leave office, the intelligentsia has been busily parsing his legacy. While the overall consensus is that, as president of the New York Fed and then as Treasury secretary, he was successful in keeping the country from sliding into another Great Depression, there is still a goodly amount of anger and skepticism about how he did it. Going by the most recent polls, only 36 percent of the diners currently craning their necks toward the guy in the suit think he helped America out; 42 percent think he bungled things or bailed out Wall Street for nefarious purposes. The other 20 percent probably just think he is Lyle Lovett. For the subject of such controversy, Geithner is surprisingly Zen, describing himself as “at peace” with the decisions he made.
“You feel your plan worked …” is the way I choose to begin a question at some point.
“No, it’s not, like, a feeling,” he interrupts, with an appealingly dorky snort of laugher. “If you look at the record of this crisis response against other crisis responses, it looks very good against what we know about other countries’ experiences, and that is because of the choices we made. I don’t think that most people understand how bad it was or how bad it could have been. Maybe they didn’t think they had to be rescued. But in the history of finance ministries and Treasury departments, that’s the existential thing.”
Geithner has a lot of examples to draw upon. A lifelong practitioner of the art of defusing financial crises, he has spent his career hopping from one fiasco to the next—in Mexico, Asia, twice in Brazil—for the Treasury and the IMF. Which is why some argue that he should have seen one coming in the mid-aughts, when he took charge as president of the New York Fed, supervising many of the institutions that required federal assistance. When Obama first approached him about coming to Treasury in 2008, Geither suggested that unflattering details such as this might make him an unviable candidate. The decisions he had been party to at the height of the crisis—allowing Lehman Brothers to fail, bailing out AIG, deploying the hated TARP—might reflect badly on the new administration. He was trying to wriggle out of the job—“I knew it would be terrible”—but Obama wanted him anyway. In retrospect, hiring him seems like a stroke of genius. While the president has taken plenty of heat on economic issues, much more wrath has fallen on Geithner, whose starring role in the bailout drama has seen him repeatedly accused of valuing the interests of financial institutions over the common man, which he patiently explains, for probably the millionth time, is not true. “If you want to protect the economy from a failing financial system, you have to get the system functionally working, and that requires you to do things that look like you are helping the people who helped cause the crisis,” he says. “People describe this as the rescue of the financial system. That’s not really right; it was the rescue of the economy from the failing financial system.” This has been an extremely difficult notion for anyone to accept, not least thanks to the admirable unwillingness of American adults to accept that life sometimes just isn’t fair. “That perception people have, that we gave money to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, is just a damaging fiction,” he says.