Another fiction that has plagued Geithner is the idea that he is a creature of Wall Street, specifically that he worked for Goldman Sachs. He isn’t sure where it came from—probably just confusion with his predecessor, Hank Paulson, who was the former CEO—but “once it hardened, it was very hard to overcome.” Indeed, he has not really overcome it at all. I can write, right here, in all caps, TIM GEITHNER HAS NEVER WORKED ON WALL STREET, and still someone will comment on our website that he is a bankster who should just go back to Goldman Sachs. Geithner says it’s “extremely unlikely” he will take a job in the world of finance, but the idea that he is somehow, secretly, working hand in hand with that community persists, and every once in a while someone pulls out records of his phone calls and meetings with CEOs as evidence. Geithner is not really sure what to say about that. “I’m the secretary of the Treasury.” He laughs. “How am I supposed to run a financial rescue if I don’t take phone calls from people?”
The issue of phone calls came up again two weeks ago, when the blog Zero Hedge dug up a 2007 transcript of a Federal Reserve conference call in which Jeff Lacker, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said Ken Lewis, then-CEO of Charlotte-based Bank of America, told him that Geithner had blabbed ahead of time the details of a proposed cut to the discount rate. “I would never, ever, ever put myself in a position where I was disclosing material information about a policy thing ahead of time,” Geithner says, though he infers he probably did speak to Lewis and the CEO may have overly extrapolated from the conversation. “When you are the president of the New York Fed, part of your job is to be close to the market,” he says. “It is not possible to do that job locked in a cage of silence and darkness.” But the constant communication “creates that risk, that you are vulnerable to that perception. I don’t know how you avoid that.”
Throughout our conversation, Geithner has retained his Buddha-like calm, although when I ask for the fourth or fifth time if he thought he’d made any mistakes at all, he winces: “I am human, you know,” he says. “There’s this perception that somehow we had other cool things we could have done that would have been better for the average American and we just chose not to do them because we were venal or stupid,” he says. “If it had been possible for us to have protected the economy from a failing financial system, as effective in doing it, getting growth back more quickly and stronger, and done so with a strategy that had much less political cost, we would have done it. It was hugely in our political interest to do it, there was an overwhelming pressure on us to do it, we looked very carefully at how to do it. It’s not that we didn’t think about it, that we didn’t try.
“This is a deeply complicated world, in a fog of gray and ambiguity,” he says. “It’s easier for people to absorb the simple narrative of the black and white. And for them the black and white is, ‘Those are the people that got us in the mess; you saved them and they paid themselves billions in bonuses, and they should have gone to jail, and they are still walking around.’ I don’t know anything powerful enough to overwhelm that simple narrative.” Fortunately, fighting those battles is no longer Tim Geithner’s problem. He hasn’t decided what he’s going to do next, beyond a much-needed vacation with his wife, but says he plans to do some speaking engagements, maybe write a book, and “tread water” for a while. He laughs when asked whether, should the need arise, he’d ever be pressed into service again. “Um, no,” he says, adding quickly, “I don’t regret doing it. I love my work, I love the people I work with, I believe in it deeply. It may look terrible from the outside, but it’s not like that. Even with all of the messy politics, it is really compelling work and it’s rewarding. Even in the midst of all the shit.”