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Geithner weathers financial storm, long hours

In any other year, Timothy Geithner already would have spent a week at tennis camp in Florida, sharpening his skills and kicking back with a group of friends that includes the mentor who helped put him on the fast track to the top of the Treasury Department.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In any other year, Timothy Geithner already would have spent a week at tennis camp in Florida, sharpening his skills and kicking back with a group of friends that includes the mentor who helped put him on the fast track to the top of the Treasury Department.

Instead, Barack Obama's 47-year-old treasury secretary is in his office before dawn most days, grabbing lunch at his desk and juggling three Blackberries as he tries to untangle the wreckage of a financial system gone sour.

He's been pilloried for lousing up his tax returns, battered by bad reviews of his earliest policy pronouncements and pelted with resignation calls from congressional critics.

Through it all, Geithner has displayed the same intense focus and unflappable demeanor that made him an obvious choice when no-drama Obama went hunting for a compatible personality to manage the biggest problem confronting the nation.

"Nothing has seemed to blow him off course," says Lee Sachs, a friend who worked with Geithner at Treasury during the Clinton years and is back in the department.

Geithner was a twentysomething whiz kid when he first came knocking on the department's doors in 1988. He had outgrown his first job as a grunt at Kissinger Associates but he wasn't ready to be one of its big-money rainmakers.

So Geithner signed on as a civil servant in the Treasury's trade office during the Reagan administration. Within a decade, he was on track to become the boss of the man who had hired him. Within two, he was fending off Obama's entreaties to become treasury secretary.

Geithner's fans say one key to his quick rise to the top is his uncanny ability to see around corners. It also could help explain why he was so reluctant to take on a job that so far has been nothing but one long stress test, a phrase he would much rather see applied to troubled banks than his own career.

Geithner had been immersed in the unfolding economic crisis last fall as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and he knew better than almost anyone how bad things really were. But even he couldn't have predicted what a brutal slog it would be for him personally.

Treasury secretaries normally aren't part of the zeitgeist. Just weeks into the job, Geithner already is "Saturday Night Live" sketch material. (To the amusement of his wife and kids.)

With most of the department's top jobs still unfilled since the presidential transition, those who are at work there joke about being hooked up to food intravenously and walking the halls tethered to an IV bag hanging on a pole.

Geithner hasn't had a full day off since he took the job two months ago. His family still is 200 miles away in New York. The overlord who will have his signature imprinted on U.S. currency is bunking with friends.

And he and his one-time mentor, Lawrence Summers, have managed to get in just one game of tennis. The man who loves any kind of sport — snowboarding, basketball, running and more — largely settles for a predawn workout in the basement gym at Treasury.

On a rare overnight trip home recently, Geithner spent much of the time prepping for last week's rollout of his bank rescue plan.

That, at least, got a thumbs-up from Wall Street and helped to ease the sense of a Treasury Department under siege after the blowup over big bonuses going to executives at American International Group Inc., the insurer that has soaked up billions in federal bailout money. Geithner caught much of the blame for letting the payments go through, although he insisted he was powerless to block them.

The AIG furor wasn't the first major bump in Geithner's tempestuous tenure at Treasury. A month earlier, his awkward introduction of the bank rescue plan's sketchy framework sent global financial markets tumbling, and the letdown spawned talk about a lack of confidence in a Cabinet member who looks so much younger than his years.

"Shock and uh," one critic called it.

With his youthful looks and curly locks, Geithner brings to mind Doogie Howser, the boy-genius doctor of a '90s TV show, more than the outsized personalities who typically have presided at Treasury.

His mind seems to race ahead of his mouth, which plays catch-up by blurting out phrases such as "majoremergingmarketcountries" and "toolstomitigatesystemicrisk."

His loafers shift forward, then back as he fields incoming fire from cantankerous legislators at hearings, his head slowly nodding three or four times to show he gets it, then bobbing up and down more quickly.

He's on "thin ice," one GOP critic says. "Shaky ground," warns another. "He should go," says a third.

Obama, for a time, felt compelled to dole out a daily dose of confidence in his treasury secretary to tamp down calls for his head.

Although the criticism eased after Geithner released details of the bank plan, his every move will be under a high-resolution microscope at this coming week's economic summit in London. He already is weakened politically and it's not clear how much margin for error he has left.

But former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, one of the wise men to whom the treasury secretary turns for outside advice, said missteps are inevitable given the demands of the job.

"He is making decisions in areas where if you get it right 60-70 percent of the time, you are extraordinary," says Greenspan. "That means you are wrong 30-40 percent of the time."

At Treasury, Greenspan said, it's not enough to make broad policy decisions and leave it to others to work out the details.

"If you're not down in the weeds in this type of operation, you're going to make some terrible mistakes," he said.

To Geithner's harshest critics, there already have been too many mistakes.

"You know, I'd like to send a little message to Mr. Geithner to not sell his home — his $1.6 million home in New York — because I'd like for him to stay there and not come to be the secretary of the treasury," Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., sniped last week.


Timothy Franz Geithner's birth certificate reads New York City but he's truly a global production.

With a father who worked abroad for the U.S. Agency for International Development and then the Ford Foundation, Geithner lived in Zambia and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a child. By junior high, he was in India. By high school, he was in Thailand.

As it happens, Geithner's father, Peter, at one point oversaw a program developed by Obama's mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, when she worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia. The two met at least once in Jakarta, according to the foundation.

At his Treasury swearing-in ceremony in January, Geithner paid tribute to his father for showing him the world as a child and allowing him see America "through the eyes of others."

"It was that experience — seeing firsthand the extraordinary influence of American policy on the world — that led me to work in government," he said.

An interest in public service also is part of his pedigree. A grandfather served as an adviser to President Dwight Eisenhower. An uncle advised the presidential campaigns of George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller, and held positions in the departments of Justice, State and Defense and as a U.N. ambassador.

At Dartmouth College, Geithner avoided the fraternity culture, immersing himself in Asian studies. Friends were more likely to peg him for a future diplomat than financial wizard. Geithner studied both Japanese and Chinese, going abroad for a time to hone his language skills in Beijing.

"He really nailed Chinese in a way that was quite out of the ordinary," recalls John Fanestil, his sophomore roommate.

It was at Dartmouth that Geithner met Carole Sonneberg, now a social worker. The two were married at his parents' summer home on Cape Cod, with Geithner's father serving as best man. They have two children in high school, freshman Ben and senior Elise, who are more likely to see their dad on TV than in person.

"I talk to them many, many times a day and try to keep in touch," Geithner said in a recent TV interview that spoke tellingly of the distance between them.


After his early stint at Henry Kissinger's consulting firm, Geithner got hired at the Treasury by William Barreda, who says that if he hadn't retired when he did in 1997, Geithner soon would have been his boss.

He likes Geithner anyway, and says "you'll have trouble finding anyone who dislikes him."

When Robert Rubin took over as treasury secretary in 1995, Barreda remembers Rubin going around the room during a meeting to ask each person's background, and getting back puffed-up credentials from virtually everyone.

Then came Geithner, who confessed that prior to joining Treasury, "mainly, I was in high school."

Geithner's big break came when he caught the approving eye of Summers, then a treasury undersecretary, who became his mentor and mental sparring partner. Summers, who followed Rubin as treasury secretary, now says he and Geithner work together so closely on Obama's economic team that "if one of us explains something and it's unclear, the other will try to fill in because we tend to be able to follow each other's thoughts."

Stylistically, though, the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Summers, the say-anything bulldog; Geithner, the quiet, calm guy in the roomful of egos.

Stephanie Flanders, who worked at the Treasury during the Clinton years and now is the BBC's economics editor, remembers Geithner as a skilled manager.

"Tim gave the impression of being conciliatory and low key, but he actually was still able to get people to do what he wanted them to do," she said. "Everyone sort of finds themselves doing his bidding without realizing it."

The 1990s had its own set of financial crises to be contained — Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Thailand and more — and it was the threesome of Rubin, Summers and Greenspan who repeatedly rode to the rescue. Their brain trust of bright young minds at the department included Geithner, by then in his mid-30s.

"He was the senior technician of the group and we relied very heavily on his input and his judgment — despite the fact that he looked like he was 25 years old," Greenspan recalls now.


After a stint at the International Monetary Fund, Geithner made it to the short list when the New York Fed was looking for a new president in 2003. Search chairman Peter Peterson, then head of the New York Fed's board, says there were worries about how tough Geithner would be, particularly given his age and quiet manner in job interviews.

"That's the last thing you have to worry about," Peterson says Summers assured him.

"Grab him before he has a change of mind," Greenspan advised.

Geithner got the job, and had time to enjoy the boom times before the bust. He says he spent his years at the New York Fed trying to strengthen regulatory protections, "but many of those things didn't have enough traction" to prevent what lay ahead.

By 2008, Geithner was part of a new troika trying to avert calamity, teaming with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Month after month, the trio scrambled to put out fires with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Wachovia, AIG.

Geithner was the man on the spot, making the phone calls to sometimes paralyzed chief executives, negotiating the deals, plying with persuasion at some points, with four-letter words at others.

At times he would function on as little as six hours of sleep over three days. During one crunch period, Bernanke sent flowers to Geithner's wife, already not seeing much of her husband.

Paulson credits Geithner for bringing to the effort an astute understanding of the intersection of policy, politics and markets — a difficult threesome to get right.

"He thinks through the consequences of everything he does, works around corners," says Paulson.


Geithner's knowledge of both Wall Street and Washington was a big plus as the president-elect looked to build a strong financial team to tackle the worsening economy. Even the revelation that Geithner mistakenly failed to pay $34,000 in payroll taxes over four years didn't derail his nomination.

But his association with Wall Street and his big role in addressing the credit crisis last year also left him open to criticism from those who felt the Bush team hadn't been tough enough on the banks receiving billions of dollars in government bailout money. Others argued that if he'd only been a tougher watchdog, the crisis might have been averted.

News that Geithner hadn't blocked bonuses for employees of AIG, whose bailouts he'd helped to orchestrate, sent the criticism into the stratosphere.

Obama said Geithner had done his best with a bad hand — but also gave him marching orders to see what more could be done.

Geithner rarely lets on publicly about all the stresses he's under, saying that criticism comes with the job.But associates say that in private, he will acknowledge how tough it's been.

"I've seen him a bit down, as we all are in these matters, but it's not something that is pervasive," says Rodgin Cohen, a New York attorney who was in line to take the No. 2 job at Treasury before bowing out. "He bounces back. There's a lot of resilience."

During one recent congressional hearing where his performance came up for yet another roasting, Geithner let plenty of criticism go unanswered. The Code Pink ladies waving "fire Geithner" signs didn't seem to faze him. But there was one dig he couldn't let pass.

When a senator made passing reference to Geithner and "the Wall Street crowd where you're from," Geithner wanted the last word.

"I've been in public service my entire professional life," he protested. "Never worked on Wall Street. Never worked for a financial institution. ... Wouldn't give a penny to help a bank."


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