Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary during the chaotic years of the financial crisis, is in some ways the model of a civil servant. He is unpartisan. His father voted for Mitt Romney. His mother donates to Elizabeth Warren. Despite misgivings about serving in the Obama administration, he took the job and plugged away at it anyway. Before ascending to the post, he had helped put together deeply unpopular bank rescues as president of the New York Fed. Part of his initial reluctance about coming to DC, he told the sympathetic Washingtonians assembled before him Thursday night, came of fear that this reputation would harm the president.
But as he sat across from former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, who was interviewing a book-shilling Geithner for the paying audience at Washington’s Sixth and I synagogue—it quickly became apparent why straight-shooting, technocratic, civil servant humility is not so virtuous after all: It does not inspire confidence.
Geithner knows that inspiring confidence is the job of treasury secretaries. He writes as much in his new memoir, Stress Test. But he had “always been a backstage guy,” he laments in his book, and “dreaded public speaking.” Even after all those years of press conferences and Senate hearings, every word feels weighted, measured with consideration, made andante with long pauses, inflections striped of any trace of excitability—though this was a friendly crowd. One white-haired gentleman sitting nearby, I noticed, had dozed off for a moment while Geithner was explaining how he had viewed the housing crisis and what he had thought was the right way to manage it. (At $55 a ticket, this was a rather expensive chat to nod off during). Distractingly, Geithner’s limbs danced around as he spoke, as if he were doing an impression of a seated man with restless leg syndrome.
Bernanke, by contrast, was droll, with subtle dynamism and a willingness to express little indiscretions—an eye-roll here, a well-timed beat there to mark his indignation or amusement in response to audience questions.
Here was the difference between these two exes: Bernanke speaks as a political personality, while Geithner speaks as a civil servant, even now (he heads a private equity firm these days). So that, although as Treasury Secretary, Geithner probably staved off a much worse crisis, and though he builds a perfectly sympathetic case for his actions in the face of such quagmire, you still feel, listening to him: Oh, that’s why he didn’t do enough.