The White House vs Henry Paulson

By Felix Salmon
September 15, 2009
Matt Latimer has an astonishing tale of what the economic crisis looked like from inside the White House -- and it's a must-read, even if GQ does force you to click the "next" button ten times in a row to read it.

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George Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer has an astonishing tale of what the economic crisis looked like from inside the White House — and it’s a must-read, even if GQ does force you to click the “next” button ten times in a row to read it.

Latimer starts off by describing Hank Paulson as “pretty much a nonperson at the White House”, and it goes downhill from there:

Pundits on TV started asking why the president wasn’t saying more and what he was going to do. The answers were: We had nothing to say and no one had any idea.

The central event in the narrative is a speech that Bush gave on the economy, trying to push the abortive first version of TARP:

The president directed us to try to put elements of his proposal back into the text. He wanted to explain what he was seeking and to defend it. He especially wanted Americans to know that his plan would likely see a return on the taxpayers’ investment. Under his proposal, he said, the federal government would buy troubled mortgages on the cheap and then resell them at a higher price when the market for them stabilized.

“We’re buying low and selling high,” he kept saying.

The problem was that his proposal didn’t work like that. One of the president’s staff members anxiously pulled a few of us aside. “The president is misunderstanding this proposal,” he warned. “He has the wrong idea in his head.” As it turned out, the plan wasn’t to buy low and sell high. In some cases, in fact, Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth in order to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. It wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.

Clearly Paulson didn’t much care about currying favor in the White House:

We wrote speeches nearly every time the stock market flipped. Meanwhile, the White House seemed to have ceded all of its authority on economic matters to the secretive secretary of the treasury. The president was clearly frustrated with this. I was told that at one Oval Office meeting, he got very animated and exclaimed to Paulson, “You’ve got to tell me what you’re doing!” (In the weeks that followed, Paulson changed his spending priorities two or three times. Incredibly, he’d been given the power to do with that money virtually anything he pleased. All thanks to a president who didn’t understand his proposal and a Congress that didn’t stop to think.)

If nothing else, this surely gives Paulson full license, in case he felt he needed it, to unload on Bush in his own book. There never seemed to be much light between the White House and Treasury at the time. But in hindsight, it seems that there was no love lost between them at all.

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“This might go in as a big decision,” he mused.

“We can’t even defend our own proposal?” the president asked. “Why did we propose it, then?”

“We’re buying low and selling high,” he kept saying.

“Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” he asked.

At one point, he looked off into space and said to no one in particular, “What is this—a cruel hoax?”

THX FR TEH LULZ!

Posted by Alan Murdock | Report as abusive

I still find it hard to believe that anyone, when this crisis hit, would argue that a bailout is a value investor’s dream for the govt. For one thing, why doesn’t the govt generally buy low and sell high, if it’s such a great deal? But the main problem is that it makes emergency measures sound like a boon for the govt. Something that they should encourage every so often to occur so that they can get good deals.

I can’t say that the article raised my opinion about Bush or his administration. Paulson might have been involved in trial and error actions to stop Debt-Deflation, but that’s better than yelling “Buy low, sell high!”. While the govt should get the best deal possible for the taxpayers, the only reason that the govt should have done this was to stop a panic, and that’s what he needed to stress.

Felix,

GEORGE BUSH HAS AN MBA FROM HARVARD.

Why does George W Bush receive a free pass to “not know” anything about the bailout? He has the training, knowledge, and experience to understand EVERYTHING about this crisis – yet he chose not to.

Either Harvard’s MBA was a fake, or his lack of comprehension was both deliberate and calculated. I refuse to believe any human being can legitimately earn a Harvard MBA and be this stupid.

Posted by Unsympathetic | Report as abusive

Substitute the topics of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the quotes I pulled seem about right.

I don’t know the icon for rolling on the floor sobbing.

Posted by Alan Murdock | Report as abusive
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