Last Thursday, I had to make a brief excursion to Philadelphia for lunch. It was Day Four of the market turmoil, and the numbers were bad. As I settled into some reading aboard the train south, the man behind me—who clearly worked in finance—made a cell-phone call, apparently to a colleague. "How am I doing?" the man said, his voice—as all voices tend to do—carrying across the car. "How am I doing? I'm doing pretty sh–––y, that's how I'm doing." A few moments later the conductor came along the aisle and, noting the glum faces in the car and the grim headlines, said to no one in particular: "Guys—cheer up! We'll be back, stronger and better. That's the great thing about dollar-cost averaging."
There, in a single car on Amtrak, were two of the many competing emotions and views of the American economy—short-term gloom and long-term good cheer. Something else was also happening in those hours: Republicans were about to lead the largest government intervention into the workings of the market since the Great Depression. As Fareed Zakaria notes in this week's issue, Washington's assumption of responsibility for the troubled securities that threatened to create even more chaos on Wall Street and beyond effectively blows up many of the country's most cherished ideological categories. Conservatives had suddenly become nationalizers—a realistic recognition that life is rather more complicated than it sometimes seems on the presidential campaign trail.
The leading conservative: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who has emerged, one hopes, as Wall Street's Fortinbras, come to restore order after bloodshed and confusion. In the cover profile, Daniel Gross, who interviewed Paulson after the secretary announced the bailout, explores the conflict between Paulson's free-market philosophy and the exigencies of the moment. We suspect very few Americans could have told you much (if anything) about Paulson until he helped broker the deal that brought Washington to Wall Street, and Daniel's piece paints an intimate portrait of a man who is now shaping the way all of us live.
In weeks like these, the temptation for magazine journalists is to do what are known as conceptual covers—illustrations almost always involving the jagged line of a falling Dow, or some kind of bear or a white-collar staple such as suspenders, a Town Car or a briefcase. From the first of the week, however, our strong instinct was to use Paulson, a fascinating figure, to tell the larger story of market turmoil.
He had, Daniel writes, "a message he never expected to deliver … Paulson—free-market thinker, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury secretary to a conservative Republican president—was unveiling to the world a massive taxpayer bailout of the American financial system. Afterward, as he headed into yet another weekend of nonstop work with his team, carrying the weight of the troubled markets on his shoulders, the former college-football star was clearly conflicted about what he'd just proposed. "It's very unpleasant for me, but it's a lot more attractive than the alternative … We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first'."
Getting through the night. I trust my fellow passenger did, and that he is feeling better, and I am grateful to that conductor, who insisted on seeing the bright side. I am sure he got through the evening quite well. May we all sleep more soundly in the new reign of King Henry.