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Fallout: Bailing Out

The $700 billion man

Former Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari helped create the TARP program, and then he escaped from Washington.

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

NEVADA COUNTY, CALIF. -- He wears no coat though it's freezing, shines no light though it's near midnight, carries no shotgun though he's tramping on the pine-needled tracks of black bears.

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He wants to be lost in these woods.

"Come on, you bums," Neel Kashkari calls to his dogs, two giant Newfoundlands. "Boys, let's go."

He is walking through the smoke of a controlled burn in the Sierra Nevadas. He is talking about the people and the life he left behind in Washington.

" . . . and it wasn't about politics, they were non-political. These people were killing themselves -- in Don's case, literally."

The moon hits his stubble, which is six days old. And the sweater he hasn't changed in three or four days. His BlackBerry -- he can't kick it -- rang once today. A year ago in D.C., it buzzed every few seconds. All night, he'd roll over to its bluish glow. His Treasury Department assistant slept with hers, powered up, on her pillow.

"It's like a dream," Kashkari says, his work boots crunching pine cones. "Sometimes I think: Was it real?"

It all began as it ended, abruptly. Kashkari was a 35-year-old business school graduate from a suburb of Akron, Ohio, who had gone to Washington in 2006 to learn how government worked. Then came the recession, and through a freakish set of circumstances, mixing pluck, cataclysm and luck, he was appointed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson as the federal bailout chief.

Suddenly, he was in charge of $700 billion.

Congress savaged him. Wall Street Journal editorials doubted him. His home-town buddies urged him to use the money to buy the Cleveland Browns and fire the coaches. His wife spoke to him so rarely, she described them as "dead to each other." He lost sleep, gained weight and saw a close adviser, Don Hammond, suffer a heart attack at his Treasury desk. On May 1, after serving seven months under Presidents Bush and Obama, he resigned.

Within a week, Kashkari and his wife put their belongings into "indefinite storage." They moved to a cabin near the Truckee River in Northern California. "Off the map," he told his friends. He threw away his business cards, and made a list of the things he wanted to do:

1. build shed


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