The personal pictures and mementos have been removed from Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin's office, and the bare wall facing his desk is full of holes. Yesterday, his last full day on the job, he shrugged as he pondered the extraordinary adulation that has been heaped on him in the seven weeks since he announced his plan to resign.
Doesn't all that praise seem excessive? he was asked. Isn't it embarrassing to be called the greatest Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton and lionized for presiding over a long economic expansion and a tripling of the Dow? After all, a convincing case could be made that far more credit is due to the Federal Reserve for the health of the U.S. economy, and Rubin's own record is hardly free of controversy, especially on his handling of the global financial crisis.
"I just don't react that much to it," he said of the praise, which has come from politicians of both parties as well as commentators and economists. "I think of myself as being part of a group of people -- the economic team and, in a larger sense, the administration, led by the president. I might add, there have been times when there was a lot of negative comment, and I didn't react that much then, either." He cited the fights with the Republican Congress in 1995 and 1996 over the bailout of Mexico, and the shutdown of the federal government, when a few GOP lawmakers threatened to impeach him.
"Obviously, I appreciate it, the positive things people have said," he said, looping a leg over the arm of a chair during a long, reflective interview. "But I find I'm not greatly affected. . . . The key is to do your job, and not do it in terms of how people are going to react. Except, of course, to the extent that it affects your ability to get your job done."
Such modesty would seem phony coming from any number of other public figures in Washington. But that it sounds sincere coming from Rubin is a testament to one of his greatest assets -- his apparent lack of insecurity, which helped boost his credibility with Congress and instill confidence on Wall Street. The same trait served him well, according to administration colleagues, where it may have mattered most -- in winning over President Clinton when the administration was divided.
Indeed, Rubin nodded when it was suggested that his most important accomplishment may have been helping to fend off policies that, in his view, would have undermined the economy or damaged investor confidence.
In 1993, as chairman of the White House National Economic Council, he was a major force in opposing the spending and tax-cut proposals of other Clintonites and arguing in favor of the sweeping deficit-reduction plan Clinton later adopted. Citing his long Wall Street experience, he also quashed any talk of criticizing the Fed's anti-inflationary policies, deriding Fed-bashing as unsettling to markets. And he resisted calls for lowering the dollar to boost the competitiveness of U.S. exports, repeating his mantra that "a strong dollar is in the interests of the U.S. economy," mainly because it helps keep foreign capital flowing in -- and interest rates commensurately lower.
Characteristically, Rubin takes little credit for winning over Clinton on such issues because, he said, the president already understood them.
"I always said to people here at Treasury, `We have to work hard at making clear why we think something is a bad idea, but the best protection against bad ideas in the administration is the president,' " he said.
He rejected criticism that, under his leadership, the Treasury helped create conditions that led to the global financial crisis. Over the misgivings of some other administration policymakers, the Treasury prodded developing countries such as Thailand and South Korea to open themselves up to foreign investment. Economists now widely agree that those countries set themselves up for a massive flight of capital as an influx of overseas funds poured into their shaky, poorly supervised banking systems.
"People have confused different things," Rubin said. "We pushed -- rightly, in my view -- for countries to allow foreign financial institutions to be involved in their markets, because that would bring in competition, technology and sophistication. What we did not say to people was, `Open your capital market [to foreign funds] without being concerned about improving your financial system.' "
Still, he acknowledged that in the months before the start of the crisis in mid-1997, "there was too little focus" among the financial authorities in wealthy countries to the dangers that investors and banks were exposing themselves to in emerging markets.
"I thought about giving a speech saying there is inadequate attention to risk," he recalled. "But it is not an appropriate thing for a secretary of the Treasury to do. Why should I second-guess markets?" Anyway, he added, if the wording of such a speech had been appropriately hedged to avoid triggering panic, "nobody would pay any attention to it."
Now he looks forward to reflecting on his time in public life without the minute-to-minute pressures of the job. Beyond planning to move back home to New York and occupy an office at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, he hasn't decided what he'll do next -- a position he can afford to take, as a former head of Goldman Sachs & Co. and a multimillionaire.
"I would really like to live at a different pace," he said. Asked what he'll do with the time, he replied: "I love to read -- and I read eclectically, almost all nonfiction. I would love to be able to travel, get more of a feel for places, which is very hard to do" on official trips.
He brandished a yellow legal pad, and said he had filled two of them with thoughts about paths he might take. "Some of the things in there are specific and concrete, some are just notes about things other people have raised with me but which I can't explore as long as I'm here," he said.
He recalled doing the same thing before joining the administration, filling yellow pads with notes taken when he visited former top U.S. officials such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Strauss to seek their wisdom on how government works.
And what would he say to future top officials who seek his advice? "You can accomplish a heck of a lot more," Rubin said, "if, by whatever means, people work together as a team."
Highlights of Rubin's Tenure
1993: As chairman of the newly created National Economic Council, Rubin helps persuade President Clinton to resist spending proposals and tax cuts in favor of a strong deficit-reduction approach.
Early 1995: In one of his first acts as treasury secretary, Rubin puts together a $50 billion international loan package to save Mexico from its peso crisis. When Congress refuses to approve the U.S. portion of the package, Rubin uses money from a special Treasury fund.
Spring 1995: With the dollar plunging in global currency markets, Rubin and officials of the Group of Seven industrial countries seek to restore its strength. For the rest of his tenure he maintains his mantra that "a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest" even as the greenback's rise triggers complaints that U.S. companies are losing ground to foreign competitors.
Late 1997: As the global financial crisis overwhelms Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, Rubin helps marshal multibillion-dollar international rescue packages. When the Dow Jones industrial average plunges 554 points one day in October, Rubin issues a statement highlighting the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy, calming the stock market -- for a while.
July 1998: With Russia now afflicted by investor panic, Rubin plays a key role in mobilizing a $22 billion rescue, but the effort fails when the Russian government is blocked from implementing economic reforms and ends up defaulting on billions of dollars in debts.
September 1998: As paralysis spreads to U.S. markets following the Russian default, Rubin leads efforts to get all G-7 countries focused on boosting growth rather than fighting inflation.
CAPTION: Robert E. Rubin makes a point during testimony before the Senate Banking Committee last year.