It's not Robert Rubin's problem anymore. He left office as Treasury secretary Friday after weeks of almost embarrassing accolades. His victory lap, as it were, will be a fishing trip next week to Alaska.
And then? Characteristically, this supremely deliberative man -- who would pause to reflect before concluding that his pants were on fire -- says he isn't sure what to do next.
The movers already had stripped his office last week when Rubin sat down for a farewell conversation. He looked more relaxed than at any time in the 6 1/2 years since he came to Washington. His face was tanned and unlined, the bags under his eyes were gone. He splayed his legs over a chair as he talked, like a college student hosting a bull session.
Rubin finally can afford to relax. He made it through his watch, not just without disaster but with uncommon success. Dean Rusk told me once about the day he left office as secretary of state after the crushing burden of the Vietnam years. "I still remember the moment that President Nixon finished his oath of office," said Rusk, who passed away in 1994. "I felt an indescribable sense of exhilaration, of liberation. Because it was not my responsibility anymore."
You could see that same look of relief on Rubin's face. He's spent the past few weeks going to farewell parties, receiving gag gifts (a rocking chair, a bank charter) from his colleagues and hearing people tell him how wonderful he has been for the nation's investment portfolio.
What did Rubin learn during his years in Washington? What advice would he offer to a future Treasury secretary? He begins to answer these questions with his usual wary modesty. It would be "presumptuous" to offer advice, he says. "My personality doesn't work that way."
Sure, sure. But that modest deference can't be all there is to Rubin -- it couldn't be, for him to have been so cagey and successful on Wall Street. This was the man who was trusted to take risks with the partners' money, running the arbitrage desk at Goldman Sachs. You don't earn that trust by saying, "aw shucks, fellas," but by getting the job done.
As the conversation proceeds, Rubin begins to tell the story straight, with no hems and haws. He knows precisely what he and President Clinton have accomplished.
"Clearly you've had a remarkable 6 1/2 years to this economy," Rubin says. "When people say it's the most remarkable set of economic conditions in many decades, I think that's a non-normative statement, a nonpartisan statement, an accurate statement.
"Then the question is, what contributed to it? And I think the decisions the president made have contributed enormously to what's happened. If you want to test that thesis, just think to yourself what would have happened if instead of deficit reduction, we had decided to do the opposite and taken the easy path -- no NAFTA, no GATT . . . a different policy with the dollar, haggled with the Fed all the time. It would have made a very large and negative difference."
The decisive moment for Rubin -- the moment when he truly earned all the accolades -- came in December 1997, when South Korea was nearing default on its debts. Had the process continued a few more days, the Asian economic crisis would have become a world calamity. Usually Rubin passes over the details of this period with his customary reticent mumbles, but not last week.
"There was a moment when I thought it could come undone," he says. The South Koreans were burning up their reserves at the rate of a billion dollars a day and had less than $5 billion left. If the Koreans defaulted, it would trigger a wave of rolling bank failures that could take down the international financial system. "We were very close to very big trouble," Rubin remembers.
Rubin began calling the CEOs of the eight or 10 largest commercial and investment banks -- most of them personal friends -- and, as Rubin puts it, "discussed the severity of the situation and the importance . . . of finding a way for Korea to work through its problems."
"It was a delicate call," remembers Rubin. "The Treasury secretary has no power to direct them to do anything." But it worked. The banks agreed to give Korea more time, and confidence and liquidity began to flow back into the financial markets.
Asked whether President Clinton was jittery during such crises, Rubin pays him what is perhaps his highest compliment. "The president has the kind of temperament or mind-set you need to live with markets," he says. In other words, he would have made a good bond trader.
Asked to sum up the lessons of his time in Washington, Rubin says he isn't sure, that he wants to go away and think about it before answering. This time, his incoherence isn't tactical. Rubin has been doing the job intuitively, almost like an athlete, without "thinking" about it in the usual sense. "I plan to try to understand the life I've lived a little better when I get out," he says.
Rubin offers some surprising last admonitions, for a former Wall Street investment banker. He stresses the role of government, "to do the things that markets don't do effectively." And he says it's "important for the benefits of economic growth to be broadly shared. That's how I define an economy that's working well."
But grand lessons? Forget it. "I came. I stayed. I left . . . voluntarily," concludes Rubin. "That's not bad. That's pretty good."