Alone in the third-floor bedroom of his college roommate’s Washington home, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner would talk on the phone at night with his wife, Carole. It was the early months of 2009, and the economy was in a tailspin. His days filled with crisis and politics, he asked her in the moments before his eyes closed about home.
“Tell me about real life,” he said. “I need to hear kid stories.”
The period was lonely and difficult — not just for the new Treasury secretary but also for his family. By agreeing to return to Washington to serve in President Obama’s Cabinet, Geithner had once again allowed his job to disrupt their lives.
He had already been missing for much of the past two years, tending to the brewing and then exploding financial crisis. In Washington, he faced bipartisan ridicule, accused by critics of being inept, if not morally backward. Separated from his family, he recalled, he also “felt a crushing sense of guilt and loss.”
What made it worse was that Carole, a therapist and grief counselor, also felt guilty. At home in Larchmont, N.Y., she bore the load of taking care of their teenage kids, now under the public spotlight.
Yet, she said, “I felt so bad not being with him because that was such an awful time for him. He didn’t have a home base. He was going through unbelievably stressful times.”
For Geithner and his family, this was life in the line of fire — a time he recalls in his new book, “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises.” Geithner and his wife elaborated on the experience in separate interviews last week.
“Stress Test” focuses on Geithner’s two-and-a-half decades fighting economic crises around the world, culminating in the U.S. crisis of 2007 to 2009. But the book also grapples with tough questions about the burden of having a spouse, or a parent, in the pressure cooker of a high-powered Washington job — often absent, and even when present, not fully there.
In other words, it looks at a crisis that cost so many others their jobs and homes not just in the story of a man shaping the government’s response, but through the eyes of his wife, daughter and son.
In some ways, Geithner and his wife, both 52, are opposites. Without saying a word, she comes across as empathetic. He can describe loss or pain, but his detached tone will make you wonder what he truly feels. The dichotomy has had ripples far beyond their family.
When they met at Dartmouth, she was interested in economics and policy, and he had no idea what to do with his life. But there were hints of their future.
“Carole has always been an amazing listener, so in tune with the pain and sadness and frustration of others,” Geithner writes. “Later in my public life, Carole would often remind me about the importance of displaying more empathy.”
A few years after Geithner attended graduate school in foreign affairs — Carole worked to financially support him — he joined the Treasury Department. Soon enough they were on their way to Tokyo, and a recurring theme of their life together emerged: His job would interfere.
In Tokyo, he promised his pregnant wife he’d learn enough basic Japanese so he could talk to their doctor. But he “was preoccupied with work,” and when Carole went into labor, he could only muster a few words. “That wouldn’t be the last time my work got in the way of my family obligations,” he writes.
Back in Washington, burdens on their family life only grew as Geithner climbed the Treasury ladder under giant Clinton administration personalities like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. He loved his kids — Elise, older than Ben by two years — but he was missing a lot of their childhoods as he traveled the world.
Carole would joke, Geithner recalled, that Elise and Ben “had to go to the Treasury Web site to look at my picture to remember quite who I was.” When Geithner was undersecretary for international affairs, his daughter wrote a song:
In your fancy office,
You look so grand.
But you gotta come home
or you might get canned.
Now you’re undersecretary
up so high,
but when it’s time for family,
you’ve gotta say goodbye!
Carole, who had a private practice in Bethesda, made the sacrifices to let her husband do his job. “I chose social work partly,” she said, “because it is flexible in terms of the hours and location and reciprocity with licenses in different states. And I wanted to spend time with the kids.”
Still, she added, despite the help of neighbors and a nanny, it didn’t always work out well. “When he would travel so much and they were little, that was hard and I needed more hands on deck.”
After the Clinton era, the Geithners stayed in Washington. Soon enough came another high-profile job: president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The post would make Geithner one of the top financial policymakers in the country — and, later, a key responder to the financial crisis. But it also meant his wife would give up her work in Washington. Ben was relatively indifferent; Elise, 12, told her father he was ruining her life.
When Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate, asked Geithner whether he might serve as Treasury secretary in an Obama administration, Geithner famously made the case against it. Carole opposed the idea, and Geithner had promised her they would never live apart. But he felt he couldn’t say no to the new president.
As the unfolding crisis ate up all his time, Geithner also became one of Washington’s chief objects for criticism. He made mistakes on his taxes that prompted ridicule, and his unsteady unveiling of his financial rescue plan in February 2009 dashed market confidence.
With his famous equanimity — and the president’s confidence — he brushed off much of the hoopla. His family couldn’t.
“Elise was taking my new infamy especially hard,” he wrote in “Stress Test.” “For Carole, it was torture. The [confirmation] committee staff accused her of lying about our housekeeper, which was absurd, and she was furious and frustrated that she couldn’t defend herself or me in public. She told me she wished she hadn’t been so careful to hire legal workers over the years; otherwise, I could have been disqualified from my position.”
Geithner, now Treasury secretary, was on a brief trip home to Larchmont in late spring 2009 for Elise’s high school graduation. They were baking brownies when they noticed shuffling outside. It was John Oliver, filming a “The Daily Show” segment lampooning Geithner for being unable to sell his home in the housing crisis.
“How can the American people trust the policies of a man who can’t sell his house? Oliver said. “Isn’t this like hiring a personal trainer that’s morbidly obese?”
“The Daily Show” would become a constant source of populist animus for Geithner and the administration. Even five years later, when Geithner would finally appear on the show, he couldn’t convince host Jon Stewart his decisions were right.
But at the moment, the issue wasn’t disagreements about policy. Geithner’s job had often taken him away from his family, but it had rarely brought this sort of scrutiny to their front door.
They drew the blinds but felt trapped. It was Elise’s birthday, and she had a speaking role at graduation. They couldn’t leave until the film crew did.
“They already had this traumatic shock of having a father disappear and be in the public eye relentlessly . . . and basically have the [expletive] beat out of him everyday,” Geithner said. “That was a more poignant reminder that I sacrificed the privacy of my family for my public life.”
Geithner wasn’t one to unload his anxieties at home. Carole, who would relocated with Ben to Washington, had to work to get her husband to open up. She felt sharing his feelings was not only important for his state of mind, but for their marriage.
“He keeps his cool,” she said. “But we talked a lot and there were times where he would acknowledge how scary this was and the pressure he felt. Even if it didn’t come naturally to him, I tried to draw it out. It was important, otherwise there would be this big wall between us.”
Carole, who lost her mother when she was 25, built a career as a therapist who counseled patients on loss and a teacher who instructed doctors how to listen. She had a profound sense of how to connect to people who were suffering, even if there was no relief in sight.
By contrast, Geithner speaks fast and is prone to odd turns of phrase and jargon. A colleague once joked that when Geithner opened his mouth, all people heard was “Wah! Wah!” But more than that he wasn’t temperamentally suited to empathy.
It fostered a reputation of indifference to the challenges of everyday Americans in the weak economy. That, in turn, fed a sense that the government was more concerned about ensuring that Wall Street prospered than Main Street.
In his book, Geithner recounts meeting with community and housing advocates frustrated that low-income Americans and distressed borrowers still suffered even as stock markets bounced back.
Rather than listen, Geithner would often interrupt — he once told a group “to stipulate” that people are suffering — and go right to the bottom line, asking for proposed solutions and then launching into the constraints the administration faced in implementing them.
At home, Carole urged him to show more sympathy — and just listen: “You have to let them know you heard them.”
For Geithner, this was an old struggle.
“I had this experience long before I was known in public life, if she was really upset about something, and was telling me about why she was upset, my impulse was to say let’s figure out how to fix it,” he said. “And often she didn’t really want me to fix it. She just wanted me to listen to her and understand it.”
Geithner said he is embarrassed by how he shortcutted people who came to him with grievances. He acknowledged he never could fully adjust. “I think people who know me understand how hard it was to be exposed to and feel that pain and not have answers to all that pain,” he said. “I never found a way comfortably to do more of that.”
By late 2010, after the economy stabilized and legislation overhauling financial regulation passed, Geithner was more than ready to move on. The family wanted to leave Washington. Ben missed his swim coach in Larchmont and his friends there.
The question was whether Geithner would be allowed to go. His staff had already taken up devious tactics to try to get him out of weekend responsibilities like appearing on the Sunday news shows. Those appearances were coordinated by the White House, but Geithner’s team would find ways out of them.
Still, the president wanted Geithner to stay on. And the question was, should he call Carole and tell her why? At first, Geithner resisted. “I didn’t want her to be under pressure from him,” he said.
But by August 2011, Geithner knew he was staying. There had been a debt ceiling battle, the U.S. credit rating had been downgraded and Europe’s economy was under severe stress. At the president’s 50th birthday party, Obama walked over to Carole and took her by the hand.
“Usually, I’m good about people’s family priorities,” he told her, according to Geithner’s book. “But I can’t let Tim go.”
For most of the walk, Carole was silent. “I wanted him to know this was really hard for me, so I was kind of holding back,” she said. The next day, she wrote Obama expressing support for his presidency.
But Ben really wanted to move back to Larchmont. Geithner and Ben drove up with their furniture in a Penske truck, with Secret Service in tow. Carole joined her son for his final year of high school.
Geithner returned to Washington alone, stopping for a pizza and caesar salad for dinner, glad he could restore some normalcy to his son’s life even if he would miss his family once again.
“I was dreading it,” he said. “I was happy for him, because it was his choice, but I was selfishly unhappy.”
The memory brings tears to Carole’s eyes. “It was great,” she says of those three hours last Thanksgiving when her husband and her son walked down to the basement of their Larchmont home.
Ben, an accomplished woodworker, was home from college at Dartmouth and wanted to teach his dad how to make dovetails, the ornate moldings at the corners of furniture.
There would be no BlackBerry buzzing about an urgent White House conference call, just father and son cutting wood and binding it together with glue.
For too long, “it hadn’t happened,” Carole said of moments like this one.
Geithner left the Treasury in January 2013 and swiftly went on vacations with his wife to the Caribbean and Spain, with his daughter to surf in Mexico and with his son to a woodworking camp in Maine.
With some hesitation, he set out to write a book explaining that the unpopular actions taken to bail out the financial system had as their overarching objective the best interests of everyday Americans.
He decided that, most likely, he would never enter public service again. At the risk of feeding the impression he was still friendly to Wall Street, he joined private-equity firm Warburg Pincus.
Back in Larchmont, home was an empty nest. Ben was at college, and Elise had graduated from Stanford. She moved to New York, where she’s studying to enroll in medical school. (Geithner has been known to e-mail friends: “Just went spinning with Elise and had lunch on the Upper West Side. Perfect afternoon!”)
Geithner struggles to reconcile the loss of family time with the fulfillment he got from his jobs in the public light. “I love my work. I deeply believed in it,” he said. “It’s not a sacrifice that’s remotely comparable to what many people do for the country.”
But reminders that he now has time to spend with his family are bittersweet. “People say to me all the time, ‘It must be so nice, you’re back with your family,’ ” he said. “It’s sweet of them. But I say to them, ‘Yeah, but it was too late.’ ”
Geithner pauses and reconsiders. “It wasn’t too late. I’m very close to them.”