The last time we saw Hank Paulson, he was directing traffic in front of the U.S. Treasury.
Like the famous scene in Patton, Paulson in his last act as the Treasury chief was making sure that Brinks trucks filled with crisp new Franklins did not collide with each other as they rushed out to deliver booty to Hank’s crooked pals on Wall Street.
On January 20th, Paulson left town. He hasn’t been seen since — until today. You may find this hard to believe it, but we ran into Hank at a local soup kitchen this morning.
He was wearing an Old Navy sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves, and he was peeling potatoes for today’s free lunch. He looked like he hasn’t shaved since January. Paulson resembled Father Time, if Father Time was a cross between a Serbian war criminal and Jethro Tull’s grungy Aqualung.
We struck up a conversion with Hank while he ripped open a huge sack of Idaho spuds and methodically began stripping the skins off them with an old Bic pocket knife.
Frankly, we didn’t expect it to be much of a conversation. The last time we heard Paulson speak, he was mumbling incoherent evasions in front of a Congressional panel.
But, amazingly, this strange, new Hank was positively effusive. He insisted that we take a seat next to him, telling us he ”really needs to unburden his soul.”
Then it all came gushing out of him, like a stream of Benjamins spewing forth from one of Treasury’s overheated printing presses.
”I woke up in a cold sweat on the night of January 19th and it hit me like a lightning bolt,” he said, his eyes bulging with messianic fervor. ”I realized my entire life has been a sham.”
”All that greed. All that worthless paper. All those $1,000 bottles of Crystal and Dom. All those criminals in pin-striped suits.”
Paulson said he jumped out of bed that fateful night and began pacing the plushly carpeted floor of his $1,000-a-night suite at the Jefferson Hotel in DC.
”Then I saw them,” he said, his voice cracking. ”Millions of them, walking in unemployment lines like zombies, staring at me mournfully. Families, with children, being dragged out of their foreclosed houses.”
Paulson put down the knife and stared at the half-peeled potato in his hand. Suddenly, he looked up and there were tears in his bloodshot eyes.
”It was the children that really got to me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
The former U.S. treasury head almost ended it all that chilly night in January. ”I grabbed a crisp new Benjamin from the nightstand and started to hack at my wrists,” he said, hanging his head in shame. We looked down at his arms and saw the faint scars of a series of paper cuts.
”But then, I saw those words — in God We Trust– and the road to salvation just came to me.” Paulson began to smile. He wrapped his spindly fingers around the spud and caressed it, rocking gently back and forth in his newfound serenity.
”This is where I belong now,” Hank Paulson told us. He dropped the naked potato into a huge vat of chicken soup.
As we walked away, we saw Hank watching the ripples on the surface of the soup, staring intently at a withered piece of parsley as it bobbed gently up and down in the center of the schmaltz-laden broth.
The parsley bobbed up and down, up and down, like the lone survivor of some great disaster at sea who had jumped overboard as a titanic ship went down and found himself alone and adrift in an endless ocean that was cold and indifferent to his fate, with only the damaged core of his soul to cling to.