The tall, athletic man who served this year as negotiator, visionary and ruthless executor of a tangled government rescue is getting a grand tip of the hat from Time magazine. But he´s still in second place.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is officially one of the closest things to man of the year for 2008. Another smart-suited groomsman, perhaps, but not the best man. Time named Mr. Paulson runner up to its "Person of the Year" award, which went to President-elect Barack Obama.
What kept Mr. Paulson from the number one spot? Surely the hours he clocked at the Treasury Department rivaled those grueling ones Mr. Obama kept on the campaign trail. And in a practical light, Mr. Paulson had control over more economic activity, more jobs and more money this year than Mr. Obama did.
Perhaps it was the attitude.
"If there is a face to this financial debacle, it is now his - exuding an air of perpetual embattlement," Time said in its description of Mr. Paulson.
The story emphasizes he´s not exactly a poster boy for positive change. "Paulson has become an unpopular, controversial figure, the target of harsh criticism on Capitol Hill and in the media."
In its description of Mr. Paulson´s public image, Time listed two points that it said are becoming clear:
"1) Given the political and economic realities he faced, there is no obviously better path Paulson could have followed.
"2) Paulson is really bad at explaining why he made the choices he did."
Would Mr. Paulson have gotten higher marks from the public if he´d been a better explainer?
This was a year in which Americans-though somewhat warily-chose eloquence over familiarity. The landslide election of Mr. Obama marked, among other things, a public embrace of rhetorical polish rarely seen during the eight years of the Bush administration. By November, a defensive Mr. Paulson´s statement, "I will never apologize for changing an approach or strategy when the facts change," came off as more churlish than valiant-even if it was right.
It seems not even the job of mopping up the enormous mess created by the housing and credit bubbles can be done well without a little personal pizzazz. Who knows what kind of accolades Mr. Paulson would be getting if he´d been a little less stiff or irritable.
A word of advice to incoming Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: Keep up the hard work-and try a little smile now and then!