As searing as the experience was, the most lasting image of the 2008 global financial crisis is somewhat debatable.
For your consideration, we would like to submit the one above, taken Wednesday, Sept. 17 — five years ago today — by Getty photographer Win McNamee.
It shows Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson walking back to the Treasury building via East Executive Avenue after meeting with President George W. Bush — with a look of mild terror washing across his face.
That afternoon, Treasury announced it would sell $US40 billion of debt to shore up obligations. But it was not enough to prevent the Dow from losing 449 points, or for investors to actually pay to take a loss on short-term Treasuries rather than take a chance on notes with longer maturities. The day before, the U.S. had bailed out AIG to the tune of $US85 billion.
We spoke with McNamee to ask what he remembered about the shot — and bring you his other snaps from the series.
“There was a great demand for photos of the main players, and most were not making themselves available, including Paulson,” he says.
“We knew he had meeting scheduled with the President, and that more than likely he would be walking from the Treasury to the White House.”
McNamee says he actually can’t be sure whether Paulson’s panicked expression was prompted by something he was hearing, or that he was simply noticing someone was watching him.
Still, as powerful as the shot proved, it was also extremely difficult to get.
Paulson was crossing a section of East Executive Avenue, the road-turned-walkway separating the White House’s grounds from the Treasury, that’s blocked off even to White House press.
McNamee says he took the shot from about 75 yards away.
“He was moving very quickly…There’s a window there, you’re working with a very long glass.”
McNamee says he was struck by how tethered Paulson was to his mobile.
“You have access to communications all over the place, and he can’t be off the phone for five minutes, so I thought that was odd. You don’t see these guys on cell phones very often.”
Given these seemingly frantic images, it’s pretty incredible to read the Wall Street Journal — which published McNamee’s photo on its front page the next day — invoke Alexander Hamilton to describe the power thrust into Paulson’s hands that week:
Since Alexander Hamilton first held the job 219 years ago, the position of Treasury secretary largely centered on advising the administration on economic and fiscal policy.
In a few short months, Henry Paulson has rewritten that job description.
Today he finds himself in a position of power unmatched by his predecessors. He decides whether Wall Street firms live or die, picking winners and losers with the power of the federal purse.
The next day, Paulson and the White House submitted their first plan for rescuing the banks, including a draft of what would become the centrepiece of the bailout, the troubled asset relief fund.
We know what happened next.