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Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
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A-On the BrinkHenry Paulson is the former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, and he was the Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush from 2006-2008. On the Brink is Paulson's account of the American economy's tumble into recession.

The Topic: Henry Paulson went from the top job at Wall Street investment behemoth Goldman Sachs to the man on the bubble as Treasury secretary, struggling along with Congress and the Fed to dampen the effects of the worst economic slide since the Great Depression. During a tenure lasting 30 months, Paulson witnessed firsthand the now-familiar litany of financial woes: subprime mortgages and the collapse of the housing market, toxic assets, overblown executive salaries, and ailing businesses "too big to fail." "As first responders to an unprecedented crisis that threatened the destruction of the modern financial system, we had little choice," Paulson writes from his insider's perspective on the decision to support bailouts. Time will tell how effective those choices were.
Business Plus. 478 pages. $28.99. ISBN: 9780446561938

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Paulson provides a fascinating, frank and dramatic account of the alternatives he weighed, the obstacles he encountered, the decisions he made and the consequences that ensued. ... Although he does not address his decision to shape a stimulus package that might have reduced unemployment, the former Treasury secretary is pretty candid about his mistakes." Glenn C. Altschuler

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Reflection is not Paulson's strong suit. ... Paulson, known in his Dartmouth College days as ‘the Hammer,' slams us with fact after fact; it's a pretty good approximation of the pace he maintained on the job." Roger Lowenstein

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Highly detailed when it comes to call logs and meeting attendees, Mr. Paulson's story nonetheless leaves readers wanting more regarding the big question: How did the government know that a particular business was too big to fail? ... One matter the book does clarify, however, is that when it came to spotting the housing meltdown, Mr. Paulson's gut failed him--as he freely admits." James Freeman

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The main problem with this fast-paced book was the main problem with Paulson's tenure--a surprising inability to see the big picture. ... Given that Paulson knew this culture from the inside, it's disappointing that he doesn't reflect more on Wall Street's pathological need for compensation, on its pathetic leadership and corporate governance." Daniel Gross

Spectator (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The last chapter changes pace from the frenetic, adrenaline-charged tempo of the crisis and adopts a more reflective tone. For the first time we perceive in this highly intelligent, experienced, driven man some glimmers of wisdom, albeit one chapter and two years too late." David Davis

Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"Disappointingly, there are no crude settling of scores in Paulson's account--there must have been some fantastically brutal encounters as he attempted to win over Congress to his $700 billion bank rescue package, and Paulson is known to be a man not imbued with the diplomatic gift: ‘a thug' is how one of his old financial rivals described him to me. ... This is truly a book that proves how much more than the Atlantic divides us." Dominic Lawson

Critical Summary

"I am not a particularly sentimental man," Henry Paulson admits in On the Brink. No surprise, then, that the author's views on the events of the past few years--from both his perch high atop Goldman Sachs to the trenches of financial warfare in Washington--have little to do with partisan politics; instead, they rely on the facts as Paulson saw them. Drawing on phone call and meeting logs, Paulson offers a unique perspective on the recovery efforts and the thought processes of those involved in shoring up the world's largest economy. Even though Paulson is forthright when writing about how he tended to rely on his "gut"--with mixed results--when making important decisions, readers who want to know where the bodies are buried or wish for a more evenhanded account will have to wait for a future treatment. By someone else.