New article: Hank Paulson is No. 2!

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So, in possibly the most shocking development in human history, one Barack Obama was chosen as TIME’s Person of the Year for 2008. (Yeah, I thought it would be Tina Fey too.) And who was the runner up? Why, our friend Hank Paulson. Yay, Treasury Department! Yay, financial crisis!

I wrote the profile of Paulson for the magazine, which I guess will start hitting newsstands and mailboxes tomorrow. The article is already online, and it begins:

When he arrived in Washington as Secretary of the Treasury in the summer of 2006, Henry M. (Hank) Paulson Jr.’s top priority was to make certain that his department would have independence and clout. If he was giving up the top job at Goldman Sachs, he wasn’t doing it for a sinecure.

Mission accomplished. Mission overaccomplished.

“I’ve always said I don’t want to be irrelevant,” Paulson said during an interview in mid-December, his 6-ft. 1-in. frame folded into a big chair in the corner of the office where such legends as Andrew Mellon and Henry Morgenthau once worked — and where he has presided over some of the most momentous Treasury meetings ever. “But, boy, I do not want to be this relevant.”

Paulson, 62, has come to play a historic role at a historic time. A lame-duck President has given him nearly complete control over the country’s economic policy in the midst of an epic financial collapse. Congress has given him close to $1 trillion to repair the financial system. Along with his partners in panic, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Federal Reserve Bank of New York president Tim Geithner — who will take over at Treasury in January — Paulson has led a government economic intervention on a scale never before seen in the U.S., except perhaps during World War II.

For a brief period in late summer, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought the crisis into a new and much more dire phase, Paulson’s new clout was greeted by widespread acclaim. He was hailed on magazine covers as KING HENRY and PAULSON TO THE RESCUE. Congressional leaders of both parties (but especially the Democrats) sang his praises. If anybody could lead us through the crisis, it would be the hard-charging former Dartmouth College football star known as the Hammer.

You don’t hear that kind of talk anymore. Paulson has become an unpopular, controversial figure, the target of harsh criticism on Capitol Hill and in the media. If there is a face to this financial debacle, it is now his — exuding an air of perpetual embattlement. Read more.

Still to come: A video interview of Paulson saying stuff and me nodding sagely just like I did with Bernie Madoff, plus thrilling excerpts from the interview transcript. For now, I highly recommend the video of Henry Kissinger with blood dripping from his head.

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