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Owning up to the Great Bailout of 2008

WASHINGTON

Tony Olender was on vacation in Washington, doing the Smithsonian, all the tourist sites, even the Bureau of Engraving. Then the Florida retiree decided he better check on the state of his 401(k).

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So he got in line yesterday outside Room 2128 at the Rayburn House Office Building, to get the information straight from the top - Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The country's top financial officials were testifying there as part of a whirlwind concert tour: Bailout '08: MarketAid.

"It would be interesting to hear Bernanke and Paulson," said Olender, who lives in Sarasota. "This is so interesting to be here, to be part of history, if this is going to be the big debacle that they say it is."

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Not that Olender, a former manager at Lucent Technologies, would get to personally ask the duo about retirement income. He couldn't even get into the crowded hearing room itself, and had to settle for watching the proceedings via remote TV with the rest of the spillover crowd across the hallway.

Capitol Hill staffers, interns, tourists, even the Code Pink antiwar activists - apparently expanding to new fronts of protest - lined up yesterday morning for the main event, which didn't even start until midafternoon and featured Paulson and Bernanke trying to persuade Congress to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street and, presumably, the rest of us whose fortunes have somehow become inextricably linked to people with much bigger paychecks and better and more houses.

It was the hot ticket in town, the House Financial Services Committee taking its turn in the ritual public slapping of the snowy-bearded Bernanke and the gaunt-looking Paulson, still hoarse from Tuesday's marathon hearing before a Senate committee and sales-pitch meetings with groups of reluctant lawmakers.

There was a certain stations-of-the-cross quality to their statements, a sense of going through the same motions, issuing the same dire warnings and urging the same drastic course of action - if only to get a still shocked and confused country comfortable with the program. There were the usual denunciations from the representatives, of fat cats, cowboy capitalists, overfed pigs and, worst of all, overcompensated executives. There were the same sorrowful statements from Paulson and Bernanke, acknowledging the mess and trying to pitch their $700 billion fix.

"The American people are angry about executive compensation, and rightfully so," Paulson said, as the hundreth or so congressman made the point that he or she couldn't support a bailout if those being bailed out of the crashing airplane got to ride a golden parachute to the ground.

Despite the speeded-up and pressurized atmosphere surrounding the bailout, already it seems to have taken on a sense of inevitability. The conventional wisdom is that some kind of bailout plan is going to pass Congress, and what we're talking about now is just the details of it - will it be the whole $700 billion chunk all at once, or some kind of phased-in plan, for example, and how will the call for limiting executive compensation be incorporated? When it comes to the bailout, we're past the whether and into the how.

So yesterday's hearing seemed mainly an opportunity to vent, for legislators who no doubt have been hearing from people like me - the ones who feel like they've been carefully negotiating the china shop that is our financial system, the one with the sign that says, "You break it, you own it."

Except most of us didn't break it, and yet somehow we're still going to own it.

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I'm your basic financial wimp, a goody two-shoes, a total low-stakes bore when it comes to the market. At the settlement for the last house I bought, everyone had a little laugh over my credit rating: With a perfect score being 850, somehow my score was 852. I've never missed a mortgage payment, never bitten off more credit than I could digest.

So my conscience is clear when it comes to whoever broke Wall Street. But that doesn't matter at this point, because now we're all in on fixing it.

"This is something," Paulson said, "all of us have to own."


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