It was a message he never expected to deliver. Henry Paulson—free-market thinker, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury secretary to a conservative Republican president—was unveiling to the world a massive taxpayer bailout of the American financial system. Afterward, as he headed into yet another weekend of nonstop work with his team, carrying the weight of the troubled markets on his shoulders, the former college-football star was clearly conflicted about what he’d just proposed. “It’s very unpleasant for me, but it’s a lot more attractive than the alternative,” Paulson told NEWSWEEK. “We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first.”

Let us hope the old saw, about the night being darkest before the dawn, is true. Recent weeks certainly have been the darkest Wall Street has seen since October 1929. Investment banks that had survived the Great Depression, the crash of 1987 and the trauma of 9/11—venerable names like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch—fell by the wayside. They were just the latest victims in the subprime-mortgage and credit debacle that has taken down banks and lenders across the country, and yanked the dream of homeownership away from millions of Americans. For the past several months, the government’s solution to the problem has been to make a series of Solomonic decrees about who would live and who would die. Investment bank Bear Stearns? “Too big to fail,” the government decreed, arranging a sale of the firm to JPMorgan Chase. Lehman Brothers? It must be sacrificed and file for bankruptcy. Overextended homeowners? Try renting. The nation’s largest mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Bail them out and let taxpayers foot the bill. AIG, the world’s largest insurer? Uncle Sam owns it now.

Wielding much of this power over financial life and death is this tall, calm man. Paulson came to Washington from Wall Street in 2006 expecting to deal with issues like Social Security reform and trade agreements. But the economy had other ideas. At a time when President Bush seems to have largely checked out, the teetotaling 62-year-old has emerged as the nation’s most powerful leader—the investment banker in chief. As he did on the Street, Paulson continues to advise CEOs on the best course of action, to arrange financing and to get the best terms possible for his clients. Only now his clients are American taxpayers, the president and the global financial system.

With the help of his counterparts at the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ben Bernanke and Christopher Cox, Paulson has succeeded in fundamentally altering the relationship between Wall Street and Washington—almost to the point where D.C. is now the world’s financial capital. “There’s no doubt that he’s in charge,” says Roy Smith, a former partner with Paulson at Goldman and a professor at New York University. An indifferent orator—Paulson hunches his 6-foot-2 frame over lecterns and has a halting speaking style—the Eagle Scout has emerged as the pre-eminent market whisperer and cajoler of the American financial system. And yet Paulson has rankled some in Washington by conducting business like a Wall Street Master of the Universe: the marathon late nights and weekend meetings with a small group of people, followed by an unveiling of the result as a fait accompli.

“For Bear Stearns and AIG, members of Congress were simply informed that these were decisions made by the Bush administration, specifically Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke,” says Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “I can’t tell you what they were thinking.” Paulson and Bernanke make an unlikely duo—the relentlessly forward-looking Christian Scientist investment banker from the suburbs of Chicago and the more placid history-minded Jewish economist from South Carolina. New York Federal Reserve president Tim Geithner has also been a key player.

The prospect of unelected officials putting massive amounts of taxpayer resources to work without transparency or approval from Congress, and without a clear process at work, is indeed troubling. In addition, the constant improvisation by Washington financial officials may be sending mixed messages. “There hasn’t been a consistent pattern,” New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine tells NEWSWEEK. “We save Bear Stearns but not Lehman. The market is going to have a hard time sorting through what the underlying principle is.” (Corzine served with, and clashed with, Paulson when they were senior executives at Goldman in the 1990s.)

The Democratic strategist James Carville once said that he wanted to come back to life as the bond market, because it exerted such power over Washington policy. And for the past many years, Wall Street has been the tail that wagged the Washington policy dogderegulation, tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. No longer. Now Washington is dictating terms to Wall Street. And Americans will be dealing with the consequences of that for years to come.

How did we get here? And who is this guy who has become, almost by default, the face of American capitalism?

In many ways, Paulson was the ideal person to deal with this mess. A 32-year veteran of Goldman, he helped take the venerable (and venerated) company public and served as CEO from 1998 to 2006, an era in which the firm prospered. Goldman enjoys legendary status in New York, the elite among the elite. In the new book “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” Charles Ellis describes Goldman as a company with “such strengths that it operates with almost no external constraints in virtually any financial market it chooses.” Paulson, who excelled in the classroom (Phi Beta Kappa) and on the gridiron at Dartmouth (All-Ivy offensive lineman), worked in the Nixon White House as liaison to Treasury and Commerce before pursuing an M.B.A. at Harvard and joining the Chicago office of Goldman in 1974.

He became a partner in 1982 and helped build the firm’s Asian investment-banking business, making more than 75 trips to China. “Paulson was seldom thought of as a pal, a charmer, or particularly charismatic,” Ellis writes. But he was noted for self-discipline, focus on controlling risk and mastery of detail. He rose to Goldman’s leadership ranks in 1994 when the firm was in the midst of a major crisis, says Lisa Endlich, a former employee of the bank and author of “Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success.” Nearly one third of the partners were leaving after the company had suffered significant trading losses. As senior executives made the case as to why partners should stay, Paulson focused on the nuts and bolts. “He described the minutiae of how they were going to cut costs and make money the next year,” says Endlich. In 1999, Paulson and a few other partners pushed out Corzine.

Paulson adheres tightly to the Goldman ethos: Make enormous amounts of money but don’t act like it (though Paulson’s stake in the firm was worth about $500 million when he cashed out in 2006, he wears a digital training watch, not a Rolex). Get involved in civic causes (he served for two years as chairman of the Nature Conservancy, and his cavernous corner office on the third floor of the Treasury Building is filled with photos of birds taken by his wife of 39 years, Wendy). And embrace the role of corporate statesman (in 2002, in the wake of corporate scandals, he gave a speech at the National Press Club calling for an improvement in corporate ethics).

Paulson had always been a Republican—but more a Rockefeller Republican than a DeLay one. Goldman Sachs was no place for ideologues or hyperpartisans—its ranks have been filled over the years with both Democrats (Corzine and former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin) and Republicans (White House chief of staff Josh Bolten) who went on to become public servants. It was Bolten who recruited Paulson to succeed John Snow as Treasury secretary in the spring of 2006. At first Paulson demurred. The ultimate realist, he doubted whether anything significant could be accomplished in the last two years of the Bush presidency. But Bolten made the case that there were other ways to contribute beyond the legislative agenda. And after Paulson and Bush met in the president’s study and talked for more than an hour, he agreed. With their children grown—their son, Merritt, owns minor-league sports teams in Portland, Ore., and their daughter, Amanda, is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor—Henry and Wendy Paulson settled into a house in Washington.

Paulson instantly became the leader of Bush’s economic team. He had a very distinct idea of what the job would be—”the top policymaker in the administration, the chief economic adviser to the president and the top economic communicator,” says Tony Fratto, the White House deputy press secretary who worked at Treasury during the early portion of Paulson’s tenure. But the possibility that Paulson would make his mark seemed to evaporate when the Democrats assumed control of Congress a few months after his arrival. The new Treasury secretary had greater concerns than regime change on Capitol Hill, though. In his first official meeting with Bush at Camp David in July 2006, Paulson told the president it would be surprising if the United States made it through January 2009 without some disturbances. “We have these periods every 6, 8, 10 years, and there are plenty of excesses,” Paulson recalls telling Bush. He just didn’t know what those disturbances would be.

The problem became clearer as the housing bubble burst in mid-2006; borrowers started defaulting on mortgages and lenders began going belly up. The mortgages had been packaged into exotic securities, sliced and diced and sold as bonds and purchased by investment banks and hedge funds. Because lenders, executives and traders had convinced themselves that home prices would never fall, anything went. The result was debt layered on debt, piled on top of debt, supported by small amounts of cash. And so as Americans in increasing numbers defaulted on their mortgages in 2007 and 2008, it kicked off a domino effect. The value of the mortgage-backed bonds fell, as did that of the financial instruments based on those bonds. Banks were forced to write down the value of their holdings and raise new cash from foreign sovereign-wealth funds—only to report fresh losses as the housing market weakened. This past spring, the chain connecting underwater subprime borrowers to New York investment banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the Washington-based quasi-governmental firms that together guarantee or insure $5.4 trillion in mortgages—grew increasingly taut.

The government response to the housing mess took two main forms. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates repeatedly, hoping to make life easier for borrowers and lenders. And under Paulson’s direction, the Treasury Department put together the Hope Now coalition, an industry-led group that would modify mortgages before foreclosure. But by the time such efforts got started, too many dominoes had fallen.

In March, when Bear Stearns, the perennially troubled teen of Wall Street, got in too deep, Paulson hammered out a deal for JPMorgan Chase to access credit from the Federal Reserve to buy the investment bank at a bargain-basement price of $2 per share (later revised upward to $10 a share), because he didn’t want to make it seem as if public shareholders were being bailed out. Paulson knew the plan flew in the face of the free-market philosophy to which he, and all his colleagues on Wall Street, clung so fiercely. But this was a special case. When commercial banks failed, a tried-and-tested procedure kicked in: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took charge and made insured depositors whole. But there was no existing protocol or regulatory framework to deal with the failure of an investment bank. And because of its massive levels of debt and significance in the markets for credit-default swaps—a sort of insurance policy against investment losses—Bear Stearns had the capacity to harm hundreds of financial institutions. “The Federal Reserve believed—and I supported them—that it was the right thing to come in and intervene,” Paulson tells NEWSWEEK.

The downfall of Bear Stearns sent Paulson and his colleagues into crisis mode—a mode they have yet to exit. For Paulson and his team at the Treasury Department, the summer was a string of ruined weekends. In July, Congress gave him authority to come to the aid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “If you’ve got a bazooka, and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out,” Paulson said. (Translation: if the market knew the companies had a federal backstop, investors would be more likely to give them more time to work out their troubles.) Paulson was forced to use the bazooka sooner rather than later. By the end of August, the weakened financial state of the two giants was threatening both domestic mortgage markets and the value of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of bonds they had issued that were owned by central banks around the world.On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 7, the government essentially nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, agreeing to backstop their debt and provide new capital.

Given the unique nature of this financial crisis, Paulson—who spent his entire private-sector career at Goldman—has been a better fit for this job than his predecessors in the Bush administration. Snow ran a railroad company, and Paul O’Neill headed the aluminum producer Alcoa. Paulson, as Bolten notes, has the credibility and the respect of the markets, as well as power and authority. As a result, he has operated with considerable autonomy. “President Bush has delegated a great deal to me, and it’s an awesome responsibility,” Paulson says. “He’s very supportive.” The two Harvard M.B.A.s have spoken at least once daily for the past several weeks, in addition to having regular meetings. One reason Treasury has emerged as the leader in this crisis, more than the Federal Reserve, is that the problems in the main aren’t in the banks that are part of the Federal Reserve system. They are in the unregulated Wall Street investment banks, which are Paulson’s turf.

The key skill of an investment banker is understanding the thinking, motivations and fears of the person on the other side of the table. And Paulson has had to put all his skills to the test. Over the second weekend in September, when Lehman Brothers came seeking the kind of help that the government had given Bear Stearns, Paulson was conflicted about what to do. He was reluctant to set a new precedent and encourage what’s referred to in the world of economics as “moral hazard”—the notion that the existence of a backstop would encourage further reckless behavior. Paulson essentially told Lehman CEO Richard Fuld, whom he knew from his days on Wall Street, that the bank needed to find a buyer in the wake of new losses. But Fuld dithered. And although Lehman was in bad shape, unlike Bear Stearns it didn’t threaten to bring down the whole system. “I never once considered that it was appropriate to put taxpayer money on the line in resolving Lehman Brothers,” Paulson said at a press conference in Washington. His refusal essentially forced Lehman into a bankruptcy filing and spurred Merrill Lynch to seek a deal with Bank of America. At Lehman, workers set up photos of Fuld and Paulson and stuck pins through their eyes.

Asked at that press conference if the public should interpret the refusal to help Lehman as an end to assistance for the financial sector, Paulson was cagey. He said he had to worry first and foremost about the “stability and orderliness of our financial system.” He went on to prove his flexibility less than 24 hours later, with AIG. The gigantic insurer, which is a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, had several healthy units in its core business. But its AIG Financial Products unit, which had sold large volumes of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages, was deep underwater. Were it to fail, AIG would pose the same systemic risk to the financial system that Bear Stearns had. Paulson informed congressional leaders that the government was coming to AIG’s rescue. Using the Fannie/Freddie rescue as a template, he hammered out an aggressive deal. He installed a new CEO and extended $85 billion in credit—at a high interest rate—in exchange for an 80 percent stake in the company.

But given the uncertainty about who might fail next, the markets continued to panic. Investors turned against the only healthy players left on Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, pummeling their stocks and threatening to force them into mergers with other firms. Banks began to lose confidence in one another, cutting off the flow of capital. Concerns arose even about money-market accounts, long considered among the safest of investments. Paulson again took out the bazooka: he and Bernanke crafted their plan to create a taxpayer-backed entity that would acquire mortgage-backed bonds from banks, and requested $700 billion from Congress to do so. Treasury also temporarily extended insurance to money-market funds. By the end of last week the stock markets were soaring.

While bailouts are regrettable and expensive, Paulson argues that one is needed to restore confidence in the system. “We’re going to have housing issues and mortgage issues for years,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “The key is to get stability.” But unlike other recent actions, this one will require greater cooperation from Congress. And there Paulson is likely to run into some roadblocks.

Paulson works at a pace to which Washington isn’t quite accustomed. All month the staff dining room at Treasury has remained open on weekends, with a buffet of tuna-fish and peanut-butter sandwiches. Paulson doesn’t use e-mail and prefers to get information by phone. Staffers refer to him as a “serial dialer.” But he doesn’t spend a lot of time making small talk. “He’s a no-bulls––t kind of guy,” says Barney Frank. “He gets down to business and gets things done.”

This brusqueness, and the desire to move on to the next problem, doesn’t always go over well on Capitol Hill. The criticism of Paulson has come mostly from conservative Republicans in the House who are incensed over the bailouts. “I think for all intents and purposes, Congress has been left out of the loop and treated after the fact,” says Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican. Having already acquiesced to the creation of hundreds of billions of dollars in potential taxpayer obligations, Congress isn’t likely to just hand over hundreds of billions more without demanding some concessions like assistance for strapped homeowners.

The decisions made on the fly these past several months will have impacts that last deep into the next administration, long after the end of Paulson’s tenure—perhaps one of the most eventful of any Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton. To add to his burden, Paulson has been tasked with briefing Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on the situation. Late last Thursday evening, as Obama was about to fly from New Mexico to Florida, he held his plane on the tarmac for 10 minutes to hear the latest from Paulson, just one of many recent conversations. McCain and Paulson have also spoken on several occasions.

The Treasury secretary, who repeatedly describes the bailouts as “unpleasant” but necessary, knows that the United States will now be the international butt of jokes for nationalizing huge chunks of its once vaunted financial system. But as the Wall Street saying goes, it is what it is. At the end of the Street’s craziest week in recent memory, Paulson was still working the phones and facing another ruined weekend, in which he and congressional leaders would iron out the details of the bailout plan. “Like every other weekend, we’ll just be working hard doing what we need to do,” Paulson said. For all our sakes, let’s hope there won’t be many more marathon weekends in the months ahead.

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