LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. John Koskinen thrives in difficult situations. For decades, he has been coming to the rescue of public and private sector companies in the midst of crisis. A few of his rescue missions include leading the Office of Management and Budget through a government shutdown and stepping in as CEO of home mortgage giant Freddie Mac during the housing crisis. Koskinen came out of retirement to take over the IRS last December. He is guiding the tax agency through a scandal over the delay of tax-exempt status for political groups with conservative-sounding names and the loss of internal emails related to those delays. I spoke with Mr. Koskinen about why he's taken on so many thankless jobs and whether his current post has been his most difficult yet.
JOHN KOSKINEN: It's certainly challenging, although I seem to have made a career out of going through difficult situations. Obviously, when I was the deputy mayor and city administrator responsible for the daily activities in the city of Washington for three years, after the city had been undermanaged for about 20 years, it was a sort of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week job. So this is a difficult job and certainly in a contentious time, but it is one of several.
WERTHEIMER: Now, I would put Y2K high on that list. That was the turn-of-the-century when big businesses and banks and governments began to be afraid that their computers were not going to continue working - that perhaps chips and cars, even chips in small appliances, might turn out to be date-sensitive. Did you see it as that disastrous at the beginning?
KOSKINEN: My first interview, I said it was the great bag holder job of all time. If things went well, people would say, what was that about all about? And if they didn't go so well, they'd say, what was the name of that guy in charge again?
KOSKINEN: It was a high wire act because the other side of the coin was while we were trying to get people to fix their systems, well, we also had to avoid having an overreaction by the public and having public panic and gas lines, waterlines, food lines. So in some ways, that was the most satisfying because ultimately, that was one where virtually everything got fixed.
WERTHEIMER: But some folks were not entirely willing to give you credit for doing a good job. They basically said, well, as you say, there was no problem.
KOSKINEN: (Laughing) First, I don't know anybody in a financial institution or in the telecommunications industry who thinks they wasted any money or time. And people ignored the fact that a number of systems didn't work. The low-level windshear detectors of the major airports in the United States failed. The Defense Intelligence satellite system - the French intelligence satellite systems all failed. The systems that were failing were not very interesting, partially because we were able to identify them and partially because people were able to fix them.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now lots of your jobs have been, I guess, by any definition, thankless. That - even if you got things to a situation of stasis where catastrophe was averted, people were hurt along the way. This is certainly true of bankruptcies. It was true when you were interim CEO at Freddie Mac. Why do you do it?
KOSKINEN: Well, you know, it's a good question. I've always liked to organize things. And so, to me, the challenge of dealing with an organization under stress or in great difficulty is exciting. I've always admired people who have a career goal in mind and work for 20 or 30 years in the same business, same area. It's just not what I enjoy doing. I enjoy coming into a crisis situation, working to make it better, trying to get it fixed and then three or four years later, moving on.
WERTHEIMER: John Koskinen is now the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Thank you for talking to us.
KOSKINEN: I'm delighted.
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