As crisis loomed, Burr told wife: Empty ATM

Staff WriterApril 16, 2009 

— When the banking crisis hit last fall, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told his wife to take as much money from the ATM as she could.

It's an anecdote that Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, has told for a while when talking about the nation's financial woes. But after he used it in a speech Monday before the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, it began to ripple across the political world.

In the 40-minute speech, Burr told an audience of about 70 business executives about the recent banking crisis and the federal government's response. He said he was so spooked after a briefing in Washington last fall that he called his wife, Brooke, back in North Carolina.

"Tonight, I want you to go to the ATM machine, and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take. And I want you to tomorrow, and I want you to go Sunday," he said, according to an account in the Hendersonville Times-News. "I was convinced on Friday night that if you put a plastic card in an ATM machine the last thing you were going to get was cash."

Capitol Hill newspapers linked to the story online. Liberal bloggers criticized Burr. And Democratic strategists hoping to defeat Burr in 2010 pounced.

"I was just shocked," said N.C. Democratic Party chairman David Young. "It's really not much of an economic recovery plan to tell your wife to pull money from the bank."

Burr, who was traveling in Western North Carolina, was not available for comment Wednesday. A spokesman said the quote was misconstrued.

"The senator is simply trying to express what was on his mind as Congress was attempting to respond to the financial crisis last fall," spokesman David Ward said in an e-mail message.

Chamber President Bob Williford said the speech -- including the anecdote -- was well-received.

"I think he was just trying to convey how critical things were at that point in time," he said. "He was explaining why Congress reacted as quickly as it did on those issues. ... I didn't take it as any kind of a selfish move."

Banking experts say there's not much point in rushing to the ATM anyway.

At the time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insured deposits up to $100,000 per customer. (The cap has since been raised to $250,000.) And most banks limit the amount you can withdraw at an ATM each day to $300 or $400.

Tony Plath, a former commercial banker who is now a professor of finance at UNC-Charlotte, said the banking system worked fine after the 2001 terrorist attacks and recent economic crises. He couldn't think of many scenarios in which he would advise people to run to the bank and get cash.

"I don't know -- maybe simultaneous nuclear attacks on Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Charlotte?" he said. "Can I think of anything short of that? No."

ryan.teague.beckwith@newsobserver.com or 919-812-4955

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