A Rice Bowl Should Not Be Carelessly Threatened

A hard-working reporter, even one who is full of himself, is a useful citizen.  I was so surprised by the animosity that Jacob Weisberg showed earlier this fall to Ron Suskind, that, after reading Confidence Men: Washington, Wall Street, and the Education of a President,  I went round to hear Suskind talk at a local bookstore last week.

Weisberg unloaded on Suskind in Slate (an online magazine, which he edited for many years, owned by The Washington Post). The author, too, of a very good biographical essay on George W. Bush, The Bush Tragedy, Weisberg knows something about covering presidents. I think of him as possessing unusually good judgment.  He has been around New York and Washington for a long time.

So has Suskind:  this is the fourth inside-Washington book he has written since 2004, having begun with The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, a mostly as-told-to account of the former Alcoa CEO’s misadventures as Treasury Secretary during the first two years of the Bush administration. The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11 followed in 2006, and The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, in 2008.

“There’s no journalist who sets off my bullshit alarm like Ron Suskind,” wrote Weisberg, briefly mentioning  champion fabricator Stephen Glass before leaving behind that slur. What Suskind’s three books about the Bush administration had in common, “was the way they grabbed onto some interesting nugget and hyped it into something that, while bait for the news cycle and the best-seller list, was fundamentally untrue.”  O’Neill was a self-righteous amateur, says Weisberg; al-Qaeda never came close to launching a cyanide attack on the New York subways in 2003; and the Bush White House didn’t ask the CIA to fabricate evidence implicating Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks.

The current problem?  Weisberg wrote that Suskind, for many years a Wall Street Journal reporter had got some details wrong in the latest book, fulsomely flattered his sources, delivered some interpretations that have been contested (including the most sensational, that Obama’s counselors occasionally defeated the president’s stated wishes by “slow-walking” and “re-litigating” them).  Worst, by characterizing Obama’s economic team as fractious and unable to inspire confidence in the policies they proposed, and by dwelling on sexism in the West Wing of the White House, Suskind “misconstrued the larger story as well.”

“Suskind should no longer be treated as a ‘controversial’ journalist, as much as a disreputable one,” concluded Weisberg. “His fellow journalists no longer trust him. Readers shouldn’t either.”

Whew!  Considering that all the senior figures in the Obama administration talked to Suskind, including the president, and that denials are not uncommon when key accounts have been given anonymously, that is quite an indictment.  Does it stand up?

Yes, there are many embarrassing small factual errors of the sort a writer makes when then the propensity for story-telling gets ahead of his stock of background knowledge. The gothic spires of Yale University were built in 1931; they are not “centuries old.” (Suskind is a graduate of the University of Virginia.)  Paul Krugman, Larry Summers and Jeffrey Sachs were not “graduate students together at MIT.”  Sweden’s finance minister is Anders Borg, not Andrea.

True, too, Suskind favors his sources:  CFTC chair Gary Gensler “fell into one of those discrete categories of people who create lasting change in Washington’s marketplace of ideas.” Fiftyish Alan Krueger still beats top college players at tennis; the ever-beguiling Elizabeth Warren “shrugs and lets out one of those big laughs.” Overall, Confidence Men seems to be based mainly on Peter Orszag’s version of events.

Indeed, Suskind’s strongest proposition hasn’t fared well – the charge that after when Obama ordered plans to be drawn up for briefly shuttering Citigroup, as a prelude to breaking up the other banks, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stalled until the issue was moot. Geithner’s rejoinder in the book (pp. 247-49) is completely convincing.

But did Suskind miss “the larger story”?  Certainly he tried to do too much. In shuttling between New York and Washington, he comes up with pieces of several large stories, but only one of them, the least important, does he nail down: there clearly was a gender struggle in the White House.  The gamble of the health care initiative, the battle over bank restructuring, the way the stimulus was sold:  Suskind identified the basis for a satisfying account of each of three fundamentally important stories –  1.)Sweden’s response to its banking crisis vs. that of Japan as a model for the US intervention ; 2.) the effect of the rivalry between Sen. Max Baucus and former Sen. Tom Daschle on health care reform; and 3.) Kenneth Rogoff vs. Summers and Christina Romer on the likely duration of the slump. But Suskind pursued no one of them to a satisfying conclusion.  A book shouldn’t be a grab-bag of works in progress. What you get  shouldn’t depend on the luck of the draw.

The story of an economic team at once clueless and at odds with itself comes through loud and clear, however. The principle contribution of Confidence Men is to show a pair of prima donnas, Summers and Orszag, contending for the ear of the president, each with a full complement of seconds at his elbows, attending their meetings, willing to criticize one another freely after the battles are done. Suskind’s basic premise is that Obama hired the wrong people. And, indeed, there will always be a good market for counterfactuals in the Obama presidency:   a Volcker Treasury? a Wall Street exec at the National Economic Council instead of Summers? Pete Rouse as chief of staff instead of Rahm Emanuel? There was nothing inevitable about the advisers whom Obama chose.

What actually happened to the team he appointed, though, is plenty interesting in and of itself. Suskind has assembled an enormous quantity of information, and, for that reason, long-form reviews of Confidence Men, like this one by columnist Joe Nocera of The New York Times, will  continue to be worth writing and reading. The experienced team that had performed economic marvels for Bill Clinton under Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin would perform no wonders for Obama.

Even here, though, Suskind doesn’t really get to the bottom of it. It’s not his turf, so it’s not really his fault. The larger story is that not just Summers but most of an entire generation of National Bureau of Economic Research-trained of economists misunderstood the situation. Meanwhile, no one yet has better documented the bumptiousness of Summers, who has convinced himself, and many others, that he should return to head the Treasury Department, or, better yet, replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.  That’s not exactly news, of course. You could tell it from the leaks. And Suskind writes about what happened when Summers, “outraged and petulant,” learned that he wouldn’t get the job at the Fed:

He started to list demands to Rahm [Emanuel]: a round of golf with Obama. He wanted to walk into major events, such as signature speeches or the State of the Union, with the cabinet, a privilege not given even to the senior-most advisory posts.  And he wanted a car and driver, like Geithner had. The behavior was, for want of a better term, childish, and the Obama team’s attitude toward Larry began to shift from frustration, and sometimes fear, to eye-rolling incredulity. [He got two rounds of golf with POTUS. and, when he left office, a sterling silver putter from the boss – but no car.]

(As a close student of Harvard’s Russia scandal and the circumstances under which Summers later resigned as president of the university, Economic Principals regularly predicted that he wouldn’t be nominated for either post, because he couldn’t be confirmed.  Suskind, however, doesn’t mention the Russia business, much less examine it, even though it was the WSJ, his journalistic alma mater that in 1997 broke the story. It’s another example of stretched-too-thin – or worse, perhaps he left it out because he thought it didn’t belong.)

So Weisberg is right, Suskind is no Bob Woodward, the veteran Washington Post bigfoot who, since 1987, has produced ten books at two- or three-year intervals that have helped shape the narrative of high-level Washington news. But who will ever again enjoy the advantages of Woodward? — his twin apprenticeships, as naval officer and young reporter, his long-term association with a first-rate newspaper, his celebrity reputation. Suskind is closer to a serial version of another great Washington Post reporter, William Greider, a nostalgic cavalier possessed of remarkable reporting skills and an unquenchable compulsion to write. His worst sin is that, as a self-conscious practitioner of narrative journalism, Suskind is a bit on the windy side.  Five hundred pages for the first two years of the Obama presidency?  He’s an even more compelling talker and reader of his own prose. His handler at the nook store talk I heard had to flag him down after nearly 75 minutes.

That leaves the riddle of why Weisberg went ballistic. He mentioned having written a couple of books about Bush (the other was a collection of specimens of the president’s often fractured speech.) But his real competence comes from having as-told-to written the 2003 memoir of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to  Washington. I have no doubt that Weisberg remains close to both Rubin and Summers. He should have reminded readers of that. I look forward to reading his version of the larger story.


3 responses to “A Rice Bowl Should Not Be Carelessly Threatened”

  1. Putting quotations on hearsay is not acceptable in any journalistic endeavor. This is a common occurrence in Suskind’s work.

  2. Nice to see GeorgeK cite heresay in attacking heresay.

    “The larger story is that not just Summers but most of an entire generation of National Bureau of Economic Research-trained of economists misunderstood the situation.”

    Not disagreeing with this assessment at all, but how does this jibe with your previous veneration of Martin Feldstein, in large part due to his transformation of NBER?

  3. I thought it was a impressive piece of work…like all Ron Suskind’s book. I learned a lot. These issues/jobs/politics are complicated with many different POVs. If an author waits for perfection, complete error free, no ‘hearsay’ then he/she doesn’t actually write very much.

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