Larry Summers

Larry Summers

Larry Summers

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 29 2001 8:30 PM

Larry Summers

How the Great Brain learned to grin and bear it.


Lawrence Summers takes office as president of Harvard University Sunday, an installation that marks a small but significant shift in American culture. The paramount hero of the Internet boom was the Power Nerd: unsocialized, aggressive, fiendishly smart. If Bill Gates was the epitome of the power-nerd businessman, Larry Summers embodied the power-nerd public servant.

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David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


But Summers' ascent to treasury secretary and now Harvard's helm is confirmation that the power nerd has been domesticated. Gates softened his image with a $20 billion charity, soft-collar shirts, and media training; and megalomaniac nerds like Michael Saylor have skulked into hiding. (Even Larry Ellison seems humbler.) And Summers has been rewarded lavishly for his dogged pursuit of amiability. (It is an irony of Summers' career that this superb economist's most important insights may turn out to be drawn from All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Be nice. Share credit.)

Summers long seemed destined for importance but not leadership. He was brilliant but too abrasive. Summers was a prodigy born into a prodigiously intelligent family. His father was an economics professor, his mother taught at Wharton. Each had a brother who won the economics Nobel Memorial Prize (Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow). Summers grew up smart and cocky. He started MIT at age 16. In 1983, at only 28, he became the youngest tenured professor in Harvard history. A decade later he won the John Bates Clark Medal for the most brilliant economist under 40.

Summers flitted from subject to subject within economics. He would drop in for a brief visit, coolly demolish the work of various experts, make a phenomenally original insight, thump his chest with pride, and move on. (Summers contributed bold ideas to the studies of unemployment, capital formation, and market irrationality, among other topics.)

The first mystery of Summers' career—how a famed academic economist became a political player—is easily solved. Professor Summers was analytically rigorous but not arcane. Unlike many more theoretical colleagues, he devoted himself to real-world problems. From early in his career, he engaged in practical politics. He staffed the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration (though his politics were always Democratic and his economics Keynesian), acted as chief economics adviser to Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, and served as the World Bank's top economist in the early '90s. By the time he arrived at the Clinton Treasury Department in 1993 as undersecretary for international affairs, he had more hands-on political experience than almost any university economist.


President Clinton assembled an extremely talented team of economics advisers—notably Robert Rubin and Gene Sperling—but even within that group, Summers stood out for his clarity of mind and aggressiveness. He pushed unpopular ideas that were economically sound. Summers designed the bailout when the Mexican economy collapsed and was the architect of the Asia rescue in 1998. He and Rubin proved complementary: Rubin soothed the markets and greased Congress, while deputy Summers did much of the dirty work of bullying and coercion.

Summers rose despite himself. He had energy and brains (and humor) but also a nasty arrogance. He was impatient with those less intelligent than himself (that is, everyone), lecturing members of Congress who asked stupid questions, berating foreign finance ministers for their foolishness, sneering at colleagues, undermining rivals, and generally abusing his staff. Summers had a poisonous reputation on Capitol Hill and an unsteady status in the White House—protected by his brilliance and by Rubin, but distrusted.

Summers—too smart and ambitious not to recognize his problem—approached it with the same exacting logic he brings to everything. He realized that he was in danger of being permanently tattooed as a jerk and perhaps blackballed from higher office. So, as Clinton's second term began, he set about domesticating himself. Says one longtime Summers staffer: "He had a huge incentive, because he could see that he couldn't get far in Washington rubbing people the wrong way. He realized this was a chunk of stuff he needed to learn. So he did it. It was like learning French for him."

Summers tried to imitate some of Rubin's gentility. He began repeating self-deprecating Rubinisms: "It's just one man's opinion, but …," and "I may be wrong but …" He taught himself to endure congressional idiocy and journalistic doltism with a smile. He remained as intense and hard-working as ever but eased up on berating his staff. (Ex-administration staffers seem quite fond of him for his sense of humor and pedagogical enthusiasm.) He ate crow in public when the administration adopted policies that he had criticized. (Notably, when Clinton released oil from the strategic petroleum reserve just days after Summers had condemned that idea, Summers swallowed and reversed himself.) It has not been a perfect transformation: Summers visibly strains to grin and speak slowly during interviews. And he certainly has not lost his massive self-confidence. But it has been enough. His reputation softened, Republican Hill staffers began gushing about his comity and good sense, and his press coverage became sunnier.


Because Summers had assuaged critics, it was easy for Clinton to replace Rubin with Summers as treasury secretary. The makeover also probably guaranteed the Harvard job. During the selection process, Rubin called search committee members to insist that Summers had changed, a reassurance that was important to closing the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

It was a wise choice. Summers represents the last best hope for the university president. If he can't rescue that degraded profession, no one can. Earlier Harvard presidents were grand American leaders: Charles Eliot helped reform American education in the late 19th century, and James Bryant Conant was the godhead for American science in the mid-20th century. But university presidents today are eunuchs, shuffling paper by day, grubbing for money by night, and never, never speaking a word about issues of the day for fear of offending donors or alumni or faculty or students.

Summers has a chance to restore the university president to relevance. The Harvard job should exempt Summers from the worst aspects of presidency. Neil Rudenstine, Summers' beige predecessor, supervised a mammoth $2.6 billion fund drive. That and some wise investing boosted the Harvard endowment to $19.2 billion, twice as much as any other university. So, Summers won't need to do much calling for cash. And Summers ought to be able to shunt much day-to-day administration onto his provost.

This should give Summers the freedom to do what he wants to do. He claims that a priority is improving Harvard's notoriously impersonal undergraduate education. (Then again, Rudenstine claimed that fixing undergraduate education was a goal, and he never did anything.)

More important, early signs suggest that Summers will be a much more extroverted and public-minded leader than any other university president. When he appeared on Charlie Rose this week, Summers spent 40 minutes discussing global economic and political issues, and a scant quarter-hour on Harvard. He has dared to take political stands: Summers rapped President Bush for considering barriers to steel imports. It was gentle criticism compared to Summers the politician, but flame-throwing by college president standards.

Where Summers may shine is in combining his goal of globalizing Harvard with his policy passions. He is zealous about global inequality. As a political economist, he lobbied incessantly for small steps that could have outsize benefits: educating girls, developing vaccines against diseases of poor countries, and forgiving Third World debt. Summers could easily become a public champion of global inequality issues at Harvard.

If he can avoid bogging down in university infighting—and his niceness treatment should help him do that—he has the energy, ambition, and arrogance to become an international goad. That would be great news for Harvard and great fun for Summers.