Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: His book on Obama is as spurious as the ones he wrote about Bush.

The thinking behind the news.
Sept. 22 2011 6:54 PM

Don't Believe Ron Suskind

His book about Obama is as spurious as the ones he wrote about Bush.

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When challenged on his conclusions, Suskind points to his meticulous reporting; when challenged on the facts, he pleads the larger picture. But his bigger points are equally inaccurate. The larger thesis of his book, to the extent it has one, is that the Obama White House is rife with sexism and that its economic policymaking has been misguided and chaotic. To support these claims, Suskind stretches the thinnest of material well beyond the breaking point.

Confidence Men.

He uses two key quotes to support his claim of sexism, one from Anita Dunn, Obama's former communications director, about the White House meeting the legal definition of a hostile work environment for women, and another from Christina Romer, the first chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, saying she "felt like a piece of meat" after being left out of a meeting by Larry Summers, the former director of the National Economic Council. In Dunn's case, Suskind spliced her actual words in a way that distorts their meaning, leaving out the crucial phrase "if it weren't for the president." (For another take on the Dunn dispute, see this blog item by Erik Wemple.) Romer says she can't imagine ever having used the "piece of meat" phrase. When it comes to disarray in managing the economic crisis, Suskind hangs a lot on a line from Larry Summers about the economic team being "home alone." Summers, too, has vehemently disputed Suskind's characterization, telling Politico, "The hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context." In his case, the line was a remark Summers may have made over dinner to former OMB chief Peter Orszag, with whom he was at odds. Summers may well have been grousing about Obama. But neither he, nor anyone else on the economic team, seems to have believed—then or now—that the president was indecisive, detached, or clueless about economic policy.

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It's not hard to guess who Suskind's main sources could be, because he invariably flatters them in a cringe-inducing way. Orszag "was a bona fide academic phenomenon who blew through Princeton … could think in numbers, talk in full sentences, and worked non-stop." Romer, likely another main source, has been propelled to the center of the White House action, where she often scolds the president for his mistakes or bad manners. Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Corp., "fell into one of those discrete categories of people who create lasting change in Washington's marketplace of ideas." Alan Krueger, an assistant secretary of the treasury whom Suskind also inflates into a central figure, is portrayed as similarly thoughtful and wise beyond measure. "But Krueger, walking back from the restaurant, was thinking more about the broad issues discussed at lunch [with the Swedish Finance Minister], the larger decisions a society makes that shape its character …."

The most interesting claim in Suskind's book is that Geithner blocked the breakup of Citigroup against the wishes of President Obama, exemplifying the supposed problem that "the young president's authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers." The problem with this tale is that it, too, is plainly wrong. In early 2009, there was a disagreement inside the administration about whether breaking up Citigroup made sense, with Summers among others in favor, and Geithner opposed. But Suskind's claim that "Treasury never moved forward to carry out the President's wishes about Citigroup," that Geithner killed the breakup plan by "slow-walking" it, has been strongly denied by Geithner and not supported by anyone else.

According to Austan Goolsbee, the recently departed Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, a plan to break up or nationalize banks before the results of the stress tests were known could easily have caused runs on all banks perceived as weak and that the fear of contagion was well known by the president. "The charge that the President decided to break up Citi and Treasury refused to do it is absurd," Goolsbee told me. "The fundamental issue at hand was what to do once we had the data from the stress test results to show what the weaknesses were and how big."

In the book, Suskind claims that the president confirmed his version of the Citi episode in an interview. He has been repeating this claim on his publicity tour. But a transcript of that part of their conversation that the White House Press Office released to me shows nothing of the kind. Obama doesn't seem to grasp Suskind's rambling and convoluted question, but his response doesn't indicate that he was frustrated with Geithner—as opposed to the quandary his team faced—or that he felt undermined by his treasury secretary in any way.

Suskind loves disputes like this, as do his publishers, because they sell more books. If the victims of his terrible reporting respond publicly, he wins. But at this point, Suskind should no longer be treated as a "controversial" journalist as much as a disreputable one. His fellow journalists no longer trust him. Readers shouldn't either.

Correction, Sept. 22, 2011: Because of a production error, the article originally featured a photograph of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill with a caption identifying him as Ron Suskind.