The expanding cast of journalists and politicians refuting claims in Ron Suskind's controversial new book Confidence Men has reached a fever pitch. It's not unusual for politicians to refute claims in books that make them look weak or ineffectual, which Suskind's book certainly does. But the crowd of journalists and sources named on the record who are tearing down the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's new book is growing and impossible to ignore. Here's the mounting case against the fairness and accuracy of his book:
Jacob Weisberg "There's no journalist who sets off my bullshit alarm like Ron Suskind," writes Slate Group's editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg in a blistering critique of Suskind's book. Giving the book a death-by-a-thousand-cuts treatment, he uncovers a string of "small but telling errors" that suggest Suskind has a casual devotion to the truth. Here are Weisberg's examples:
The Federal Reserve is a board, not a bureau (Page 7); Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was previously president, not "chairman," of the New York Fed (Page 56); he was, however, an undersecretary of the treasury, which Suskind makes a point out of saying he wasn't (Page 172); Horatio Alger was an author, not a character (Page 54); Gene Sperling didn't play tennis for the University of Michigan, because he went to the University of Minnesota (Page 215); the gothic spires of Yale Law School, built in 1931, are not "centuries old" (Page 250); Franklin D. Roosevelt did not say of his opponents, "I welcome their hate" (Page 235). What FDR said at Madison Square Garden in 1936, was "I welcome their hatred." That nuance wouldn't matter if it weren't such a famous line, but getting it wrong is the political equivalent of an English professor misquoting Hamlet's soliloquy.
Peter Orszag Responding to an e-mail from Politico's Ben Smith, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget says Suskind's book is "inconsistent" with his experience but he doesn't refute any specifics.
I strongly support the President, and always have. The Administration faced an extremely complex and challenging economic crisis when the President took office, and his leadership has been crucial in avoiding an outright collapse of the economy. Any criticisms of the President's leadership, whether printed in a book or not, are inconsistent with my experience as a member of the economic team working closely with the President.
Why was Orszag's pushback so light in comparison to the others? Weisberg may have an answer:
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."
Jonathan Alter The Bloomberg columnist, who's also written a book on the Obama administration, accused Suskind of cherry-picking quotes. Here's what he said on MSNBC this week referring to allegations that the Oval Office was a sexist environment:
The issue is was it a hostile work environment? The answer is no. I talked to a lot of women about this. It was hostile work environment arguably for both men and women because they thought Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel were tough to work for... The impression people are getting that this was an anti-woman White House, that is just not so.
Dave Weigel Making a smaller point, Slate's blogger points out a passage in which Suskind makes a big deal out of phrase that need not be a big deal. Here's the passage:
Before exchanging hellos or even shaking hands, the president-elect delivered what seemed intended as a zinger.
"It's clear monetary policy has shot its wad."
It was a strange break from decorum for a man who had done so outstandingly well with women voters. The two had never met before, and this made the salty, sexual language hard to read. Later it would seem a foreshadowing of something that came to irk many of the West Wing's women: the president didn't have particularly strong "women skills."
But Weigel notes, the phrase is also commonly used in a non-crude way. "The expression comes from a possible misuse of a musket; stuff the gun wrong, and there'll be a spark, the wad will fall out, but no musket will fire. It's more recently become slang for premature ejaculation, sure, but it's used both ways."
Timothy Geithner This week, on CNBC, the Treasury Secretary pushed back firmly against the book's accusation that he defied President Obama's request to draft a nationalization plan of Citigroup at the peak of the financial collapse.
There is no truth to that, and I have not read that book. But I lived that reality. I lived the original for that period of time. And based on the reports I’ve seen, it bears no resemblance, those stories in that book bear on resemblance to the reality we lived– to the debates we had, to the choice that the president made.
Anita Dunn Thanks to a recording given to The Washington Post between Suskind and Anita Dunn, we know that Suskind selectively quoted Dunn to amplify her complaints about sexism in the Oval Office. Here's her quote as it appears in the book:
“But looking back,” recalled Anita Dunn, when asked about it nearly two years later, “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
Now here's her quote as it showed in the recording:
“I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
Dunn, of course, pushed back against the book harder than almost anyone else did.
Lawrence Summers In the second most vociferous refutation outside of Anita Dunn's, the former director of the White House National Economic Council tells Politico, "The hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context."
Yves Smith The Naked Capitalism financial blogger just can't jive Suskind's claim that Obama ordered an outline of Citigroup's nationalization with the reality of what happened at the time. She says it "does not pass the smell test":
The only problem with this effort at revisionist history is that it is completely out of synch with other actions the Administration took in February and March 2009 that had to have been approved by Obama. And his posture before this supposed Citigroup “decision” and after, has been consistently bank friendly. Obama knew from the example of the Roosevelt administration, which he claimed to have studied in preparing his inaugural address, that the time to undertake any aggressive action was at the very start of his term, in that critical speech. March was far too late to start studying the question of whether to nationalize Citigroup.