Something about Jacob Weisberg really rubs me the wrong way. Because of this, and due to having matured slightly—at least to the point where I don’t look for things to get self-righteously angry about—I’ve tried my best to avoid his work. His biography of George W. Bush’s Presidency, The Bush Tragedy, was nice enough, I suppose; it didn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know, nor did it make an argument we hadn’t already heard before (that Bush was a disaster in large part due to his insecurities and daddy issues). But it was competently written and it didn’t read like something Matt Bai would endorse.
And that’s saying something for Weisberg, because the majority of his contributions to the national discourse have erred on the side of pompous conventional wisdom and unsubtle signals of membership in the church of the savvy. Perhaps his greatest “masterpiece” in this, his chosen genre, was the piece he wrote in which he rapturously praised Paul Ryan for his “Path to Prosperity” (in which, recall, Medicare and Medicaid were gutted so as to lower taxes on the wealthy). The plan was “smart” and “brave” and “bold” and oh so very, very “serious.”
Unsurprisingly, the love note to Ryan received more than a little criticism from other liberal writers; but the thing you need to understand about Weisberg is, well, he’s the type of guy who doesn’t need a petty thing like facticity. Paul Ryan’s plan was “bold” because it told poor and middle class people to buzz off—more importantly, it offered Weisberg the opportunity grab himself some attention with his “contrarian” trumpeting of its brilliance.
And that dynamic is probably the best way to explain this, his recent broadside against Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men. But, actually, it’s not really an attack on Confidence Men; rather, it’s simply an attack on Suskind himself:
There’s no journalist who sets off my bullshit alarm like Ron Suskind. Issues of accuracy, fairness, and integrity come up nearly every time Suskind publishes something. Key sources claim they’ve been misrepresented and misquoted, that basic facts are wrong, and that the Pulitzer-winning reporter has misconstrued the larger story as well. […] Like all of Suskind’s work, the story is told in purple prose littered with passages of such blurriness that it’s hard to imagine a professional editor letting them past. […] Suskind has now turned his egregious writing and dubious technique on the Obama administration […] 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.
There’s a lot of good stuff in there. My favorite bit might be the end, where Weisberg implicitly claims to speak for the Order of Journalists—to whom, of course, the rest of us are obligated to defer—who have deemed Suskind to be unworthy. It’s especially amusing to see Weisberg claim that Suskind is an untouchable when one considers that he quoted the man in his book about Bush. I suppose Suskind’s dirt becomes gold as long as it’s in Weisberg’s hands.
In any event, there are only really two small portions of this two-page article in which Weisberg actually criticizes the text itself of Confidence Men rather than the man who wrote it. One is a masterful display of nit-pickery—bludgeoning Suskind for the fact that the publishing industry, having long been in its death throes, no longer fact-checks an author’s work—while the other is either shamelessly or incompetently misleading.
Here’s the nits Weisberg so zealously picks:
Suskind has now turned his egregious writing and dubious technique on the Obama administration in his new book, Confidence Men. Once again, his work is strewn with small but telling errors. Here are a few: 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.
Two things: 1. I’m glad to see that Weisberg is paying attention to the White House’s press releases and 2. it’s somewhat comforting to see that Weisberg is at least self-aware enough to know that he needed to write that last sentence about Hamlet, lest someone respond to everything above it with a “Seriously?” Personally, it doesn’t matter much to me whether or not Suskind knows it’s president instead of chairman. It’s regrettable, sure—but Confidence Men isn’t a textbook or an authoritative piece of history. It’s a work of narrative non-fiction—the first pressing at that. Your mileage may vary, but if someone told me that The Best and the Brightest got various officials’ titles wrong, it wouldn’t cause me to toss the book into the fireplace.
The second piece of Weisberg’s take-down concerns the broader narrative of the work. Judging by how he describes it, he either didn’t read it, or is lying:
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.
Let me tell ya, although the sexism stuff has gotten the most press—because it requires the least of the journalists writing about it (they don’t even have to read the book!)—it is not one of the two larger-picture arguments of the book. Further, neither is that “economic policymaking has been misguided and chaotic.” And this really isn’t hard to figure out; it’s in the subtitle. Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. The number 1, primary, main argument of the book is that Barack Obama was woefully underprepared for the task at hand, and allowed himself to be manipulated and overruled by his economic advisors, most of whom had longstanding and multifarious links with Wall Street. It’s a story about naïvety and corruption—not sexism and chaos.
It’s not hard to figure out, however, why Weisberg obfuscates and misdirects like he does. He’d rather talk about the salacious and the petty because the more damning and forceful accusation hits too close to home, makes him uncomfortable. How else is a man so willing and able to unquestioningly believe the denials of the powerful supposed to react:
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.
In sum, Suskind writes that various people said things that either made them or their superiors look bad. Said people respond “nu-uh.” Jacob Weisberg then considers the matter at rest, and Suskind to be a liar. QED. What else could a real journalist—like Weisberg or his fellow Obama defender/Suskind attacker Jonathan “torture works” Alter—ever need?
*Do be sure to read the transcript, btw—it’s not rambling and the President’s answer is a patent dodge, not a case of him misunderstanding.