The Big Idea

Don’t Believe Ron Suskind

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

As an editor, you develop a B.S. meter—an internal warning system that signals caution about journalism that doesn’t feel trustworthy. Sometimes it’s a quote or incident that’s too perfect —a feeling I always had when reading stories by Stephen Glass in the New Republic. Sometimes it’s too many errors of fact, the overuse of anonymous sources, or signs that a reporter hasn’t dealt fairly with people or evidence. And sometimes it’s a combination of flaws that produces a ring of falsity, the whiff of a bad egg. 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. One discounts such complaints to some extent, of course. Good journalism often makes its subjects unhappy, and the kind of Bob Woodward-style White House reconstructions Suskind has come to specialize in inevitably favor those who pay the implicit blackmail of cooperation in exchange for sympathetic treatment. But Woodward is meticulous within the limitations of his method, and you seldom hear his subjects complain that he’s gotten the details wrong or misrepresented their views by manipulating quotes.

If you wrote about the Bush Administration, as I did, you soon learned to avoid relying on Suskind’s reporting absent strong independent corroboration. What his three books 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 bestseller lists, was fundamentally untrue. The first of these, The Price of Loyalty (2004), focused on Paul O’Neill’s unhappy experience as Bush’s first treasury secretary. 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. But the real problem was the conceit at the heart of the book, that the inept, self-regarding O’Neill was a skilled and brilliant hero victimized at every turn by the political hacks across the street. Where Woodward favors his sources, Suskind flatters them histrionically. His version of the Bush White House was its own distorted reality.

Suskind’s next two books— The One Percent Doctrine (2006) and The Way of the World (2008)—were much worse. The first advanced a series of dubious theories about counterterrorism, including the claim that al-Qaida would have carried out a cyanide gas attack on the New York City subway in 2003 if Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida leader, hadn’t called it off at the last minute because it wasn’t going to be as spectacular as Sept. 11. Suffice it to say that government officials and terrorism experts scoffed at the claim, regarding the intelligence as uncorroborated and the idea of such a plot being pulled off by al-Qaida sleeper agents as implausible. The second book leveled the charge that the Bush White House had asked the CIA to fabricate evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. Suskind’s major sources contradicted the book’s assertions, and the CIA itself was moved to issue a rare —and persuasive—official denial.

The most famous thing Suskind wrote about the Bush administration was a passage in an article he published in the New York Times Magazine, quoting an anonymous Bush “aide”:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’ “

This became one of the most quoted lines about the Bush years, repeated thousands of times as evidence of his administration’s willful dishonestly about everything from Iraq’s WMD to the budget. “Reality-based” turned into a liberal slogan of the era, printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers. How could it not, given the deliciousness of the quote? But did anyone in the Bush administration ever say these words to Ron Suskind? He has never given us any reason to believe that anyone did. And given the unacceptable liberties he takes with quotes from named sources—see below—I have my doubts.

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.

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.

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.

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.