White House Officials Attack Book, Author, With Whom They Cooperated

Sep 19, 2011 2:14pm

Despite having cooperated with author Ron Suskind for years, White House officials today attacked him and disputed the veracity of his book “Confidence Men”, which portrays a meek President Obama being rolled by his economic advisers.

“I lived the original, and the reality I lived — we all lived together — bears no relation to the sad little stories I heard reported from that book,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said today.

Geithner is portrayed in the book as never following through on a presidential instruction to prepare for the dismantling of Citigroup.

Numerous administration officials disputed the characterization, suggesting that Suskind either misunderstood or deliberately twisted the actual events. Officials said there was a debate internally about what to do if the stress tests of the banks such as Citigroup made it necessary for the government to assume majority ownership of Citi or any of the other banks. But that didn’t come to pass so the debate was academic.

One former senior administration official told ABC News that it “would be crazy” to prepare a plan for Citi dismantling before the results of the stress test came in. The existence of such a plan would leak and cause a run on Citi and other banks perceived to be weak, the official said.

Geithner today disputed that he would simply refuse to carry out the president’s orders. “I would never do that,” he said. “I’ve spent my life in public service. My great privilege to serve this president, and I would never contemplate doing that.”

Author Suskind declined to comment, given an exclusive deal he has with another media outlet.

The book’s central thesis – that the president was essentially controlled and manipulated by those on his economic team who had a less progressive view of how to handle the financial crisis – rings false in many instances. It was well known, for example, that both Geithner and then-National Economic Council director Larry Summers opposed the “Volcker Rule,” restricting the size and scope of banks, which the president pushed anyway.

That said, many of the other stories in the book have been verified by ABC News.

Many anecdotes portray an economic team plagued by in-fighting. After former Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag writes a memo to the president urging him to push a tax on financial transactions, Summers yells at him, “What you’ve done is immoral!”

At another point in the book Summers tells Orszag, “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.’

And as ABC News covered at the time, in the Fall of 2009, many of the women who worked at the White House expressed concern that the “boy’s club” atmosphere was in some ways discriminatory. Former White House communications director Anita Dunn tells Suskind that “looking back, 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 later underlined to the Washington Post that she did not think the White House was actually a hostile workplace.

The book also describes former Council of Economic Advisers chair Dr. Christina Romer resenting the boy’s club atmosphere, which several of Romer’s colleagues say accurately reflected her views. Romer did not respond to a request for comment. White House press secretary Jay Carney today attacked the book by noting that “very simple things, facts that could be ascertained — dates, titles, statistics, quotes — are wrong in this book. ..One passage seems to be lifted almost entirely from Wikipedia in the book. I think, based on that, I would caution anyone to assume that if you can’t get those things right, that you suddenly get the broader analysis right.”

The “passage” Carney is referring to, first noted by Mike Allen of Politico,  is the following Wikipedia sentence about Fannie Mae: “in 1968 it converted to a publicly held corporation, to remove its activity and debt from the federal budget.” Suskind writes: “In 1968 it officially became a publicly held corporation, to remove its debt and related activities from the federal balance sheet.”

More broadly, Carney took issue with the book’s central thesis.

“The extraordinarily difficult times that this country was going through when this president took office and the extraordinarily complex and difficult decisions that this administration, this president, took, they weren’t easy, but they were necessary,” Carney said. “And it took decisive leadership. It took a clarity of vision about where we needed to move the country. And it took a willingness to suffer political risk in order to do the right thing for the country. And that was absolutely at the heart of all the decisions the president made, and the president made them.”

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