Larry Summers, director of the US president's National Economic Council, usually eats at his White House desk or sitting around a nearby table with other members of the economic team. But today, for Lunch with the FT, Summers' aides have persuaded him to walk down the stairs to the Ward Room, a windowless alcove near the White House mess. The dark-wood panelling and nautically themed paintings are meant to evoke a naval officer's dining room but these grace notes are muted by the plastic cutlery, paper plates and drinks sipped straight from their plastic bottles.

As he flips open a plastic box of Caesar salad with grilled chicken and unscrews the cap of a bottle of Diet Coke, Summers makes small talk - his son's killer swing on the golf course, his own weekend tennis plans. But Summers - whom I first met as an undergraduate 20 years ago when I dropped into his office at Harvard to ask about the economic advice he was giving to the leaders of what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania - is not known for his casual conversation.