How to Understand Gene Sperling

Over the years, I've had various contacts with Gene Sperling, who was introduced by President Obama today as the new director of the National Economic Council, replacing Larry Summers. I don't know him well. But the sudden "controversy" surrounding Sperling--the charge that he is in thrall to Wall Street because Goldman Sachs paid him to run an anti-poverty program--surprised me, since anyone who knows him at all, or has been spun by him, or has read his book or magazine writing, would pretty quickly conclude that he is the furthest thing from a Wall Street lackey; he is, in fact, an utter policy wonk and creature of Washington; and is eminently suited to the position not least because he held it under the last Democratic president.


But I also realize that most people are not Washington reporters or policy wonks with exposure to Sperling, and that rough measures of character, such as whether or not one has accepted a paycheck from Goldman Sachs, are often quite accurate--in fact, accepting a Goldman paycheck is probably a better measure than most. Nevertheless, it would lead to the wrong conclusion here. And an excellent way for skeptics to set their mind at ease would be to read this 1999 profile of Sperling by Matt Miller that was, unbelievably, killed by The New Republic. Not only is it a highly accurate and persuasive portrait of Sperling and all that he stands for, it's also as good an argument as I've read for the proposition that often in Washington it is better to cut deals that to insist, in every instance, on ideological purity.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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