Jacob Weisberg on Ron Suskind

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A memorably violent review of "Confidence Men".

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.

That's severe, but the review is persuasive. I thought its effectiveness dipped a little when Weisberg listed some of the book's "small but telling errors". (Is it so telling that Gene Sperling played tennis for the University of Minnesota rather than the University of Michigan? Or that the New York Fed has a president rather than a chairman?) For me, though, the revelation is the transcript Weisberg provides of part of Suskind's interview with the president. Suskind is telling people this corroborates one of his boldest claims: that Obama told Geithner to devise a breakup plan for Citibank and that Geithner defied the order. Perhaps that really did happen, improbable as it may seem--but the transcript sure doesn't prove it. It shows Suskind giving the president a long and barely intelligible account of what he thinks he knows about this episode. Obama, it seems to me, tries to shrug and move on. But Suskind decides he has something.

Q: ... Ultimately they don't do a plan. And I'm just wondering, later, when you saw Tim after that meeting--when you're like, hey, this is my will, I want this done--what Tim said, if you brought it up with him. Because ultimately they didn't do a plan. And as things evolved, well, let's just say that people saw less and less need for one. But what did you say to Tim after that meeting?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I'll be honest with you. I don't recall the exact conversations. I will say this as a general principle, though--

Q: But you remember being agitated that they hadn't done a plan, of course.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I think "agitated" may be too strong a word. But I will say this--that during this period, what we are increasingly recognizing is that there are no ideal options. And so on something like a Citibank plan and doing a good bank/bad bank structure, the technical constraints around how to execute are enormous. And typically in these situations you might have one institution that you're dealing with. Here we had potentially 50 institutions, and anything that we did, if we didn't get it right, could make everything else worse.

So what's true is that I was often pushing hard, and the speed with which the bureaucracy could exercise my decision was slower than I wanted. But I don't think--it's not clear to me--and I'll have to reflect on this at some point--it's not clear to me that that was necessarily because of a management problem as it was this was really hard stuff.

If that's Suskind's corroboration, it doesn't inspire much confidence. If you put a long and confusing narrative to somebody, and your subject fails to rebut it point by point, you do not have an affirmation. "But I gave you a chance to deny it, and you didn't, really" isn't good enough.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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