Five Best Friday Columns

The Ron Suskind controversy, amateurism in sports, and how Republicans can lose

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Jacob Weisberg on Suskind's bad journalism  "There's no journalist who sets off my bullshit alarm like Ron Suskind," writes Jacob Weisberg in Slate. Pulitzer Prize winner Suskind has written several "Bob Woodward-style White House reconstructions," and this month, he released his first book on the Obama administration. "If you wrote about the Bush Administration, as I did, you soon learned to avoid relying on Suskind's reporting absent strong independent corroboration," Weisberg says. The books made heroes out of his cooperative sources and turned nuggets of information into "fundamentally untrue" big pictures, Weisberg says, citing examples from each book. In Confidence Men, his book on Obama, "[o]nce again, his work is strewn with small but telling errors." Weisberg lists several, as for example, when he says Timothy Geithner was the former New York Fed chairman. (He was the president.) "When challenged on the facts, he pleads the larger picture. But his bigger points are equally inaccurate," Weisberg says. He uses two key quotes to charge a culture of sexism in the White House. But both women contest the quotes as inaccurate or made up. He also argues the White House managed the economic crisis like amateurs, citing Larry Summers, who called it "Home Alone." Summers, too, calls his portrayal "a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context." As in the Bush books, it is easy to guess who Suskind's anonymous sources are since they receive "cringe-inducing" flattery. Most controversially, Suskind claims that Geithner disobeyed Obama's request to break up Citigroup. Geithner and other economic advisers all deny this story, and no one has stepped forward to support it. "Suskind loves disputes like this, as do his publishers, because they sell more books," Weisberg says. "His fellow journalists no longer trust him. Readers shouldn't either."

Peggy Noonan on how Republicans can lose When Peggy Noonan uses information available to her to make sometimes "damning" judgements on the White House, she writes today in The Wall Street Journal, she hopes she got it wrong. That said, if Ron Suskind's Confidence Men can be trusted, she says, then "none of it was as bad as I said. It was much worse." As Suskind recasts things, Obama came into office with unique advantages to take on the financial crisis, but his lack of managerial experience worried his aides. "He ran meetings as if they were afternoon talk shows," and he didn't focus on how stimulus funds would be spent. Noonan notes the book has been contested by some who were quoted (see Weisberg's column above), but "the overarching portrait of chaos, lack of intellectual depth and absence of political wisdom, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter at this paper, rings true." Nevertheless, she transitions, "Mr. Obama cannot win in 2012, but the Republicans can lose." To prove this, she points to New York. Obama, she says, made a good, clear speech at the U.N. that persuasively put forward the argument against the "short cut" of recognizing Palestine. Meanwhile, Rick Perry went to New York to speak of Israel as well, condemning Obama policy as "appeasement." Perry forgot that "when you are running for president you have to be big, you have to act as if you're a broad fellow who understands that when the American president is in a tight spot in the U.N., America is in a tight spot in the U.N." Perry's opponents rightly pointed out that he actually has very little knowledge of foreign policy. "I'd add only that in his first foreign-policy foray, the GOP front-runner looked like a cheap, base-playing buffoon." Behavior like this, she says, will lose Republicans the election.

Eugene Robinson on the death penalty  "The death penalty is a barbaric anachronism, a crude instrument not of justice but of revenge," writes Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. "Most countries banished it long ago. This country should banish it now." The state should not have executed Troy Davis, he writes, but nor should it have executed white supremacist Lawrence Brewer. "That's hard for me to write, Robinson says. Brewer, after all, beat up a black man and dragged him by chain from a pickup truck before dismembering and decapitating his body. Brewer later stated he has no regrets. "It's not that I believe his life had any redeeming value," Robinson writes, "just that the state was wrong to snuff it out." Meanwhile, Davis's execution gained worldwide publicity because of the doubt surrounding his conviction. But Davis's case is more "ordinary" than "exceptional." Jurors often don't have DNA proof and must rely on eyewitnesses. "Even when there's no 'reasonable doubt' about the defendant's guilt--the standard for conviction--there's often some measure of doubt." Still, Robinson admits, it is unlikely that race played much of a factor since seven jurors were themselves black, and he has to account for the fact that many judges reviewed the case and not one concluded that justice wasn't served. Nevertheless, "Someone who is wrongly imprisoned can always be released, but death--to state the obvious--is irrevocable."

Tevi Troy on Obama's coaching of Jewish leaders  As the Jewish High Holidays approach, the Obama administration hosts a conference call with rabbis and Jewish leaders to promote their political agenda. "According to a participant on the call [this year]," writes former Bush administration Jewish liaison Tevi Troy in The Wall Street Journal, "President Obama promoted his jobs bill--noting that those who have been more blessed should pay their fair share--and briefed the rabbis on U.S. efforts to counter the push for a declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations." Of course, Troy says, political sermonizing happened in the temple long before Obama came to office, and other presidents have made similar appeals to Jewish leaders. "But Mr. Obama has innovated, as by focusing on a specific issue or two with rabbis before the High Holidays each year." We shouldn't sermonize on the High Holidays though, Troy says, because the goal is to unite the Jewish people around a "shared religious tradition". While most Jews do vote Democrat, these sermons could alienate the significant percentage that do not. "Furthermore, while it may appear easy to find support for left-wing political positions in the Torah and rabbinical sources, the truth is that the Jewish tradition doesn't give much guidance on the optimum level of marginal tax rates, Medicare restructuring, or food-stamp funding." The passages read from the Torah deal with much broader questions, and Jewish leaders should keep it that way.

David Brooks on amateurism in sports  In the 1910s, "the golden age of the amateur ideal," Bobby Jones, an amateur, won several golf championships and set a moral example, writes David Brooks in The New York Times. "In the 1925 U.S. Open, he accidentally nudged his ball while setting up for a shot." Observers did not notice but he gave himself a two-stroke penalty which lost him the match. In an age that preached Social Darwinism, the amateur ideal "was a restraining code that emphasized fair play and honor." On the other hand, it also separated the elite from the working class by creating "a refined arena that only the well-bred and well-born could enter." Liberals rightly condemned this but have thus substituted amateurism with corporitism, Brooks says. "Taylor Branch's superb cover article in the current issue of The Atlantic, 'The Shame of College Sports,' shows how financial concerns have come to dominate college athletics," Brooks writes. In the article, Branch writes of players like Cam Newton, who are investigated for violating rules on amateurism while their uniforms display coroporate logos. "Branch concludes that it is time to give up on the amateur code entirely. Pay the players and get over it." Brooks says this may be right, but he raises concerns. First, paying college players would be practically difficult. "Would the stars get millions while the rest get hardly nothing?" After all, only a few of the sports actually make money. The other difficulty is "moral and cultural." The advantage of keeping players as amateurs is that it forces them to identify as students, at least partially. It "restrain[s] naked self-interest and shortsighted greed." "[P]eople seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them," Brooks concludes. "The lingering vestiges of the amateur ideal are worth preserving."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.