President Obama’s leadership in his early days in office is called into question by members of his own economic team in a new book by Ron Suskind. But the White House has sharply slapped back at the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, claiming he fudged quotes, got basic facts wrong and even appeared to lift a passage from Wikipedia.
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On Tuesday Suskind answered some of those allegations on TODAY, defending his newly released book “Confidence Men” during an interview with Ann Curry. He gave his rebuttals to White House charges, which include U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner saying the reports he’s read of the book “bear no resemblance to the reality we had together. No resemblance.”
“Everyone is under a lot of pressure; it’s a political season,” Suskind told Curry of the blowback he’s receiving from the White House. “The fact of the matter is, all of them said everything; we have extensive notes and tapes for this book.”
Among the most eye-popping anecdotes in the book came from Suskind’s interview with Peter Orzag, vice chairman of global banking for Citigroup. As the banking giant was working with the White House to ensure its solvency in 2009, Suskind quotes Orzag being told by Larry Summers, then chairman of the White House Economic Council, “You know, Peter, we’re really home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”
Last week Summers responded, telling the Washington Post that “the hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion and words being taken out of context,” adding he believed Obama led the country through the economic crisis with “determined, sturdy and practical leadership.”Video: Author: Controversial Obama book 'solid as a brick' (on this page)
Suskind insisted to Curry he fully vetted the quote attributed to Summer with the man himself.
“These sorts of things were part of the prevailing conversation in the White House,” Suskind said. "When I asked (Summers) about that quote, I said, ‘Look what did you mean when you said that?’ He says, ‘We were overwhelmed, we had five times as many problems, we didn’t have five times as many people.’ ”
When Curry asked if Summers officially confirmed Orzag’s quote, Suskind responded, “He said, ‘Look, I will say this, we had too many things going on and we didn’t have enough people, and we were overwhelmed.’ ”
“But that’s not what you’re saying here,” Curry countered. “In this quote, if in fact he said it, he’s questioning whether the president was in over his head. Did he slip back from that, or did he say that’s exactly what he was feeling at the time?”
Suskind responded: “In the book, he first said ‘I never said it.’ Then I said, ‘Look, a lot of people heard you say it.’ He said, ‘OK, here’s what I meant when I said such a thing.’ ”
Also sparking controversy in the book is Suskind’s portrayal of the White House as a boys' club in which women were given such short shrift that it bordered on illegal. Christina Romer, the former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted as saying Summers blocked her from attending a key meeting, and said of her role, “I felt like a piece of meat.”
Even more startling was a quote attributed to former White House communications director Anita Dunn: “This place would be in court for a hostile workplace, because it actually fits all the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace environment.”
Both women have denied making the remarks, but Suskind said he not only stands by the quote, but also played a tape to the Washington Post of Dunn saying what was attributed to her. “There it is, clear as a bell,” he said.Story: And the title of ‘Untitled’ by Anonymous is ...
But Curry said reports show Dunn’s quote actually was, “If it weren’t for the president, this place would be in a court for a hostile workplace.”
“Did you take liberties with that quote?” Curry asked Suskind.
“Oh, absolutely not,” he responded. “In fact, what I did — I called Anita back at the end (of writing the book) and said, ‘Look, here’s what’s going next to your name in the book.’ She said, ‘Well, you know, can you say looking back rather than in present tense?’ We talked about that and ultimately, the quote is broken down in terms of the core of the quote that she agreed with.”
Lift from Wikipedia?
The White House has also taken Suskind to task for an apparent lift from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia in describing the government-sponsored mortgage company Fannie Mae. Suskind’s book contains this sentence about Fannie Mae: “In 1968, it officially became a publicly held corporation, to remove its debt and related activities from the federal balance sheet.” Wikipedia writes, “In 1968, it converted to a publicly held corporation to remove its activity and debt from the federal budget.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said of the similarities: “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. That analysis is wrong.”
Suskind told Curry the same combination of words was naturally used in describing a fact about Fannie Mae’s history, and added, “They’re not even the same in the two sentences. It’s absurd. The White House should be doing something better than wiki searches on a 500-page book after a week, that’s all they come up with.”Story: Dick Cheney on 9/11: ‘We were living in the fog of war’
But Curry said NBC research also found factual errors in the book: CNBC reporter Erin Burnett is called “Erin Burkett”; Suskind cites the U.S. unemployment rate at 8 percent in June 2009 when it was actually 9.5 percent, and he writes that the Dow Jones closed at 378 on Feb. 10, 2009, when it actually closed at 382.
“Do you agree with (Carney), that if you can’t get these details right, then the broader analysis that you subscribe to ... has got to be judged in accordance with that, has got to be questioned?” Curry asked.
Suskind responded, “The fact of the matter is, everything in this book is as solid as a brick, and we have gone through every little thing that they have found. Much of it was changed early; the book was pushed through with great effort.
“The fact is that this book … is densely sound and the analysis is picture perfect.”
Suskind added the book contains interviews with most of the key White House players during the economic crisis early in Obama’s presidency, including Obama himself. And he said he is not surprised the White House now pulls back from approving of what he wrote.
“This was really a portrait, a first portrait of this White House and the president,” he said. “When this happens, when the curtain is pulled back, they often respond vigorously. They are, and I think that is testimony to the fact that this is really who they are.”
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