A past Suskind error

A past Suskind error

I wish I didn’t have to write this post, but I feel obliged to do so.

Reporter Ron Suskind has a new and quite critical book about the Obama economic team and the Obama White House.  I am not linking to it because I am not recommending it.  While I often differ with the current team’s approach to economic policy, I do not take Mr. Suskind’s reporting seriously because of my own experience.

Mr. Suskind wrote another book about Presidential economic advisors during the Bush Administration, focusing on Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s perspective.  In that book Mr. Suskind describes a meeting of President Bush with his economic advisors in November of 2002.  This was the meeting at which the President’s advisors debated whether the President should propose a new tax cut bill in early 2003 (he did).  (President Bush also fired Secretary O’Neill in December 2002.)

Mr. Suskind gets some of the details right – the meeting was in the Roosevelt Room, he has the correct list of attendees, and he captures some of the substance and flavor of the debate.

He then includes a paragraph-long quote he claims I said to the President.  In that quote (in quotation marks), Mr. Suskind wrote that I argued in favor of doing the tax cut, and that I was therefore rebutting Secretary O’Neill and two other Cabinet-level advisors.

I did favor the tax cut, but the quote Mr. Suskind attributes to me is fabricated.  I didn’t say anything even remotely similar to what he quoted me as saying, and I didn’t make a recommendation in that meeting.  I know this with certainty because this was the first big Presidential meeting in which I had a significant speaking role, and I was, to say the least, nervous.

I was at the time a White House “deputy,” one big notch below the Cabinet officials and senior White House advisors who were debating what the President should do.  My role in that meeting was to be the honest broker staffer who walked the President through the numbers and policy options.  I was entirely focused on that task.

Had I weighed in on one side of the debate, I would have undermined my honest broker role and also undercut my boss, NEC Director Larry Lindsey.  It was my role to present the facts, numbers, and options as neutrally and accurately as possible, and Larry’s role to debate with Secretary O’Neill and others.  Having been in the job only three months, I was also nervous enough that I would not then have challenged a Cabinet Secretary in front of the President, much less several.

It’s a small point, and something that only I would notice.  Neither Mr. Suskind nor anyone else affiliated with the book had contacted me about the quote before publication, and indeed I never interacted with the author until I met him accidentally several years later.

Had the book purported to characterize my view, rather than actually quoting me, I might have shrugged it off.  But when you see a fabricated, unverified quote attributed to you in a book that claims to be a historical description of an important policy meeting with the President, it sticks with you.

Mr. Suskind’s earlier book about the Bush Administration was an inaccurate and unfair depiction of the President and the advisors for whom I worked, and of the White House in which I worked.  It was clearly fed by a disgruntled former Presidential advisor promoting himself and pushing his own agenda.

I will assume the same about his latest.  Amazon should move it to the Fiction category.

(photo credit: Enokson)

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