Any journalist who has tried to write about Larry Summers knows that he has a very simple approach to the media: He doesn’t talk to the press because he feels an obligation to, because university presidents should be accessible to the press. He talks to reporters only when he has to or when he thinks he will personally benefit from the exchange. Nothing too unusual about this approachâSummers learned it in Washingtonâexcept that a host of reporters will tell you that when Summers doesn’t want to talk about something, his attitude towards them is transparently dismissive, even hostile.
But sometimes, Summers really, truly wants to spread the word about something. And when he does, he calls the New York Times.
Which is why one has to consider carefully the piece in today’s Times, “Amid Uproar, Harvard’s President Ponders His Style.” Summers cooperated with the article by Patrick Healy and Sara Rimer about the experience of the past month and the public referendum on his leadership style.
According to the Times, Summers has been going through a dark and painful period of profound self-evaluation. He’s reached out to Bill Clinton and spinmeister David Gergen for advice. (A fact Gergen failed to mention when he recently appeared on the Charlie Rose Show to talk about what a great job Summers is doing. Nor did he mention, as I report in “Harvard Rules,” that for years he’s been doing speechwriting for Summers.)
“I’m actually glad that concerns and anger that clearly were felt are now in the open and are now things we can discuss,” Dr. Summers said.
To which one can only laugh in hysterical disbelief. Anyone who knows Summers knows that having these “concerns” out in the openâwhich is to say, being the subject of volumes of media scrutiny, much of it unflatteringâ would infuriate Summers. For almost four years, he’s made a point of trying to limit the media’s access to Harvard, and Harvard’s access to the media. At the Treasury Department, Summers was vigorous in his attempts to control the flow of information. This is not a man who takes criticism well, and certainly not public criticism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a judgment about that quality. I’m just pointing out that the disconnect between the Summers of today’s article and the Summers of, oh, the rest of his life, is so vast, it’s jarring. And when the people he’s turning to for advice are Bill Clinton and David Gergen, you have to wonder. After all, Clinton and Gergen dispense political advice.
More juicy bits….
Summers drops the fact that he recently took his kids to see “Hitch,” the Will Smith movie about, as the Times puts it, “men who are trying to improve their social skills.” Having been thus baited, the Times lunges for the hook: Did Summers see any analogy between the movie and himself? Oh, no, Summers insists. “It didn’t occur to me.”
Oh, come on. That’s an insult to Summers’ intelligence. Whatever else you would say about Summers, he is an extremely smart and savvy individual. Of course he recognized the analogy. And if, by some bizarre lapse in noting the obvious, he didn’t, can’t one just imagine David Gergen saying, “Larry, you should make a comparison to that Will Smith movie…that way people will think your problem is just klutzy social skills. Plus, everyone likes Will Smith!”
Another piece of evidence to this point: Having covered Summers for years, I’ve noticed that Summers only mentions his children in order to make a point that’s not really about his children. It’s kind of a weird habit, but I’ve seen it happen probably twenty times, and one well-known recent incident was when he talked about his daughters naming their toy trucks at the infamous NBER conference.
Later in the piece, Gergen compares Summers to Socrates. Let’s just think about that for a moment, shall we?
Gergen also says of Summers, “It’s a good thing when a male demonstrates vulnerability.”
Especially if he demonstrates it in front of two reporters for the New York Times. Apparently Gergen and Summers feel they can actually talk about their media strategy with the press as part of their media strategy. Hold on a second… I’m getting dizzy. It’s all too meta!
–the Times points out that there is yet expected to be a vote of no-confidence in Summers, and then, in a weird and hasty parenthetical, points out, “No one expects the vote to go anywhere.” Maybe so. But the Times just injected itself into the way that vote is perceived on campus. If the Times says that no one expects the vote to go anywhere…
–Summers states that he never felt that his position with the Harvard Corporation was in jeopardy. Of course, he has to say that, but the thing is, it’s probably trueâhell, Summers appointed half of the Corporationâand that should be disconcerting for Harvard. Not that the Corporation should have rushed to dump Summers…but if what just happened on campus didn’t shake them up a little, they really don’t have a clue about what’s going on there.
The Corporation’s secrecy (probably deliberately) promotes an aura of omniscience. But perhaps the emperors have no clothes. Maybe their secrecy hides the fact that they actually have no idea what goes on at the campus they visit once a month.
–Finally, the Times does point out that “questions abound about whether Dr. Summers can successfully lead Harvard’s next capital campaign,” expected to be “at least a record $4 billion.”
Pay close attention to that number. Not too long ago, folks at Harvard were saying that the campaign was going to be at least $5 to $7 billion, and I heard from several sources that Summers wanted it to be $10 billion, to make it truly historic. Suddenly, we’re back to $4 billion. Yes, questions aboundâand expectations are deliberately downscaled.
I don’t want to bash Healy and Rimer. They’re both really good reporters, and they’ve been covering this Harvard story very well. But today’s article has an arranged quality to it that you recognize if you’ve been in journalism for a while and ever had to negotiate access to a subject. It works like this: Summers says to the Times, you’ve been covering this thing to death, you owe me one. And the Times says, you give us an interview, and we’ll show your side of the story, which is code for saying, we’ll write a puff piece.
I’m sure that this piece of spin emanating from Mass. Hall will have a big impact on alums, who sometimes seem to care more about how Harvard is portrayed in the Times than how it is in real life. But don’t assume it has any relationship to reality.