Larry Summers’ remarks are often clever on initial hearing and then, with some consideration, turn out to be more revealing about the man than about his subjects.
With that in mind, I keep turning to his comment regarding the Winklevosses—not that they were assholes, though that’s certainly psychologically quite interesting—but this one:
“Rarely have I encountered such swagger, and I tried to respond in kind.”
The line got a laugh at the Fortune conference where it was delivered, but it’s been overshadowed by the vulgarity which preceded it.
Even so, it’s fascinating in and of itself, so let’s deconstruct that line and consider what it really says about Larry Summers.
First: “Rarely have I encountered such swagger.”
For the sake of argument, let’s posit that the WInklevoss twins manifested “swagger.” It’s a dubious point, given the context of the situation—two students appealing to the Harvard president for help—and evidenced only by the curious objection that they had dressed up to meet the president of Harvard.
But as I say, for the sake of argument….
Larry Summers at this point had been an MIT student, a Harvard graduate student, a Harvard professor, deputy Treasury secretary, Treasury secretary and president of Harvard. He had met with the greatest minds—and largest egos—of academia. He had probably encountered every major American political leader. Not to mention numerous heads of state, including probably a few authoritarian ones. Heck, one of his best friends had ripped off the governments of Russia and the United States—that’s some swagger.
And yet—the Winklevosses, a couple college kids, are right up there in the swagger department?
It’s hard not to think that Summers was threatened by them—not physically, at least, not physically from anything they did—but culturally. For Summers, they represented the old Harvard—WASP Harvard. And Summers didn’t like that. WASPS make him uncomfortable.
So what does he do?
“I tried to respond in kind.”
Pause to consider this behavior. Allowing again for the sake of argument that the Winklevosses were full of swagger, they were still two college kids petitioning the president of Harvard for help in a dispute.
Whereas Summers was…the president of Harvard. Sitting in his office, in the building devoted to him. Supposed to be older, more mature, more responsible. After all, he dealt with students—young people—every day, right?
But his manner of dealing with the alleged swagger is to “respond in kind.”
There’s really only one conclusion to draw from this behavior: That it is deeply, profoundly immature. Childish, you might even say. It is certainly not the mark of a leader; that person is supposed to be a role model, not someone who reacts to perceived immature behavior by, well, being just as immature. (And then subsequently boasting about it.)
As unpleasant and surreal as all this must be for the Winklevosses, remember the larger stakes: Larry Summers has had to deal with lots of very powerful people about very important issues affecting the lives of millions. And yet, in terms of his emotional intelligence, he acts, by his own admission, like a child. It’s not very confidence-inspiring.