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“Don’t Believe Ron Suskind”: Jacob Weisberg gives self-parody a bad name

Updated 9/24

Jacob Weisberg, who runs the parent company of online slapstick factory Slate magazine, regularly features himself in a Slate column called The Big Idea (The Thinking Behind The News). The last time I read The Big Idea, Weisberg impressively managed to discuss health insurance reform without a single mention of single-payer universal health care. This time, he tears into Ron Suskind and Suskind’s new, not especially flattering book about the Obama administration. The assault begins on an awkward note and gets worse, fast.

As an editor, you develop a B.S. meter—an internal warning system that signals caution about journalism that doesn’t feel trustworthy.

Houston, we have a problem.

Weisberg is one of the heavyweight fuckwits who bought into the Bush administration line about Iraq so thoroughly that to this day, he insists that even though he now believes the invasion was a mistake, supporting it was the only rational position one could take at the time. Because all of the evidence—published right there in the New York Times! and in Slate’s future owner, the Washington Post! and in Slate! and in White House press releases as reprinted in the Post and the Times and Slate! reported by journalists! and Slate writers!—pointed toward Iraq as a threat to the US worse than Godzilla poses to Tokyo when he’s the bad Tokyo-stomping Godzilla.

This is but one of many indications over the years that the “internal warning system that signals caution about journalism that doesn’t feel trustworthy” of which he speaks tends to flatline when it should be pegging the red. Another is his acknowledged tendency to develop crippling affections for political figures including John McCain and Barack Obama (which also serve to indicate the depth of his analytical skills).

Regarding Suskind’s book, “Confidence Men,” the Thinking Behind The News is that Suskind lies, cheats distorts, fabricates and otherwise abuses the art of journalism, and plus is mean to Barack Obama Who I Love, although that last bit is actually The Screaming Subtext Behind The Thinking Behind The News.

Weisberg makes four main points to support his case against Suskind. Two of them are instantly dismissable: Weisberg complains that Suskind wrote stuff about the Bush administration that he, Weisberg, doesn’t believe and that Suskind’s sources deny having said, and he accuses Suskind of fabricating the quote from an unnamed Bush administration official that introduced the phrase “reality-based community” to the world.

This became one of the most quoted lines about the Bush years, repeated thousands of times as evidence of his administration’s willful dishonestly about everything from Iraq’s WMD to the budget. “Reality-based” turned into a liberal slogan of the era, printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers. How could it not, given the deliciousness of the quote? But did anyone in the Bush administration ever say these words to Ron Suskind? He has never given us any reason to believe that anyone did. And given the unacceptable liberties he takes with quotes from named sources—see below—I have my doubts.

“He has never given us any reason to believe that anyone did.” The only evidence Suskind could conceivably provide is the name of his anonymous source, which of course he can’t divulge. Maybe Weisberg would, to get some meanie off his back, but Suskind is a journalist.

“See below.” Fine, let’s see below.

The remainder of Weisberg’s case is based upon two disputed incidents in the Suskind book, one regarding the difficult environment created by male administration figures for female ones, and the other regarding treasury secretary Tim Geithner having blown off an Obama directive to create a plan for breaking up Citigroup.

The larger thesis of his book, to the extent it has one, is that the Obama White House is rife with sexism and that its economic policymaking has been misguided and chaotic. To support these claims, Suskind stretches the thinnest of material well beyond the breaking point.

He uses two key quotes to support his claim of sexism, one from Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director, about the White House meeting the legal definition of a hostile work environment for women, and another from Christina Romer, the first chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, saying she “felt like a piece of meat” after being left out of a meeting by Larry Summers, the former director of the National Economic Council. In Dunn’s case, Suskind spliced her actual words in a way that distorts their meaning, leaving out the crucial phrase “if it weren’t for the president.”

Unfortunately, the Washington Post ran a story on the sexism charge at the same time as Weisberg published his diatribe.

One of the most striking quotes in the book came from former White House communications director Anita Dunn , who was quoted as saying that, “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

Dunn says she was quoted out of context and told The Post on Friday that she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House was not a hostile work environment.

On Monday, Suskind allowed a Post reporter to review a recorded excerpt of the original interview, which took place over the telephone in April. In that conversation, Dunn is heard telling Suskind about a conversation she had with Jarrett.

“I remember once I told Valerie that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn is heard telling Suskind. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

“If it weren’t for the president” doesn’t change Dunn’s assessment of the work environment; it only suggests that loyalty to the president kept the women from going public with the issue. In fact, the entire episode redounds to Obama’s credit: once the women presented their concerns, he dealt with the problem in an evidently emphatic manner. Which makes Weisberg’s impassioned critique of Suskind’s treatment of the issue seem even more weird.

So that objection is out the window without a struggle. Next up is Suskind’s assertion that Geithner ignored an Obama directive to draw up a plan for dissolving Citigroup into its component pieces to salvage the good bits and trash the bad ones, with all the attendant shareholder woes and public image issues.

Weisberg says that the principals involved in the failure to develop a plan to kill Citigroup all deny Suskind’s account, and that Obama appears not to have understood the question when Suskind posed it during his interview with the president.

This episode is murkier than the Dunn one, and with good reason: it involves insubordination by a cabinet official. The only tangible evidence Weisberg offers to back his assertion that the claim is bullshit is a partial transcript of the Suskind-Obama interview, released to him by the White House.

As with every single other piece of “evidence” arising from administration sources, Weisberg’s bullshit detector remains impassive. He says the transcript indicates that the world’s smartest man “doesn’t seem to grasp Suskind’s rambling and convoluted question, but his response doesn’t indicate that he was frustrated with Geithner—as opposed to the quandary his team faced—or that he felt undermined by his treasury secretary in any way.”

What the transcript actually indicates is that Suskind repeats what he’s been told by other sources—that Obama directed Geithner to come up with a plan for busting up Citi and that at a meeting several weeks later, he was upset to learn that Geithner hadn’t done so—and asks for the president’s version. In response, Obama steers the conversation away from specifics and into generalities.

Anyone who has ever interviewed anyone accustomed to being interviewed is familiar with that strategy, which is almost always effective unless the interviewer returns to the question again and again and again. And even with that, Obama conspicuously doesn’t deny that he told Geithner to do something rather important and Geithner didn’t do it.

As for the charge that the administration’s “economic policymaking has been misguided and chaotic,” well … look around, chump.

Why does any of this matter? It doesn’t; it’s just another opportunity for me to show Weisberg for a putz, which has been done often enough by me and others that his putzhood is eternally inscribed upon the dome of heaven. Why did I feel the need to revisit the subject? Mostly it’s because Slate is shutting down the magazine’s 15-year-old readers forum. And Weisberg didn’t reply to my last email. Putz.

Thank you, good night, and God bless this Blog.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that I can’t find any evidence that Weisberg has previously criticized Suskind for his grievous, indeed excommunicable, sins. To the contrary, Weisberg interviewed Suskind for Slate’s NPR segment, included him in one of Slate’s masturbatory round tables and cited Suskind in at least one of his own books, all with nary a harsh word.

UPDATE II: Weisberg moves even further into wounded Heathers territory in an email exchange with Eric Wemple, the Washington Post’s press blogger, who questions Weisberg’s accusation that Suskind made up the “reality-based community” quote.

Wemple asked Weisberg if he had confronted Suskind about his suspicion regarding the quote. Weisberg responded that he didn’t have to and anyway Suskind is a slut and everybody knows it.

Did Weisberg make the call? Answer:

My piece is a book review/column, so I didn’t feel to compelled to call Suskind. What I said was, “I don’t believe this quote is for real.” think the onus is on Suskind to convince the world that it is. I’ll be curious to hear what he tells you to substantiate it.

[Wemple]: Why do I have to be the guy to mediate this thing?

Second question for Weisberg: Where’s the controversy about this ”reality-based quote”? Or is it something that you alone are advancing? Answer:

I am far from the only journalist who doubts the veracity of this quote. Ask around.

[Wemple]: Again, not my job! Weisberg, you are the guy trashing the quote. Cite your evidence and haul in your witnesses!

Weisberg is now about a step and a half away from “neener neener neener!”

7 comments to “Don’t Believe Ron Suskind”: Jacob Weisberg gives self-parody a bad name

  • biteoftheweek

    The Obama Whitehouse sexist?!?

    I’m shocked. Shocked!

    No one who followed the 2008 primaries could ever believe such a thing.

    • Hey, B, welcome to Kazakhstan. I didn’t really follow all that stuff because screw ‘em both, but I do have to note that pretty much every one of those guys has a Clinton administration pedigree.

  • JackD

    Well, if Weisberg can use his gut, so can I use mine. The book has the ring of truth as is nicely summarized in the current New Yorker by Hendrick Hertzberg. The whole thing looks like what we have been watching from the outside. If it walks like a duck,etc.

    • His piece was more from the heart and the spleen than the gut. He really does develop blinding admirations for people, notably McCain and Obama, and he’s commented on the habit and he still lets his regard for people interfere with his coverage of them. And there’s clearly something else bothering him about Suskind, too. Anyway, I will invariably give the analytic capacity of your gut the edge over his.

  • JackD

    Well, I did think his comment about the remarkable delay in recognizing the obvious on Obama’s part, while an observation most of us have made without the need of his help, made the story of what went before pretty credible.

    • Sorry–to clarify, I was talking about Weisberg, and his gut v. yours. I just now read the Hertzberg one. I like him a lot. He’s a wonderful writer.