Books

'The Escape Artists' and 'Confidence Men'

David Lauter
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Perhaps, once historians get their turn, the true task for analysis will turn out to be not the roots of failure, but how, against heavy odds, an inexperienced, young president escaped Hoover’s fate.


Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: $29.99
Author: Ron Suskind
Length: 528 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-09
Amazon

The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $28.00
Author: Noam Scheiber
Length: 368 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02
Amazon

On 28 and 29 October 1929, when the great crash devastated the stock market, Herbert Hoover had been president just shy of eight months. For more than three years, he lingered in office as the nation’s economy sank into Depression. By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, hard times and Hoover had become near synonymous.

Barack Obama’s timing resembled Hoover’s far more than Roosevelt’s. The 2008 financial panic hit on George W. Bush’s watch with the collapse of Lehman Brothers less than two months before the election. But the deep economic pain gathered force just as the new president took office.

To Obama and his advisers fell the task of trying to right the economy while pursuing the new president’s ambitious policy goals. Their effort makes an irresistible story line that followed the formula mastered half a century ago by Theodore H. White: Mix details of backroom dealings with a dash of profile material and a pinch of analysis. Get into print once the immediate headlines have passed, but while memories — and grudges — remain fresh.

At its best, the form gives readers insights based on interviews not available to reporters on deadline. But even then, the books suffer from an inescapable flaw — the lack of distance that gives perspective to history.

That lack of distance pervades Noam Scheiber’s The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery and Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. Finished last year, both already have the air of period pieces, crystallizing the viewpoint of a specific ideology and time — the Liberal Conventional Wisdom of 2011.

This view held that because Obama lacked the courage of Paul Krugman’s convictions, he put forward an economic stimulus too small to work. Missing the fervor of an Elizabeth Warren, he squandered time on a health-care reform law barely worthy of the name. In short, Obama’s passivity in the face of Republican intransigence doomed him to a single presidential term. An analyst’s task was to explain the roots of so massive a failure.

Having embraced similar analytical frameworks, both books offer similar explanations — sometimes with nearly identical anecdotes — although Scheiber’s is considerably shorter and more nuanced in its claims.

Obama, they say, came into office with little experience and chose early on to surround himself with advisers drawn from the last Democratic administration, that of Bill Clinton. The dominant economic players, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, the secretary of the Treasury and the head of the National Economic Council, respectively — as well as many lower-level officials — had close ties to Wall Street, which blinded them to bold ideas even as their rivalries hamstrung the administration’s policymaking.

The authors provide ample evidence for their specific contentions, and readers will find much juicy backstage detail — Summers’ petulant demand for a government car, for example, or Geithner’s dislike of Sheila Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Whether the specifics prove their overall case, however, remains questionable.

Suskind, in particular, pushes his quest for villains far beyond his evidence. At various points, he portrays Geithner as a master manipulator, defying a clueless young president. Even as a reader ponders the plausibility of that picture, he switches field, describing the Treasury secretary as feckless, callow and out of his depth. A reader suffers similar whiplash trying to follow Suskind’s portrayal of Summers: a brilliant and imperious economist who alienated many of his colleagues.

Scheiber more soberly describes the chaotic business of forming policy in a new administration. But he, too, falls into one of the characteristic traps of White House books — describing policy as a nearly pure exercise in executive will, heavily discounting the degree to which Congress constrains presidential action.

He reports, for example, that Christina Romer, the UC Berkeley economics professor who headed Obama’s initial Council of Economic Advisers, believed that the ailing economy required $1.8 trillion in stimulus. Summers, he writes, directed her to present a smaller figure out of concern that Obama and his political advisers would see the enormous amount as politically impossible. Obama proposed $800 billion and Congress approved less.

Scheiber suggests that Obama could have gotten more. But given the depth of Republican opposition to any of Obama’s proposals as well as the country’s uneasiness with massive debt, that assertion faces a steep hill of doubt that he does little to climb.

The more fundamental problem, however, lies in the book’s overall analytical lens. For example, in describing the administration’s halting efforts to deal with the problems of the housing market, Scheiber says officials were “worried about the dreadful politics” of bailing out homeowners who had gotten over their heads in debt while doing nothing for those who had been prudent. “Yet as terrible as a trillion-dollar housing bailout was politically, it wasn’t as bad as 9 percent unemployment and a stagnant economy for the rest of the president’s term.”

Were those the only choices, he might be right. But seen from the perspective of just a few months after the book was finished, the picture already looks different. No longer stagnant, the economy has begun growing again, and Obama appears at least even money, probably better, to win re-election.

The point is not that Obama and his team did everything right — no president does — but that three and a half years into his term, we simply don’t know how the story ends. Perhaps, once historians get their turn, the true task for analysis will turn out to be not the roots of failure, but how, against heavy odds, an inexperienced, young president escaped Hoover’s fate.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image