The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist shares what he learned about President Obama from their hour-long conversation, which was part of the research for the new book, Confidence Men.
Journalist Ron Suskind
Tavis: Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose previous texts include best sellers like “The 1 Percent Doctrine” and of course “The Price of Loyalty.” His latest is the talk of Washington and beyond this week, as if you didn’t know. It’s called “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President.” He joins us tonight from New York. Ron, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Ron Suskind: Nice to see you, as always, Tavis.
Tavis: I assume when one rights a book with these kinds of interviews and these kinds of exclusives and this kind of insight, you expect that there’s going to be a response. Has the response been what you thought it was going to be, or even more than that?
Suskind: Well, it’s stronger than I thought, I’ll admit that. The fact is I tried hard in this book. I’ve written books, as you’ve said, that have often got quite a vituperative response. Those three George Bush books through the last decade, in one case George Bush and Dick Cheney launched a frivolous federal investigation of me and the former Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill.
This is tamer than that, but it’s quite pointed and a little personal this time. In this case, Tavis, what I tried to do is make sure that all the key actors knew virtually everything important going in the book next to their name prior to publication.
That was helpful in terms of the construction of the book and giving it its wholeness, so that for the most part all the key moments, including the key quotes, were read back to the various folks who said them, and they got a chance to respond, in some cases with a full sweep inside of the book.
As well, most importantly, at the end of this process in February of this year I sat down with the president for 50 minutes and I ran through pretty much letter and verse of what I found across two years, and the president didn’t deny anything. He actually was quite open and quite sort of expert and elaborate in examining and talking about what these years have been in terms of his life.
The difficulties he faced, the hard lessons he learned, how he’s grown in office, and as well some of the fears he faced coming in. I think it’s the president saying look, it’s been a rocky couple of years. Now I’ve got a new staff compared to the folks I brought with me to Washington, and now essentially I’m the president that I’ve grown into at a time of crisis when the country needs me the most. That’s the message from the president in that interview.
Tavis: I’m glad you raised the conversation that you had with the president for the new book, “Confidence Men,” because I want to ask you a question. I don’t mean this to cast aspersion on you, because I’m going to throw some other names in the question.
Suskind: Yeah, fine.
Tavis: I cannot figure out why President Obama keeps subjecting himself to this. Put another way, why do you talk to David Remnick? Why are you talking to Jonathan Alter? Why are you talking to Bob Woodward? Why are you talking to Ron Suskind?
I love all you guys, but I’m trying to figure out with all that he’s got on his plate, number one, and every time these books come out it kicks up some sort of controversy – yours, of course, along with Woodward, has kicked up, I suspect, the most controversy.
This may be a strange question to ask you. Everybody wants to get a conversation with the president. But when these books come out and I find out that the president and his people cooperated, I’m like, “Duh, why don’t you guys shut up, stop talking to these writers.”
Help me understand why you think he sits down and talks to so many persons already in his first term, five or six books already that he cooperated with.
Suskind: Yeah, well, look, you’re going to have to ask the president and his staff about that. I think on balance when it comes under the coverage, one of the things you find I think in this period, and this is something actually Bob Woodward and I discussed a few years ago when we were both dueling, with his Bush books and my Bush books, is that in this era, with the message and media management models that are accepted everywhere, I think what you find often is that lots of news is sort of defaulting toward these books, where we have a much longer term to sit, sometimes a year, two years, with sources, they’re in the White House, then they leave.
That allows for a kind of depth of reporting that I think at the end of the day the president rightly wants to respond to. I think it’s better if you have these disclosures, at the end of the day to have the president so nimble, so intellectually adept is he to sit down and say, “Look, let’s go through it step-by-step.”
I think in a way that gives a wholeness to it and helps when the book comes out, rather than hurts. It’s an hour of his time in each case, or I think a little less with some of the other writers. But an hour, 50 minutes with me, he goes through it letter and verse.
As well, Tavis, at the end, I really do think, having read all the interviews he’s done, he is really stretching in this interview to think about how he has changed and maybe needs to change in terms of being a more dynamic, a more engaged leader in a way that frankly is not customary for him. Readers can decide for themselves.
Tavis: I’m going to jump straightaway into the book in a moment, I promise you, but to the point you’ve made now, there are some folk who see his jobs speech and see his throwdown conversation earlier this week where he kind of drew a line in the sand with Republicans, there are some over the last couple of weeks who see what you’ve just suggested – that he is a changed man. That he’s grown into his presidency, that he’s now starting to find a spine, find a backbone, if you will.
There are others who see this as pure political calculation. He’s in trouble, his back is to the wall, his numbers are in the toilet, he’s up for reelection, his base is starting to splinter. So is it really a new Barack Obama, a changed man that we’re seeing, or is it political calculation?
Suskind: Well, okay, there you go. Well, I’m going to do a Solomon. I’d say it’s a little of both. The fact of the matter, as he says quite forcefully, yeah, I get it. It’s been a rough couple years. I’ve learned some hard lessons, some against my will. I’ve learned things that sometimes surprise me.
He says, “I don’t want to be a technocrat anymore. I’ve realized that I and carter and Clinton” have what he calls the policy wonk’s disease, quite pointed about that, “And I want to be a more dynamic leader and focus more,” he says, “On symbols and gestures,” he says, “Which are as important as the policies in terms of how to lead the nation.”
He goes through an extraordinary riff where he says, “What do you remember from Roosevelt or even from Kennedy? You remember a few things they did for policy. The most important thing you remember about them is they were able to connect with the American people, and the most important thing I can do as president,” he says, “Is tell a story to the American people of who we are, where we’re going and how we’ll move together.”
I mean, it’s quite forceful. Now, look at the last couple days. I think that does fit, based on what I’ve read and my investigation and reporting, that that’s the kind of thing he’d point to after our interview and say, “There’s evidence of it. I’m doing the kinds of things that people have hoped I’d do and maybe I was hesitant to do before.”
It’s about choices. Everyone’s not going to be happy here. There’s a phrase in the book, Tavis, which is really interesting and it envelops really the first 2 years in large measure, and it’s from Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, but it’s one the president adopts.
They talk about Hippocratic risk, from Hippocrates – first, do no harm. This is what really inhabits the president’s sort of moment of decisions in these first six, seven months of his administration. Now, the fact of the matter is Paul Volcker, who also speaks for my book, says, “You know, the bottom line is that if you go with that philosophy you’re not going to get much done.”
Of course, when Volcker’s choking off money supplied to kill inflation in the early ’80s, everyone said first, do no harm. Volcker said, that’s ridiculous. Government’s job when they’re acting boldly means that they’re going to probably do harm to some people.
Maybe government’s role is to soften the blow to them, but real action that changes the American landscape is going to mean harm to someone. Obama seems to be embracing that now. I think that’s a change, and it might allow him to free himself from what he calls the legislator-in-chief or technocratic dilemmas he finds himself in, looking for a perfect solution and then hoping that he’ll come up with it and he won’t ever have to get out there in the mud and start swinging.
Tavis: You ran some names just a moment ago; namely Summers and Geithner, and I’m going to get just a few more in just a moment here. But it leads me to ask now how much of the trouble and the travail this president has encountered in this first term has to do with an issue that you discuss in the book – that he picked the wrong team. He had the wrong folk around him.
Suskind: Yeah. Yeah, I think quite a bit of it. You’re sympathetic, as I’ve said to the president throughout. You’re in his shoes, you’re like, what do you do? The left hand, the right hand. He had a strong ecumenical, bipartisan set of advisers coming through that campaign.
Austan Goolsby, of course Paul Volcker, we had Robert Reich, Laura Tyson, Robert Wolf, this sort of dynamic chairman, head of UBS, the Swiss bank in America. He cast them aside when things got tough in the fall of ’08 when the economy was collapsing.
You could feel him kind of shudder. He kind of broke into a cold sweat a little bit, said, “Wow, so I’m going to win now, I’ve got to run Washington, tame New York, save the economy. I need the pros from Dover, very seasoned old hands.” They came one after the other.
Interesting in the book, it points out that he actually offered, they offered Bob Rubin a $1 a year job to come and essentially have an office in the White House in the fall of 2008. Bob, the godfather of that whole old school Clinton team. Those guys really ran the show.
The president eventually sort of breaks free to be more autonomous, but a lot of that is not really fully until 2010. Larry and Tim have a long history together; certainly Rahm with both men as well. Peter Orszag, the OMB director, he’s one of a quartet as well, all those years with Clinton together.
Orszag kind of breaks off from the trio, though. He’s sort of saying, I’ve got to do more to do what the president wants, serve him directly, and that sort of makes him an outlier, but having said that, Tim, Larry and Rahm and their conversations between the three of them end up being often defining a policy with or without the president’s fingerprint.
Sometimes things are done and already prepackaged for them. Other times, as I point out in the book, we have a problem of slow-walking. The president makes a decision and basically one of these guys says, “He doesn’t know what he’s deciding.” That’s very troubling, and part of what the book has uncovered that’s causing some discomfort.
Tavis: To your point now, you’re talking about people like Larry Summers, who says pointedly Bill Clinton would not have made these kinds of mistakes after walking out of a meeting in the White House. So whether it’s – and I won’t run through all these. It’s all in the media now.
You got Larry Summers on the record here, you’ve got quotes attributed to Larry Summers, you’ve got quotes attributed to Tim Geithner, you’ve got Christina Romer talking about sexism in the White House, how she felt like a piece of meat, you’ve got Anita Dunn talking about the fact that they could have been in court for some of the patriarchal behavior in the White House.
The stuff that everybody’s been reading over the last few days, I’m hitting that kind of quickly because what I really want to get to is you expect the White House now to push back on this text, given all the stuff I’ve just laid out. That doesn’t surprise me.
But I’m noticing over the last couple of days, Ron, respectfully, that some folk in the media now are starting to push back on you. How do you explain the media push-back versus the White House push-back?
Suskind: Well, I think it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot of folks in the media who are going in the other direction. I think it’s kind of a Donnybrook right now. Some folks are saying look, I’m an expert on the president. I didn’t uncover some of these things, so I don’t know, what do I think about that?
Look, it’s an open forum, if you will, where a lot of people are seeing these clear pieces of evidence, disclosures, and they’re going, wow, I don’t know what to think about that and I need to now think about it, and that’s going to cause some frisson and some action.
Tavis: I just tried to highlight quickly some of the things, obviously, that are getting the most press about the book. I want to be fair to you for a second here, and ask what is it in the book – this is a dense text here, it’s pretty thick here.
Suskind: Yeah, 500 pages.
Suskind: I think it moves pretty quick, though, doesn’t it?
Tavis: It does, but what’s in here, to your mind, that’s not being discussed that you would like to see being talked about in the media that you think you unveil in the text beyond the stuff that I just mentioned that everybody’s already talking about.
Suskind: Well, look, right off the bat I think that one of the key pieces of hard evidence that’s really quite startling and fascinating in the book is are these memos from Pete Rouse.
Now, Pete Rouse, in case the viewers don’t know, is a fascinating Washington institution of sorts. He was chief of staff to Tom Daschle when Daschle was the majority leader, called the 101st senator. A real character. He ends up being Obama’s chief of staff. When Obama arrives, Daschle kind of passes his staff to Obama.
Then he ends up being a key adviser in the campaign. Rouse is a brilliant memo-writer. That’s one of the things he’s known for. He writes memos that really guide Obama like blueprints.
Well, what happens here is Rouse is a senior adviser to the president. He’s not chief of staff, though he was offered that job in the fall of 2008. In February of 2010 he sees what’s happened over the last year-plus and he steps up.
He writes a memo, which is in the book, where he really lays out a blueprint for how the president could take back control, in a way, of his White House. One of the things in that memo, which certainly I think any able reporter should be following up on, is a couple of items where he talks about specifically the Treasury Department.
“When they disagree with what the president has decided,” he says, “They tend to re-litigate it,” or essentially slow-walk it, bury it. It’s a kind of bureaucratese, this is a memo, it’s not something with flowery language. But essentially what that means is when Treasury doesn’t think that the president’s made the right decision they either ignore, spin, slow or re-debate it, and that’s important stuff.
Tavis: Yeah, but Tim Geithner over the last few days has come out forcefully and denied that allegation against him specifically.
Suskind: Absolutely, and if he says it’s true he’s got to leave the building that afternoon. Now, the fact of the matter is is that this was crucial to this book’s construction. I called Tim Geithner. We had a 35-minute interview about virtually nothing other than these issues, especially determined by Citibank, which is an example of the kind of thing this memo points out.
I’m sure there are many other examples, and that’s the kind of thing reporters should be asking. What are other examples where the Treasury Department did not carry forward the will of the president, which is what the memo says?
Well, Geithner and I went through it letter and verse, and I just would tell readers if they want to see Tim Geithner’s real response, the response that’s full, complete, in paragraph-long quotes, it is in the book, two pages.
I think if you read that, at the end of the day it’s hard to come to a conclusion other than Tim Geithner gamed the president on arguably one of the most important decisions of his presidency, which was his desire to really look at the taking down of the big banks, Citibank, other big banks, when he felt a kind of Rooseveltian urge to step up.
Hard to do. He was really studying hard in January, February, in March of 2009. This was decisiveness by Obama, and the fact is it didn’t happen. A month later he thought plans were being drawn up about how to dissolve Citibank by Treasury. Only Treasury can do it, after all, and he found out they weren’t. He got quite agitated.
He said to Christie Romer, she said, “There is no plan, Mr. President.” He said, “There better be.” Well, I talked to the president about it; I talked to Tim about it. Everybody involved, everyone in that meeting that day when he raised his voice. I don’t think there’s any dispute about it. There’s certainly no dispute that I’ve seen about what happened.
The question is what does the president do then? Did he take Tim to the woodshed in April of 2009? I asked them both. They said there was discussions; there was a lot of rolling discussions. I think one of the issues is how does this president rise to this moment and have a White House around him that now carries forward his more seasoned and deeper experience to express his will, to express his qualities? That’s still a battle, I think.
Tavis: But if you’re the Treasury secretary and you’re gaming the president in defense of, on behalf of, your partners, your boys on Wall Street, and the president comes to learn about that, how does Tim Geithner not get – it’s not just he doesn’t get asked to leave, it’s not just he doesn’t get shown the door, which Obama did to a military general – he showed him the door.
It’s not just that Geithner doesn’t get shown the door; it’s that we were reading for weeks and weeks that they were begging Geithner to say. Please don’t go back to New York City. I’m trying to understand if you’re gaming the president, how do you not get asked to leave, but moreover get begged to stay?
Suskind: Well, that’s a question for the president. The fact of the matter is that throughout the administration the president has had many discussion on difficult issues with Geithner, the nature of that relationship and how it moved forward after that moment, which I pressed both of them about, what changed, did anything change after this occurred, other incidents like it that are noted in the Rouse memo.
What are they, let’s talk about some of those, let’s go through them as well. That’s a question for the president in terms of his management, in terms of the president as boss-in-chief.
Now mind you, Tavis, there is plenty of natural sympathy that should go to the president here. Understandably, he mostly managed the one-man Barack Obama show through much of his life, creating one of the most extraordinary narratives, if you will, of one man’s journey we’ve seen in our lifetime. He arrives, though, in the White House at a time of crisis with almost no management experience, if you will – not that other politicians have a lot of it.
Governors tend to have more. But as well, no experience in the exercise of power in any way, really. He’d only had a little time in the Senate, and much of that he was out on the rubber chicken circuit. So that sort of combination of circumstances, it just (unintelligible) of bad luck.
It takes presidents a while to learn how to do this job. Barack Obama had to do it under untenable circumstances. That creates, I think, the drama of this book, but an awful lot is at stake as in America’s future. So there you have it.
Tavis: To your point now, let’s go back to the campaign; specifically, the primary. You’ll recall this very well, all of us in the media recall this well. The debate between Hillary and Barack. Barack kept saying, Senator Obama kept saying it’s about judgment and Senator Clinton kept saying it’s about experience.
So we had this debate, you’ll recall, Ron, judgment versus experience.
Suskind: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Experience versus judgment. That was the debate back in the day. I’m not suggesting that Hillary Clinton would have been any better. I was just thinking about this the other day and saying to a friend of mine if you’re mad at Obama for bringing in the Clintonites, who do you think Hillary would have brought in? The Clintonites.
So the same folk would have been in there, so I’m not suggesting that Hillary would have been any better than Barack would have been necessarily as president, given these issues, if she was going to bring in the same team.
Having said that, how much of this education of the president that you talked about in the book, given your subtitle, has to do with judgment versus experience, maybe not enough of either, I don’t know. You tell me.
Suskind: Oh, no, you framed it beautifully, Tavis. Look back at that moment. The fact of the matter is Hillary Clinton did have experience. I don’t know if she would have brought in Larry and Tim. Those relationships maybe are past their – past tense now. She might have brought in a more dynamic team, like Volcker and Goolsby.
But experience is important, and I think the problem is that it’s clear that the president engaged in some let’s say faulty judgment in terms of bringing together that first team. I don’t think that’s in dispute, really. The book shows how it happened, how team A, that more dynamic team that was so fascinating across party lines, talking about progressive reforms, Republicans, Democrats, how he washed that team away in favor, team A, in favor of team B.
Tavis: So since Summers has left the building and Goolsby has left the building and Orszag has left the building and Romer has left the building and Rahm has left the building, you’re talking, you talk in the text about the fact that he had a chance to push the restart button, and yet for some people who have seen the White House since the pressing of the restart button don’t really see much difference.
Bill Daley comes in, if anybody’s connected to Wall Street, Bill Daley is. So what does pushing the restart button really mean, economically?
Suskind: Moral judgments are difficult. A moral judgment to say America’s architecture, it’s out of whack. We need to move the big plates beneath the surface, and that’s going to take a different kind of action than splitting the middle or saying a little here and a little there. It’s going to create enemies, but it’s also going to create a new political conversation.
Basically having Washington supply bailouts, support and help Wall Street make as much money as they have to earn their way back to health has been in some ways a real disaster for Barack Obama. Somebody I was talking to earlier today, a businessman, said, “I don’t understand why Barack Obama at the start didn’t separate Wall Street from American business.”
American business has no love for Wall Street. Wall Street is something unique. It’s essentially a global city that sits in New York, and they’ve turned speculation into a business model, wild speculation, but managed to sever it from accountability. So whichever way it goes, up or down, Wall Street still makes its profits. Largely, that business model, as I talk about in the book, well, a big part of the book is about Wall Street too, about them driving the economic collapse. That’s where the book starts.
Barack Obama rises in the midst of that. But in a way, what you find is that the great global battles we’re in, Tavis, is one that Wall Street has embraced and accelerated. What they’ve done essentially is take their capital, invest it overseas for profits that flow back to the big office towers and the shorelines of financial houses, and then sell debt to an increasingly distressed American public.
That’s their business model. It’s one in which they’ve figured out a way as the main product in America, debt, to package it as a kind of an elegantly wrapped product that could get passed hand to hand, and there is no holding of the risk. There’s no accountability for the seller, and around it goes.
But Paul Volcker in the book talks I think brilliantly and passionately that we need to change that. That’s busted. That’s not helping the American economy. Wall Street seems to be accelerating those issues, accelerating those trends and profiting from it. That was right there for Obama to take.
That big meeting that we’ve talked about, everyone’s talked about it; the 13 bankers come at the end of March of 2009, that was a big moment. The White House sent out a notice to everybody. Obama was getting tough with them. That was around the time of the AIG bonuses.
He said, “My administration is all there is between you and the pitchforks.” Well, the rest of that sentence, what he talks about after that, he says, “And we have a public relations problem here, gentlemen, that’s turning into a political problem, and what can I do to help?” Well, that’s very different.
Tavis: Well, the book is about “Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President.” That is the subtitle. The book is called “Confidence Men.” It is obviously causing a lot of conversation and might I say consternation in Washington and beyond these days, written by the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, perennial best-selling author, Ron Suskind.
Ron, thanks for coming on and for sharing your insights about the book. I appreciate your time.
Suskind: Thank you, Tavis.
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