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09.19.11

White House Women Revolt

Ron Suskind’s new book, ‘Confidence Men,’ describes an administration torn by disarray and dysfunction. Suskind tells Howard Kurtz why female staffers were the most aggrieved—and the White House’s pushback.

Note: Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter, had extensive access to the White House for his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. He not only interviewed Obama but reports on many of the administration’s key players in the first two years, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; economic advisers Larry Summers and Christina Romer; budget director Peter Orszag; communications director Anita Dunn; chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and domestic adviser Valerie Jarrett. The administration’s criticism of the book has been sharp and swift, and The Daily Beast offered Suskind a chance to respond.

Is the White House a difficult place for women to work and feel comfortable?

There is no doubt that the White House, through 2009 into 2010, based on my reporting, was a difficult workplace for women…It was at least in significant measure subordinate to wider management problems in the building. People naturally gathered the way they have gathered for some time, the men-with-the-men and women-with-the-women model. People were often left out of meetings and they felt aggrieved, many of the women did, especially when they were meetings that were all men.

You had something of a murderer’s row of accomplished women in that building…and they often felt like they were sitting like potted plants in meetings. The president was mostly talking to the guys. And over time, a women’s group formed in the White House to air their grievances.

This resulted in a meeting in the fall [of 2009] with the president where they sat down and said, “This is a problem and you need to do something about it.”

And did he?

He didn’t do a great deal. He was sympathetic to them. He listened to them. The women did not hold back. There was some concern from one of the women organizing the meeting, Valerie Jarrett, that the women would not speak their minds…

The president basically said at the end of the meeting, “Rahm [Emanuel] and Larry [Summers]”—who many of the women were pointing to as the source of the problems—“are important people to me, and I need these guys.”

Every one of the women would have walked across hot coals for Obama, leading up to the meeting and after it, but I think some of them were a little deflated walking out of it, that there was not more action, maybe, not more of what some bosses might do, calling in some of the participants and having a hard word with them.

Obama told you in an interview that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and he all have the disease of being policy wonks, and he seems to blame many of his problems on communications. Do you buy that?

I don’t think those two things actually fit together…The president at that point was expressing his distaste for what he felt dominated his first two years, which was, as he said, a kind of technocratic approach, that if you get the right people in the room and they have sufficiently high IQs or enough sterling degrees, you are going to get answers, solutions to problems that are wide, vast, and complex. And I think the two years that have passed convinced him that maybe that’s not the case, and he spent too much time thinking, chasing that chimerical beast of the perfect solution that is arrived at through the give and take of analysis and debate. What’s extraordinary about the interview as he thinks about that, he says, “The symbols and gestures are as important as the specifics of policy.” And he goes through a rather long review of presidents that he is more ready and enthusiastic to be compared to, like Kennedy and FDR…

Yes there were problems, yes it was difficult, yes it was very frustrating for the president to feel trapped in a kind of rolling debate society that was largely run by Larry Summers and others, and I think he felt he didn’t have nearly enough to show for it, and he was exhausted by it. And feeling that maybe his best and highest use as president, as a leader, was to focus on these other issues more broadly, about making the American people feel confident.

Let’s talk about some of the pushback you’re getting on the book. You quote Anita Dunn as saying that the White House, looking back, would be considered in court a “hostile workplace.” She now says she told you that she hadn’t said that. And Christina Romer was quoted as having been excluded in a meeting by Larry Summers and saying, “I felt like a piece of meat.” She now says she can’t imagine having said that.

A trained eye would see those as nondenial denials. Anita, I’m sure, at this point is under a great deal of pressure to try to back away or kick up dust on many of the things she said to me in the book. The quote in question for Anita was one we discussed many times, so she was aware of it and aware of its publication in the book prior to publication.

Larry Summers, whom you quote quite colorfully talking about feeling “home alone” in the White House, meaning no adult in charge, told The Washington Post that “the hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context.”

That quote, which is a very important quote in the book, comes very clearly from sources inside the White House—including, in the case of Peter Orszag, someone who had the kind of standup trust to say, “Here’s what he said to me.” And it wasn’t just once, it was a riff of Larry’s that he said many times, as Peter says in the book.

I did talk to Larry at the end of the process and relayed the quote directly to him in all of its parts…I said, "You’re going to have to respond to something on the record,” and he said, “Fine”…Larry first said, “I never said it,” blurted that out…

The president was expressing his distaste for what he felt dominated his first two years, which was, as he said, a kind of technocratic approach.

After a bit, Larry got his bearings and I said, “What did you mean when you said it?” And he thought about it and offered the quote which is in the book, where he talks about how overwhelmed people were at a time of crisis.

Tim Geithner is insistent that he did not deliberately delay developing a rescue plan for Citigroup, despite President Obama’s orders, as you report in the book.

That denial’s in the book. Tim and I had a conversation too, we had a long interview where we went over every letter and verse of the Citigroup story, and there are many, many quotes, fully rendered, in the book, where he’s splitting hairs in a lot of different ways…He found ways not to forcefully and promptly do what the president expected he was doing.

Ron, why would White House officials be so candid with you about the internal problems in the administration?

You spend hour-after-hour talking to people as they go through their life, often in the White House and in many cases after they leave the White House…These are relationships that build in terms of the depth of the conversation.

I don’t have to deal with the issues of the daily news cycle…If you write something that gets a bad response, or someone commits candor or is off message, there are often consequences almost immediately when it appears in the paper or a magazine, that somebody gets called into the boss’s office. And sometimes it can result in a loss of access for the reporter…

Bob Woodward and I had a conversation about this. By virtue of some of the ways the game is played, in terms of message discipline, in terms of access for reporters, and especially in the way that sources and subjects, especially famous subjects, treat the media, almost by default there’s more news that’s falling into books…

This book, at its core, is not about the advisers to the president. It is about the president. This is a portrait of this man, history’s central actor at this point, and his evolution.

The White House’s position is books like this are the last thing they want. It’s an unmanaged expression or rendering of their life and the life of the White House, so right now they’re trying to rein everybody in, give them their message cards, and say “just read this” and then vanish.