For now the financial markets are surging, and Larry Summers’ many opponents are rejoicing at the news. But soon enough, something of a backlash will likely begin. Summers’ defenders and admirers will tell us that the nation was deprived of one of its finest-ever economic minds when the Harvard professor took himself out of consideration for Federal Reserve chairman on Sunday.
That may be true — Summers genuinely is one of the best economic thinkers of his generation — but the nation was also relieved of one of its most unapologetic egos, at least for the moment. Still, as long as his health holds out, it’s likely the 58-year-old Summers will be back in public life at some point. And perhaps by the time the job of Fed chief comes open again, Summers will have finally learned the lesson that, in 20 years of policy fights, he kept insisting he had learned but never really seemed to: Show some public humility and graciousness, acknowledge your past mistakes, and perhaps you won’t have quite the same hill to climb for confirmation.
Capitol Hill, that is.
The surpassingly brilliant Summers, who was said to have been President Obama’s clear choice as Fed chief until Sunday, apparently still needs to learn a lesson that far more slow-witted politicians in Washington know: A little self-effacement goes a long way toward enlarging one’s stature. It can even make the headlines come out right. Perhaps Summers, an avid sports fan, ought to have taken to heart the story of Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion who, as Red Smith wrote in his New York Times obituary, became truly popular only after he lost graciously to Gene Tunney and conceded that the better man had won, famously admitting to his wife: ”Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Summers had simply made too many political enemies over the years and had made too little effort to placate them. He’d made some progress toward reining in his arrogance — even former Chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisors Christina Romer, his sometimes foil inside the White House, remarked at one point to me in 2009: “There is a difference in him in the sense that, when he starts to make a comment, he says, ‘Now I could be wrong but …’ I feel the old Larry would not say ‘I could be wrong.’”
But it just wasn’t enough of a makeover. From his earliest days as Obama’s chief economic advisor in 2009, faced with mistrust from progressive Democrats who remembered his role in the financial deregulation legislation from the 1990s that led to the 2008 disaster, Summers simply did not give up any ground, making it an actual personal policy to admit no error. He failed to support Elizabeth Warren, the bÃªte noire of his pal Tim Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, as chairwoman of the new consumer financial protection bureau she had created, even though Summers did back the idea of a new agency. Like so many other things he did in the past, that stance came back to haunt him after Warren was elected senator and managed to get appointed to the Banking Committee that votes on the Fed chair’s nomination. Of course, Warren and the three other Democratic senators on the committee who ultimately doomed Summers’ nomination — Jeff Merkley, Jon Tester, and Sherrod Brown — all opposed him for his huge historical role in helping to lay the groundwork for the Crash of 2008, though he could never bring himself to acknowledge that.
When you have as much baggage as Larry Summers, you need to unload it at some point. Summers never did. But it’s not too late to start.