How Larry Summers Can Come Back

The brilliant economist is only 58, and just because he hasn’t learned humility in the last 20 years doesn’t mean he can’t now.

National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers is pictured before President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spoke about Middle Class Working Families Task Force, Friday, Jan. 30, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Sept. 16, 2013, 10:34 a.m.

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 bête 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.

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