The Merits And Limits Of Gossip

Jacob Weisberg is leading some kind of DC journalist backlash against Ron Suskind in the wake of the publication of Confidence Men. On one level, I want to embrace this backlash since I’ve always though “ask important people questions and write down what they say” is a wildly overrestimated epistemological method. On the other hand, given that Weisberg is the co-author of Robert Rubins In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington I find it hard to believe that he’s really offering us a principled critique of the insider narrative as a genre. Suskind’s latest book seems weirdly unfair to Larry Summers and now Summers’ mentor’s collaborator is doing a hit on him. Hm.

My view, though, is that In An Uncertain World is a good book! As is Confidence Men though it’s not as good as The Price of Loyalty was.

The through-line I see here is that while “ask important people questions and write down what they say” isn’t really the be-all and end-all of understanding the world, it is interesting to know what important people say about things. And the best possible way to do this is to do something like the Weisberg/Rubin book or the Suskind/O’Neil book and have the important person collaborate with a skilled professional writer who can put it down in a readable way rather than creating a ponderous memoir with a weak ghost writer. The results are, of course, full of half-truths and self-serving nonsense and all the rest. But any effort to ask questions of important people and then write down what they say is going to feature half-truths and self-serving nonsense. The only real problem I have with Confidence Men is that it actually breaks from this formula by relying on too many different sources. If the book were more clearly “things Christina Romer said to Ron Suskind” or “things Gary Gensler said to Ron Suskind” or “things Alan Krueger said to Ron Suskind” then we’d be learning a lot about what Romer/Gensler/Krueger/whomever said to Ron Suskind. Instead it’s sometimes a little bit hard to know whose story Suskind is actually telling here.

At the end of the day, this gossip stuff is all of secondary importance. If you want to assess the merits of President Obama’s handling of Citigroup you need to talk to some people who are knowledgable about the policy issues, not write down a bunch of half-remembered anecdotes about who did what at which meeting. But interesting stories are interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with a writer trying to tell some interesting stories. I only wish our political culture could become a bit clearer that this is what’s going on with these books. Then we might get better ones!