Domestic, Interview, Media — December 19, 2011 at 11:37 pm

American Politics Illuminated

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Illustration by Amalia Rinehart

Ron Suskind, critically acclaimed author of narrative nonfiction, has been a leading voice in addressing and explaining critical issues impacting Americans on the national stage. A Pulitzer-Prize winner, Suskind was the senior national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal from 1993 to 2000. Suskind’s past best-selling books include: A Hope in the Unseen, The Way of the World, The One Percent Doctrine, and The Price of Loyalty. Ron Suskind’s most recent book, Confidence Men, brings the hidden history of Wall Street and the Obama White House to light. Columbia Political Review sat down with Suskind to discuss the state of journalism, the inner workings of the Obama administration, and the accountability of the financial sector.   

Columbia Political Review: Why did you want to go into journalism before you entered J-School here at Columbia? How do you think journalism has changed today since then?

Ron Suskind: I was writing on political campaigns before I started to go from the land of persuasion to that of explanation. I then decided to apply to Columbia, and I had no journalism experience before I went. I graduated in 1983, and I think that it is clear in that period that this year was a very different year in journalism. The main stream of journalism was fine and quite robust. Coming up as a reporter, one of the things I do find is that in the 1980s or the 1990s the media had the ability to commit teams of reporters to large investigative projects, under a construction manual – you’ll find what you need to find and come back to us if you have anything worth presenting to the public. I think it’s hard now – those teams have been winnowed down because there simply aren’t enough resources to field many of them anymore, and I think that’s a shame. Having said that, I think a robust free press is important in any institution of a democracy. Thomas Jefferson says that himself. There is no other way to assert these fundamental issues of accountability in private and public realms, whether it is free enterprise and effective well-functioning markets or informed consent in a democracy. Accountability in one’s actions is essential to the purposes of both those realms.

CPR: How, in your opinion, did Hope in the Unseen influence the debate over affirmative action in the 1990s? Why did you write that as your first book?

RS: That book emerged from the series I did in the Wall Street Journal on a bunch of kids from a toxic landscape and their struggles to survive. Why [were we] so neglectful of understanding what it takes to learn in a war zone environment in your own country – that was the impetus of the first stories. It really is not a book designed to give answers to whether you are for or against affirmative action. Mainly you inhabit the skin of Cedric Jennings, the main character who harbors dreams of an Ivy League university. As I walk in his shoes, just like all narratives, you may find yourself coming away with conclusions that may surprise yourself. The book showed that affirmative action did settle into America some real value, albeit imperfect as a “best we can do” program. The case of Cedric Jennings helps people understand that measuring potential is like caching sunlight in mason jars.  It’s a widely imperfect process. Cedric helps people understand some of these more subtle issues of how people really strive for a better life. As you walk with him, and seek those things and find them with him, basically people from all races and creeds say, “Wait a minute; he’s sort of like me.” It has been a book central not just to the lives of a lot of readers, but central to my life as a writer, as well.

CPR: From your series on [George W.] Bush, which one was your favorite to write and why?

RS: The thing in A Hope in the Unseen which writers like so much is that based on the evidence of Cedric’s life – how his mother, his preacher lead along the way – is how America gets rendered. All these books are really about America. Earn your way to the sunlight is the end of the Hope in the Unseen; you earn your way to some reasonable hope. All the Bush books, the three that take place during those years, they are American books written during that period. Of those three books, the book that does what [Hope in the Unseen does] most concertedly is the last one: The Way of the World. Where the end in Way of the World is the end of a very difficult decade, we are faced with the evidence of the characters’ lives and larger issues of what’s happening on a global landscape. They earn their way to some reasonable hope in the end – what one of the characters in the book calls the “human solution” of figuring out ways, often in spite of fear, to find a way forward, often when we have no choice. I think that book does that for readers through some very difficult moments in the book whether it is Benazir Bhutto and the few days before she dies; the Pakistani man who has come to America and been detained and interrogated; the young boy from Afghanistan who still harbors affections for America from his one year here; the lawyer who helps the detainee who eventually carves a path that gets him out of Guantanamo – all of those things are about people taking charge at this moment in history, and of themselves, and it is the actions they take in this book that is hopeful.

CPR: When writing Confidence Men, what was your perception of the public’s mood toward Wall Street at the time? Did you foresee any potential for the type of public backlash that we saw in Occupy Wall Street?

RS: I think I did. The four years in Confidence Men is really about the evolution of the country as well as Obama’s arrival on the public stage as the central actor in this period from 10 years at the Wall Street Journal, I know a lot about the ins and outs of how Wall Street was operating not only in this time, but has changed over the past 10 or 20 years. What I found in the reporting [for Confidence Men] was that quite a lot of people in Wall Street understood that these changes pushed the financial community away from some of their own well-established values in a way that was dangerous and they knew it. In the book, you find many characters that commit candor on what went wrong and what needs to change. At the same moment, it is clear that in the models that we have now in America, if someone is legally able to craft a shortcut to make a lot of money – if you are on the edge of or even over ethical boundaries – they are going to take it. I reported a lot about the outrage that was bubbling out throughout America, certainly in 2008 and 2009. In terms of what’s happening in Occupy Wall Street, part of it is what took so long to occur. It takes a while, most of time, and it’s really interesting that the cultural and intellectual evolution of the country is a steady, sometimes slow process. People are busy; they are working, trying to make a living, have kids to support, and sometimes it takes a while for them to take a sense of the country and see how it may flow to action. To be fair, we were very hopeful that Obama would enact Rooseveltian changes to shift the state. Yet, he took office in a time more akin to when Hoover arrives in 1929.  Roosevelt arrives in 1933 along the evolution of the country’s understanding of these sometimes complex issues. Having said that, it took people awhile to make a decision – when a political-governmental system is not working in a way – for people to feel that their needs are not being met. Throughout American history, that’s a moment that people tend to take to the streets, and I think that’s what we are having now.

CPR: If Gary Gensler were able to implement some of the regulations he proposed after the financial meltdown in Confidence Men, do you think John Corzine’s firm’s bankruptcy could have been avoided?

RS: There is no doubt that any of the things Gary and others have suggested, had they been enacted, could have caught the Corzine problem. What you are dealing with here is the financial world demonstrating that robust speculation and a real gambling mentality — through derivatives, swaps, and the dark pool — can be very profitable. Like any product, financial products work best when they are in the most sunlight. That’s the way our markets work best. Similar to what happened in the 1920s with holding companies, Wall Street for the past several years has worked hard to find a way to undercut sound principles in order to make great profit. Make no mistake, what they [Wall Street] have created are incredibly profitable conflicts of interest as we see in Confidence Men. Unless you find a way to drag everyone into sunlight through disclosure and transparency, you are not going to get change.

CPR: A character that struck me was Carmine.

RS: He’s a great character. [My] books have a lot of news in them and a lot of narrative. It’s not like a deposition that you are filing in court; you get in the core of intent through action and motive – why we decide to go this way and not the other way. Carmine is someone who embodies the classical American journey and thereby makes hard decisions. After asking his wife what to do with his lottery ticket of money from his work on Wall Street, Carmine realizes and says, “I have one life to live, what I do in that short time is my decision, my business, and what I will do is try to make some small part of the world better than when I found it.” And that is what Carmine does with his truck full of food for the homeless. [Carmine’s realization] is really the thing that people in this country most pride themselves about. That’s why Carmine is a great character.

CPR: Another character I love is Gary Gensler and there is that scene where he’s riding home on the train thinking about his wife’s portrait. How did you put that chapter together? Is it all from one interview or is a synthesis of all of your conversations together with him?

RS: It’s all from one interview. Remember, I’m spending hour after hour and day after day with a lot of the main characters, including Gary. And I had been to his house, and I talked to his kids.  That [chapter] was a lot of serendipity. As I go through the lives of many characters, you see the crossing of moments that some of them have and some of those moments match up, it may be the same day or the day after. In fitting a book like this together, employing an ensemble of characters – it’s like a puzzle. You look at the art of each character’s life and in terms of areas of great significance – is what guides you. And yet you ask where does this align, this moment of fullness and understanding – point of participation if you will. Then you weave it together just like an editor does with a movie. And in this moment [on the train], where Gary had just came through a difficult confirmation, he learns some very difficult lessons against his will — how you have to do the right thing even though you are going to pay the cost of it. This moment on the train, where the reader sees the truth that guides Gary, was all rooted in the death of his wife and having to raise those girls by himself. If you are getting emotional at that part reading it, as most readers do, I can say I was getting emotional writing those parts as well.

CPR: I think you end Confidence Men on an optimistic note, after purging his administration upon Rouse’s advice; Obama seems poised to make decisions more decisively. However, what do you think of Obama’s pick of the “business-friendly” Richard Daley [as Chief of Staff] in addition to the news that Daley handed off day-to-day operations to Rouse while focusing on relations outside the White House?

RS: In my interviews with them, Obama and others made a very strong case, which is reflected in the third part of the book, that Obama had gained a type of ownership over the White House – as presidents sometimes take a while to do – you are learning the job fully and training the White House to reflect the will of a newly elected leader. Obama made some strong cases in that interview I did with him earlier this year, in saying, “I have the staff I need to be a president that history now needs me to be.” Now Pete Rouse, Mr. Continuity there, has been with Obama since the Senate days. It’s a great moment for Pete to be Chief of Staff when Obama arrived in Washington, but he decided he didn’t want to do it and Obama said, “Well, maybe later.” I think a lot of people might look back and say the administration may have a different character for the first two years if Rouse had been in charge and not Rahm Emanuel. At the end of the day, I think this is the important to thing to note – is that more and more, now into year three, it comes around to the President himself rather than whom he picks to serve him. Remember, that staff is there to serve at the pleasure of the president. He is the boss; these are the people that he manages. I think some of the difficulties that this White House has faced in terms of the management and caring for the role of the president and the policy process – all the things that I talk about in the book, in the end of the day it comes down to the boss – it stops at his desk; he is the president. Going forward, it’s more about him than the staff he surrounds himself with.

CPR: You spend so much time on the Treasury Department,  [Office of Management and Budget] (OMB), the Council of Economic Advisers, but not that much time on the Fed. Was that a conscious decision?

RS: I mentioned the Fed in parts of the book pretty regularly. I don’t get into an analysis of might have been for the most part. The president does not control the Fed, and I think some people don’t understand that. The Fed is supposed to support the banking industry, and it is somewhat supported itself by the industry as a separate, freestanding entity. Some people will write a whole book about the Fed, and I feel that area was pretty well trod; I added some things on Bernanke on what he did or didn’t do that were significant. Certainly I deal with the issue of whether Bernanke would be re-appointed, but I didn’t get into long-analysis of whether someone else had been appointed in that Fed job and what they may or may have not done as Ezra Klein and others have pointed out. What I do in the book is look into the decisions Obama actually had in front of him as leader of the government; he had this choice versus that choice. Here’s the choice he made, here’s why, and what does that mean rather than a host of hypotheticals.

CPR: Well, this is another hypothetical. Do you think if Hillary were elected president, she would have been more effective than Obama in making sure that the buck stopped at her office and making clear-cut decisions?

RS: Remember that debate between Clinton and Obama during the campaign on what is that clear qualification that voters should focus on in choosing a president. Clinton said that the key was that she had experience, and Obama said that he had judgment – as usual for Obama, in a brilliant rhetorical counter. I think if Obama were standing and chatting with us now, he would look back and say that “experience is more important than I thought.” Especially Hillary’s experience and her role as a negotiator on the public stage would have been helpful in her being a pretty effective president walking into office on the first day and not having to learn some of the very hard lessons that Obama had to learn as he does in the pages of Confidence Men on how power is used most effectively.

CPR: What’s next for Ron Suskind?

RS: Right now there’s so much discussion about Confidence Men. I have been writing non-fiction narrative for a long time, so I try to keep things ticking along. I think at least for right now; I’m not sure what it’ll be. There are discussions around Confidence Men that seem to be getting wider and deeper and broader all the time as people read the book and see it as the first fully reported and balanced version of what actually has gone on in this period, both in terms of the fall of the economy and the growth of Obama – both things clearly connected. Those discussions for me are very nourishing, and I’ll keep moving forward being the lion tamer in those discussions for a little while as people read the book.

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