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Former U.S. National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers is shown in this 2009 photo taken in the East Room of the White House. (Charles Dharapak/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Former U.S. National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers is shown in this 2009 photo taken in the East Room of the White House. (Charles Dharapak/ASSOCIATED PRESS)


Larry Summers: portrait of a power broker Add to ...

This belief in the potential of government to effect positive change explains his dislike for Reinhart-Rogoff, which is interpreted by many Republicans on Capitol Hill as backing for their opposition to further fiscal stimulus. “It's the central irony of financial crises that they are caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending, and too much spending – and they are only resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending and more spending,” he says. “We need to find ways to get the flow of credit going again.”

Unfortunately, any assessment of the time Prof. Summers spent in Washington is inevitably pulled into the muck.

Starting with his stint at the World Bank, when he approved a memo that made the case for having poorer countries become dumping grounds for toxic waste, his ascent has left a vapour trail of controversy and vitriol.

The “toxic waste” memo was apparently an attempt to stimulate debate, but it stuck with Al Gore, who was reportedly so upset that later as vice-president he blocked Prof. Summers from gaining a higher post in the Clinton administration.

At the Treasury, Prof. Summers was the driving force behind the successful U.S.-led efforts to fight off a wave of international currency crises in the 1990s, and he was a prominent member of the economic team that produced budget surpluses and unemployment rates around 4 per cent.

Yet he struggled to grasp that Washington wasn't Cambridge, where young scholars in Harvard's economics department would have it out over pizza and beer. The policy process is tolerant of some yelling and screaming, but feelings can be hurt and people talk. Eventually, that talk finds its way into the press.

After the Clinton presidency, he returned to Harvard, not as an instructor, but as the university's president – recognition of his rising prominence. But an appointment that typically lasts for decades ended for him after just five years. He alienated humanities professors and then, in a 2005 speech, appeared to suggest that women lack men's “intrinsic aptitude” for science. Harvard faculty members held a vote of non-confidence in their leader; he lost and resigned.

Still, the denigration of his character over the years may be exaggerated. Phillip Swagel, now a professor at the University of Maryland, was a chief economist at the Treasury and says he was impressed by how highly regarded Prof. Summers was.

And former prime minister Paul Martin says, “I don't buy any of that stuff,” when asked about the all the reports of Prof. Summers's inappropriate behaviour. The two got to know each other when they were treasurers of the world's two biggest trading partners. “He's smart – and you better know your stuff. But if you know your stuff, you can make good progress.”

Still, Prof. Summers clearly is sensitive to attacks on his personality. He refuses to discuss his depiction in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, the fly-on-the-wall account by journalist Ron Suskind of Mr. Obama's economics team leading up to last year's midterm elections.

Prof. Summers comes off as a controlling, even manipulative, force that intimidated almost everyone else in the White House and gave the President bad advice. But, as is often the case with such books, the narrative is driven by the author's most co-operative sources, who tend to come off looking good, while their enemies are painted in darker hues.

“The hearsay attributed to me to me is a combination of fiction, distortion and words taken out of context,” Prof. Summers told The Washington Post in an e-mail in September.

Steven Rattner, the Wall Street investor brought in by Mr. Obama to lead the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, called the book a “drive-by shooting.” Many officials quoted have questioned its accuracy, as have reviews in publications as varied as The Economist and The New Republic.

It may not be in Prof. Summers to avoid making enemies.

“There was a part of Larry that was kind of smart and impatient,” says Robert Johnson of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, who has known Prof. Summers since 1983. “Washington is rough and tumble, but Larry trampled some people.”

Which may make what he has achieved that much more remarkable. Many have tried to pull him down, yet he is still deploying his impressive intellect to influence the course of events.

“I write columns. I'm working on book,” he says. “I speak and meet with people who are influential in both the private and public sectors all over the world very frequently.”

That sounds like Henry Kissinger talking.

Kevin Carmichael is a member of The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.

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