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frank rich’s problem and ours

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Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…

This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.

Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.


Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.

I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.

Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….

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December 7, 2008 at 11:33 am

5 Responses

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  1. This kind of ‘brilliance’ that Rich is talking about, does it relate to the figure of the post-romantic creative financier we were talking about before, do you think? This (very interesting) idea of ‘abstract quickness’ seems to fit.

    If we broaden Rich’s point so that it’s a structural-historical one, sorta like Virno’s idea that it’s only now that the general intellect turns up in all its frightening universality, then we can get away from the idea of personal blame, perhaps…?

    infinite thought

    December 7, 2008 at 12:04 pm

  2. Brilliant, thank you… I have had the same issue with Rich’s columns but never put my finger on it.

    But the real kicker is at the end: “I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame”.

    So easy to fall into that trap ourselves, right? Partly I think because there’s something psychologically easy about it, that it’s nice to be able to point a finger at something tangible — at, say, Mr. Frank Rich, his smiling face staring at you. And besides, performing that is fun, because it generates such a connection with the reader, who can look at Rich’s smiling face and feel the same thing.

    That’s the genius of the NYT, I guess, to have found someone like Rich, whose attractive but loyal opposition sees just as far as they like and no further.

    David R

    December 7, 2008 at 6:10 pm

  3. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it.

    I think this is absolutely on spot, but it’s not indicative of a personal failure on Rich’s part—and yes, I’ve appropriated your critique—so much as a failure of the Professional Newspaper Commentariat to value structural analysis. Consider the response to Zizek’s (admittedly silly) editorials. He attempts, in his own limited and predictable way, to analyze trends as trends absent trend-setters, and is met with “But what about what he or she did or said?” Consider also the premium within the industry for those reporters who name names—who seek the rot, find it, pin it to someone’s chest and win a Pulitzer.

    As to the substance of Rich’s column, it partakes of the media’s not-unrelated-to-your-point infatuation with who Obama’s selected to head departments. All talk of Gates and continuity ignores the fact that the continuity is merely symbolic: everyone under him—600 political appointees, only 50 of which require Congressional approval—in unemployed. Gone will be the unqualified kids with newly minted D-for-Diplomas, whose answers on the abortion/how-much-do-you-love-Bush litmus tests fast-tracked them into Green Zone sinecures. The simple act of replacing 24-year-old Promise Keepers with career intelligence and logistics people will vastly change the culture at Defense. (Remember how we howled when Bush’s people fired and demoted career military personnel whose opinions on tactical matters departed from the Cheney/Rumsfeld line? No more of that.)

    In short, I think a lot of the problems the anti-war, anti-capitalist left is likely to have with the figureheads chosen by the incoming administration are the product of the same lazy reporting (and consequent lazy thought, as per my recent post on Didion) you describe above. A better Rich would leave readers with a more accurate impression of the impact the structural overall of et al will have on the management of ours wars and economy.

    (Aren’t I ranty today?)


    December 7, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  4. Sure, the commentariat as a whole, but somehow I expect more of Rich. And look, I understand what you’re saying about Defense and the bulk of the iceberg, but the economics guys will be making actual decisions, whatever the functionaries underneath them are up to. (And do you imagine that there’ll be lots of non-neo-liberal functionaries staffing those desks? Where would you even go to find such an animal?)


    December 8, 2008 at 11:40 am

  5. His column was just a cumulative reminder of what you could easily find in fragments elsewhere in many places, even in other op-ed NYT pieces. As such, it was a serviceable piece, surely stimulated by the period in which Frank was having to read Obama’s beads for not getting on board fast enough for a Big 3 bailout. As I recall, this was barely 24 hours of hyped-up Obama-cabinet detaching itself for a big party for itself, then Obama did get on board, and probably additional enormous job loss can be prevented.

    I’ve long thought much less of Rich than many other writers. It all sounds the Old Testament, and in that way I see where you get the ‘sin of a man’, etc. from, but he was never even a very good theater critic. Bot Bob Herbert, for example, had written much the same thing but with less Cecil B. DeMille ponderousness, I think earlier last week. In any case, the Obama administration does not seem to have any tendency to stray too long into frivolity of ‘getting high’, one reason being that the public is looking for every tiny chink in anybody’s armour, no matter what they’d gotten used to before. Nobody at the Times blames ‘neoliberal economics’ and they’re not going to, given that not nearly all of us think of that the way Socialists and half-Socialists do. But you should reconsider Rich’s ‘bravery’. He’s not so brave, not nearly so brave as Krugman, for example, who’s always had the balls, even a day or two after 9/11, and still writes more like a journalist than a preacher.

    The best part of the op-ed to me was lining up the dates about Rubin, last photo-op, etc. But we all knew what the connections were with Citigroup anyway, and they were already in the Times, just in other parts.

    Patrick J. Mullins

    December 8, 2008 at 6:11 pm

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