Since the release of former Treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s book, “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crisis,” there has been a kerfuffle over one of the anecdotes in the book. Geithner recounts how, in a prep session, he told then-White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer that he would not go on a Sunday show and say “Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit.”
I don’t know if Geithner intended this to be a dramatic revelation or if he was just recounting a routine meeting at the White House, but there is no story here and certainly nothing that approaches a scandal, mini-scandal or even a scandelette. In fact, it just sounds like everyone was doing their job.
Every day in the White House, the political people challenge the policy people to tell them where the boundaries are, asking what can be said without risking being exposed as fraudulent or causing harm by eroding credibility.
It’s not that Geithner is above the political fray or that Pfeiffer did anything wrong. Political handlers always want to enhance the good and diminish the bad, and they rely on the policy people to tell them just how far their spin can go. This type of probing and exploring of what can be said in furtherance of the boss’s interest happens every day in hundreds of offices in Washington – in the White House, on the Hill and anywhere else people are talking to the media or speaking to the public.
The bigger story would have been if Geithner had not acted as the adult in the room, but had gone along and said something deceitful that would have subsequently risen up and bitten the administration – exactly what happened with Ambassador Susan Rice and Benghazi. In her case, the political handlers floated a concocted story about how the Benghazi attack and subsequent killings were a result of protests over a YouTube video, hoping to avoid the charge that it was the result of a White House policy failure. Instead of properly putting that in its place and giving the political team a friendly lecture about how that deceitful line could lead to trouble, Rice apparently decided to curry favor with the team by playing along. And here we are. The Benghazi scandal is still roiling, but the administration dodged the bullet of having Geithner say something that was factually wrong, that was indefensible and that could have been used against the president by Mitt Romney’s campaign.
There was no harm done, and there is no story to tell.
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