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Critics slammed Ron Suskind’s ‘Confidence Men.’ But how closely did did they read it?

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For a White House often criticized for not communicating a strong and clear message to the public, Team Obama rallied to trash Ron Suskind’s new book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.”

In his defense, Suskind has said that the White House knew everything that was in his book before it even hit the printing presses. But that was exactly his problem. White House officials got a head start in attacking, and neither Suskind nor a time-crunched news media were able to catch up.

A day before the book’s Sept. 20 release, top administration officials assembled at a news briefing and took turns at preemptive denunciation. When asked about Suskind’s contention that he’d dragged his feet in implementing a directive from President Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that “the reality I lived, we all lived together, bears no relation to the sad little stories I heard reported from that book.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney alleged that “one passage seems to be lifted almost entirely from Wikipedia.” Claiming that the book was riddled with factual errors, Carney said he’d “caution anyone to assume that if you can’t get those things right, that you suddenly get the broader analysis right. That analysis is wrong.”

Former officials, as always, felt even less constraint. Onetime economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers said his quote in the book about being “home alone” without adult supervision at the White House combined “fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context.” Former communications director Anita Dunn, quoted as saying that the White House was a hostile workplace for women, claimed she’d told Suskind “point blank” the opposite. Christina Romer, who also served as an economic adviser to the president, said she “can’t imagine” having said that she felt like “a piece of meat” after being excluded by Summers from a meeting, as Suskind chronicled.

Says the author about the reactions: “I guess looking at the landscape, I wasn’t pleased, but I wasn’t surprised. It’s a tough time for the country.”

A tough time, certainly. But the White House’s specific, forceful and seemingly coordinated offensive — the kind of effort the Obama operation can seldom muster, especially if you trust the reporting in “Confidence Men” — also reflected its mastery of a Washington law: The media has little time to scour these big, important Washington books, at least before deadline.

Consider the “Today” show’s interview with Suskind on Sept. 20, which should easily win co-anchor Ann Curry an invite to the next state dinner. Nearly every question that came out of her mouth doubled as a White House talking point. Wikipedia? Check. Summers? For sure. Dunn? Asked and answered. Suskind attempted to speak up on behalf of his work, but when you have the White House and NBC arrayed against you, you’re just some author on the defensive.

Why is careful reading of the book so key? Because “Confidence Men” is something of a self-contained allegation-and-pushback-prevention machine. Corroboration of the author’s claim about Geithner comes on Page 378, via a White House memo alleging that “once a decision is made, implementation by the Department of the Treasury has at times been slow and uneven.” It also states that “when the economic team does not like a decision by the President, they have on occasion worked to re-litigate the overall policy.” Summers, on Page 453, explains what he meant in uttering the “home alone” quote, of which Suskind writes that he “assumed ownership.” Dunn’s quote, found point blank on Page 340, alleges a “genuinely hostile workplace to women” at the White House, no matter how the words are parsed.  

Dunn drew on her decades of experience as a Washington operative and shaper of message to tarnish the book and its author, delivering her quote denials before the book’s release. Days later, Suskind got around to playing the tape of her interview for a reporter and explaining a minor edit in her key quote. By that point, Dunn had gone underground, declining to answer my pleas for input.

Smart ducking, there. Dunn knows how her newly zipped lips will be interpreted by many savvy Washington news consumers: as a principled refusal to power another round of publicity for Suskind’s book, and not so much as evidence that her denial about the quote may have been baseless.

Onlookers exploited the cover the White House provided. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg used the occasion to highlight a killer quote that Suskind included in a 2004 New York Times Magazine story, in which an anonymous aide to President George W. Bush spoke dismissively of “the reality-based community” and added, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Weisberg wondered if Suskind might have fabricated it. He offered the thought without any evidence to substantiate such a serious allegation and without calling the author to check; he later told me that “the onus is on Suskind to convince the world” that the quote is real. In another example of piling on, a former Bush administration official came right out with it, alleging that Suskind had made up a quote from him in his 2004 book,“The Price of Loyalty.”

Suskind scoffs at these allegations and says he’s never heard them before; in the case of the Bush official, the author says he pulled the quote from a meeting transcript that he received.

Whom to believe? Are all the complaints hollow, politically motivated smears? Or does Suskind have a serial tendency to push his reporting a bit beyond its weight class? It would take a separate 500-page tome to break down all of the author’s set-tos with his sources and subjects. That circumstance alone explains why journalists around town love to gossip about this White House chronicler. They’re always wondering where Suskind came up with this and where he came up with that, though such digressions always travel via whispers and with strict reminders that, hey, we’re off the record here.

What the White House vs. Suskind episode demonstrates is that book launches have trouble projecting more than one personality or message. If powerful people want to join forces and craft a particular narrative about a piece of nonfiction, that narrative will frame the discussion about the book. Just like NBC’s Curry, people still seem to be working off of the White House’s outrage. Every time I discuss “Confidence Men” with a friend or a source, I hear speculation about how and why Suskind altered the Dunn quote and changed its meaning. (Suskind maintains that Dunn requested the alteration.)

Unauthorized Sarah Palin biographer Joe McGinniss is peddling this very lament nowadays. His book, “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin,” was released earlier in September — but again, not exactly as planned.

McGinniss theorizes that a bookstore clerk somewhere opened up a box of his books, read a copy and offered the National Enquirer the juicy stuff. Whatever the transaction, the Enquirer published McGinniss’s most salacious findings days before the release. Presto, the book’s public face took shape. “The stuff that the National Enquirer blasted out — that’s about three pages out of 320,” McGinniss says.

The mainstream media, suggests McGinniss, doesn’t have enough pine-paneled rooms with plush leather chairs. It never bothered to read the other 317 pages. “Howard Kurtz and others jumped on TV and said it was trash without having read it,” he says, referring to the Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief and longtime media reporter. (My own full disclosure: I’ve spent hours with both the Suskind and McGinniss volumes but still haven’t knocked out the combined 800 pages — not easy doubling as a literary critic and media reporter.) McGinniss says he dug up a bunch of revelations that media organizations, in vetting the onetime vice presidential candidate, never found.

The pipe-tobacco perspective on all this fast-twitch book opining is that time will sort things out. As turnover in the Obama administration proceeds and as Palin keeps talking, more folks will emerge to either confirm or knock down the stories that Suskind and McGinniss present. Though it is comforting to suppose that a noble truth will ultimately win out, the more likely scenario is that the partisans will recycle all the pushback — both the substantive and the dubious — the next time either author publishes anything of consequence.

In his Slate piece, Weisberg argues that this ideas marketplace has already pronounced winners and losers. Whereas an author like The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward meticulously stays within factual boundaries, Weisberg argues, Suskind takes his liberties. Responds Suskind: “Historians will judge Bob’s books versus mine. I hope that the disclosures, insights, and framing in my books will endure longer than the ones in Bob’s books.”

When asked about that, Woodward declined to comment. He said he hadn’t finished reading Suskind’s book.

Erik Wemplewrites about the media at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple.

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