Time Hails Larry Summers, the 'Big Brain' Who 'May Save Our Butt'

February 3rd, 2009 5:57 PM

When Time magazine likes a liberal, they really, really like them.

Time’s profile of Obama’s "economic wise man" Larry Summers boils over with superlatives. The February 9 edition’s Table of Contents is brief, but gooey: "The brilliant, slightly bumbling man who may save our butt." His photo carried the caption: "Big brain: Summers is planning nothing short of a complete overhaul of the U.S. economy." The headline was "It’s Now or Never For Larry Summers: Obama’s brash and brilliant economic adviser has attained vast power and a chop on nearly every issue. Can the former Treasury boss sort out the financial mess before it gets worse?" The online headline was blunter: "Can Larry Summers Save the Economy?"

Turn the page, and former Time editor Strobe Talbott pays tribute in a bold-faced pull quote: "To have an argument with Larry Summers is a little like being run over by a tank with a Lotus engine." Liberals are touted for their brilliance. Smart conservatives are painted as Uncle Scrooge on Time’s cover (recall Newt Gingrich at the end of 1994).

The actual story on the National Economic Council chair, by Time’s Michael Scherer and Massimo Calabresi, includes one paragraph about his verbal gaffes (including a sentence about his dismissal from the top job at Harvard for suggesting women have displayed less scientific acumen), but it’s described as the fault of his "raw brainpower." The profile began with the adjective "wunderkind":

The walls are still bare in Larry Summers' West Wing office, a cramped and cluttered perch overlooking the Rose Garden. The Bloomberg terminals have yet to be delivered, and the steam-powered White House e-mail system recently crashed. Add to all that the fact that much of Barack Obama's economic team is still finding its way around the White House, and it's somewhat remarkable that this economic wunderkind turned Obama adviser is moving at flank speed on the biggest restructuring of the U.S. economy since the New Deal.

Time magazine can find gauzy words for a man if the goal is imposing a lasting socialist scheme on the American economy. But is he up to the job?

But with unemployment soaring toward 25-year highs, housing prices plunging and the nation's biggest banks facing insolvency, it is difficult not to wonder, Is Summers — is anyone, really — up to this herculean set of tasks at this impossible moment? And if the responsibility must fall largely on the shoulders of one man, does it have to be a guy in an ill-fitting suit who has a reputation for occasionally putting his foot in his mouth? The one who speaks in a disembodied patter while his nail-bitten fingers fiddle with his constant liquid sidekick, a can of Diet Coke? And then, just when you begin to ask yourself these questions, Summers starts speaking with an almost poetic clarity, in those perfectly formed sentences that have made him an in-house economist for three of the past five Presidents. "Any study of history reveals that with crisis comes enormous fluidity in the system," he says, a foot tapping now. "In Washington the transition from inconceivable to inevitable can be rapid if forced by events."

Time’s writers really want to believe that he can not only imagine that socialist scheme, but make it a reality. Obama aides are marshaled to attest to the man’s superheroic ability:

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, refers to him in briefings as "Dr. Summers," with a deference that suggests Summers has powers out of science fiction. Stopped in a White House hallway in late January, David Axelrod, Obama's closest political aide, speaks with something akin to spiritual gratitude about having an intellectual like Summers around. "Quite frankly, I'm not sure we would have gotten him but for the fact that we have a crisis that is equal to his talents," Axelrod says. Summers, asked if he is up to the challenge, smiles and offers a diplomatic dodge. "I have confidence in what this President is able to do," he says.

The biggest paragraph of promotional goo (which includes the Talbott quote, a little longer) concerns his fabulous debate skills:

More than anything else, say his peers, Summers is a ferocious debater, capable of unpacking four or five contradictory theories at the same time. "To have an argument with Larry Summers is a little like being run over by a tank with a Lotus engine and to find the experience educational," says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution. Such pastimes may come naturally to the first son of two noted economists who was born in New Haven, Conn., in the shadow of Yale, and grew up in Philadelphia not far from the University of Pennsylvania. Not only did he become, at 28, one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history, but a decade later he also went on to win the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, given to the best American economist under the age of 40. Both his critics and his fans admit he is usually the quickest thinker in even the most rarefied rooms, with a family pedigree that includes two uncles who separately won Nobels for economic science. "All of us are deeply resentful," Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign, says with a laugh. "In terms of just genetic ability to do this -- not fair."

Look, a Republican was quoted – but only to underline Time’s point that Summers is brilliant. Scherer and Calabresi tout how Summers has set the tone for Obama seeing the economic crisis as an opportunity to ram more government intervention down America’s throat:

As both a campaign and a White House adviser, Summers helped guide Obama's conviction that the economic crisis was an opportunity as well as a curse, a chance to accelerate many of his campaign pledges. In a column about the crisis published in September, shortly after he joined the campaign team, Summers laid out the fundamental thesis on which the Obama White House now operates. "For the near term," Summers wrote in the Financial Times, "government should do more, not less."

In Obama’s case, the government is supposed to do a lot more, and in record time.