Reviewing Larry Summers’s Performance

On Charlie Rose, that is. The outgoing Harvard President was on for an hour, rebroadcast just now. It was interesting to see him up close at last. Some observations:

Summers seems a business executive by temperament. He’s too tan and doesn’t miss meals. He’s bold. The strongest impression of the hour was how often he rode right over Charlie Rose when he tried to make a point, or cut in. Summers’s voice would rise and Rose would have to shut up. An executive’s way. It’s kind of amazing that Harvard wanted him, but I guess this has a lot to do with money.

Summers lacks tone. His accent is unfinished, reminds me of middle-class friends from Baltimore who never became that worldly. He has that “dt” problem—pronouncing “t’s” with an extra consonant in there. The lack of tone extends to his ideas. He has an executive’s impressive grasp of large ideas, forward-thinking ideas—to his great credit, he has no problem with the vision thing—but lacks subtlety. There was no sensitivity or elegance to his expression.

Summers is unhealed. He had worked on some smooth turns about how it was his fault too for being too aggressive, and he didn’t handle things well, but when it came down to it, he couldn’t really talk about what an abrasive personality he is. Rose seemed to me to actually dislike Summers, which is rare on his part, and kept pushing Summers to take responsibility for his lack of finesse. “You were Treasury Secretary, you should have understood the fishbowl,” he said. Or he pushed Summers about his highhandedness and, using the third-person to refer to Summers, said, “You wonder… for all his brilliance.. he may not be the world’s most—whatever the offense was.” He meant “arrogance,” a word Rose also managed to drop in. Summers didn’t cop to it.

The only individual in the Harvard community he spoke of in the 50 minutes I watched was a 19-year-old student who had had the temerity to challenge Summers’s data head-on in a class. Summers admired the kid, but I thought it was narcissistic. The kid plainly reminded Summers of himself.

I also think Summers misrepresented the forum for his controversial comments about women and science in January 2005. He repeatedly called it “a seminar.” Later: “a private academic seminar.”

But per the Washington Post, it was “a speech… at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research.” According to the Boston Globe, which broke the story, the conference, on women and minorities in the science and engineering workforce, was “a private, invitation-only event, with about 50 attendees. Summers spoke during a working lunch.” Not exactly a seminar.

P.S. In the New Republic this week, Martin Peretz, sore over Summers’s departure (which he ascribes in part of course to “anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish animus”), desires to punish the university for Summers’s departure and so plays the money card. “…[M]y own impression of wealthy alumni who were once my students is that Summers made them more generous… I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.” Note to journalists: always be vague when throwing around the $100 million figure, throw in an “at least” or two. You don’t want anyone to try to pin you down.