Maddi Sojourner's Reviews > Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Confidence Men by Ron Suskind
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's review
Sep 28, 11

bookshelves: politics, finance
Read in September, 2011

Four and a half stars.

While I thought this would be a political inside-the-mind-of-the-advisors type of book, there's quite a bit of The Big Short (Michael Lewis) in here too; an explanation of the Wall Street shenanigans that led to the near-collapse of the US economy. Suskind has to spend time getting us into that mileau to explain where the economic advisors either came from or were reacting to.

Certainly some of the advisers come across better than others, and with a book of this type one always wonders if that's due to their actions, their personalities, or how cooperative they were with Suskind. The two who come across the worst are Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emanuel. Tim Geithner isn't far behind. Summers is shown as manipulative and petty, trying to stay ahead of everyone by jumping in to frame every discussion and bringing back policy discussions on issues Obama had already told his advisers what he wanted. Emanuel is shown as a chief of staff who didn't handle chief of staff issues such as getting all these personalities working effectively instead of against each other, to the point that many advisers considered him part of the problem the chief of staff should be solving. And Geithner is called out for flat-out insubordination; stalling when Obama asked him to come up with a plan to break up Citibank.

I found the Wall Street and economic explanations fascinating, but I love that sort of thing, and I was a huge fan of The Big Short. So for me that was an unexpected bonus. Getting inside the worldview of so many of the White House staff was fascinating. In fact, the only reason I can't give this book five stars is the execution. Since there are so many viewpoints, the book jumps around a lot, not only through people but through timelines as well, and in many cases, I didn't think the structure effectively made the points as well as it could have. There were a few places where I completely lost track of where we were in time and who was in the room because Suskind uses a lot of flashbacks. That's an excellent literary technique for a film or even a novel, but for a current affairs piece, he'd better be damned sure we're clear who is talking and when. Suskind switches back and forth in name use, which also doesn't help when some of the actors have the same first name (Larry Summers and Larry Fink got me confused because he spent so much time on Summers and then did an extended piece on Fink but kept calling him Larry, for example).

That's not enough for me to say don't bother reading this. In fact, if you enjoy knowing why a politician's promises are often not acted upon, this is as good a presentation as any to show the difficulty in getting everyone to agree even before they try selling it to Congress or Business. I just wish Suskind had either spent some time getting the continuity a little better or had his editor do a better job helping him with it. This is the sort of problem that can happen with a book that goes through multiple re-writes, and I wonder if publishers just aren't recognizing the value of an excellent editor anymore.

Suskind already won a Pulitizer for his reporting in 1995, and this book does show us why he was worthy of it. One quote that stayed with me after finishing it was his musing on the change in the American economy, from manufacturing to abstract financial instrument. As he put it, we changed from a country that made things to a country that "made things up."

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