The news that National Economic Council Director Larry Summers will return to Harvard to teach by the end of the year – and the widespread grieving this has caused throughout the United States – reminded me that Larry was responsible for two of my odder moments in my years covering the White House.
One is quite well known. In April 2009, as part of the press pool, I had been ushered into the Roosevelt Room to hear President Obama talk about a meeting he had just had where he was haranguing some credit card executives. The press had been called in, with the credit card execs sitting around the table, to hear about the ass kicking Obama had just given them and how everyone was going to work to make sure people who somehow don’t understand that they have to pay their monthly bills on time now understand it and aren’t penalized for it, or whatever the new policy is.
As Obama was droning on, I noticed one of his advisers at the end of the table in deep thought. So deep, in fact that he had his eyes closed. It was Larry Summers, famously brilliant (people know this because he tells them) and obviously weighing complicated economic considerations none of us could begin to understand.
As I watched, Larry’s head, which was propped up on his fist, began to make that telltale movement, sliding ever so slightly downward. And then it occurred to me.
LARRY WASN’T THINKING ANYTHING AT ALL. LARRY WAS ASLEEP!!
I started jotting in my notebook, realizing that Professor Summers was in the midst of livening up my pool report quite significantly.
Perhaps seeing me focused on Larry, the photographers also noticed, and began to go wild, clicking away. None of us had ever seen a presidential adviser fall asleep while the president was talking. Obama didn’t notice Summers, as far as I could tell, but must have wondered why the lenses were no longer trained on him.
Then Summers did one of those sudden wake ups, smiling softly as if nothing much had happened. Oops, just fell asleep.
The other event was back in the Clinton years, when Summers was Secretary of Treasury. He had just finished doing a TV interview on the West Wing driveway, when two other print reporters and I accosted him. At one point, I gave him a question he really didn’t want to answer.
When I asked him again, he turned along with his press person and began heading briskly down the long driveway to the West Wing entrance. The three of us gave chase, maybe trying to ask again. And we just looked at each other and kind of giggled. There we were pursuing the Secretary of Treasury down the driveway, with the Lord of the World Financial System practically running in full flight from us, trying desperately, to get to the safety of the White House.
I really don’t think Larry, who once worked for Reagan, was from the school where you bring business executives into the White House and dress them down for trying to make a profit. I’m not surprised he’s leaving.