Showdown on Pennsylvania Avenue

September 21, 2011, 6:20 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, Fortune assistant managing editor Nicholas Varchaver reviews Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Ron Suskind’s account of the Obama White House during the financial crisis.

FORTUNE — How does one write a book that immerses itself in the antithesis of drama — indecision, uncertainty and inaction — without allowing the book itself to take on those qualities? That was the challenge facing Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. Unfortunately, he can’t quite pull it off.

I say “unfortunately,” not only because Suskind is a distinguished journalist, a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize during his days at the The Wall Street Journal, and the author of four well-regarded books, but also because his 482-page tome is packed with reporting nuggets that take you deep into the councils of power in the Obama White House.

We see a young, uncertain president deferring to his feuding advisors, arrogant underlings manipulating and undermining their boss, and bright, ambitious people struggling to transform policy ideas into action. Suskind has spent many, many hours interviewing the key players, including Obama himself. The result is a seemingly authoritative window on the inner workings of the administration and a useful management primer on how not to run an organization.

However, it isn’t a heckuva lot of fun to read. Confidence Men is crammed with interesting detail — but also with uninteresting detail. It feels like we are reliving every moment of every issue in the Obama administration to date. Indeed, the book ranges far beyond him.

It begins in 2007, well before the financial crisis peaked. Suskind then moves on to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Obama’s election, the early days of the administration, the dust-up over Wall Street bonuses and the residual problems with AIG (AIG), the GM (GM) bailout, bank stress tests, the Public-Private Investment Program for toxic assets, the healthcare debate, Dodd-Frank, Goldman Sachs’ subprime machinations — it’s all there. If you’re dying to relive Tim Geithner’s confirmation hearing, this is the book for you.

Suskind introduces plenty of characters, and heaps blame on a few of them. Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, and to a lesser extent, Geithner, emerge as villains in the countless, and seemingly endless, policy debates. Mostly, though, it’s Summers, the economic advisor whom Suskind portrays as a “domestic policy czar,” who comes across as the Cardinal Richelieu of the tale.

Consider this litany of descriptions, some of which appear in the author’s voice, others as quotes from colleagues and rivals: Summers’ “track record over the years in major decisions had been disastrous.” He oversaw “perhaps the most disastrous piece of deregulatory legislation since the Great Depression: the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (also known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley), which, in undoing a major provision of Glass-Steagall, directly precipitated the ‘too big to fail’ crisis nine years later.”

The list goes on. We’re told that Summers “was like someone stealing gas from your gas tank and then criticizing you for not being able to drive your car.” How did he do that? “By willfully ignoring the president’s wishes and relitigating … decisions the president had made because Larry didn’t think they were well informed on this or that.’”

Suskind’s harshest criticism: that Summers was disloyal. The book repeatedly cites this quote from Summers: “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.” Suskind pounds Summers so many times that you almost — almost — end up feeling sorry for the guy.

Summers and Geithner have already challenged Suskind’s reporting. The reader has no way of judging who’s right here. But it’s worth mentioning that I noticed a half-dozen tiny errors as I made my way through Confidence Men.

The book garbles the location of Lehman’s headquarters. It renders the name of CNBC’s former anchor, Erin Burnett, as “Burkett” and misspells former Citicorp chief Walter Wriston’s last name. Elsewhere, Suskind describes former AIG (and Allstate) CEO Ed Liddy as a “former Goldman executive,” when in fact he is a former Goldman board member. Most of these are negligible errors, but they inevitably make you wonder what else might be inaccurate.

Meanwhile, Suskind singles other White House officials for high praise. He refers to the “earned confidence and high purpose” of advisers Paul Volcker, Elizabeth Warren, and Gary Gensler and portrays Obama’s former acting chief of staff, Pete Rouse, as a hero. Vice-President Joe Biden “had been brilliant” and “an enormous, and generally unheralded, asset.” Of course, with some exceptions, these characters mostly lose out to Summers.

Suskind’s intense focus on the White House has the effect of minimizing the roles of other players in the world financial crisis. Congress, the Tea Party, China — everything else barely registers. That seems simplistic, particularly given that Suskind winds up arguing that the White House had only limited influence on the course of events during the crisis.

“The policies that emerged from those endless hours [of debate] were negligible,” he writes. “This was a central result of all the management woes. It wasn’t a matter of his policies not succeeding in Congress. Few policies of any real heft were even proposed.” But if the White House wasn’t driving the train, then who was? Suskind is silent on this vital point.

Confidence Men also weaves five Wall Street characters into the story: Robert Wolf of UBS (UBS), Carmine Visone of Lehman Brothers, Bill Winters of JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Greg Fleming of Merrill Lynch and now Morgan Stanley (MS), and Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs (GS) star who now heads the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Suskind portrays this quintet as conscientious men who all agonize about Wall Street’s role in the crisis. That makes them good characters from the author’s point of view, because they echo his criticisms of the American financial establishment, but weak ones from a narrative perspective because we never see Wall Street characters up close engaging in the irresponsible practices that so nearly wrecked the global economy.

For that element, Suskind sometimes resorts to sweeping editorializing: “Wall Street, as it has been constructed in this age of financial miracles, mocks Hippocrates [i.e., the oath to first, do no harm]. Doing harm is its business; destruction can be quite profitable …”

And what of Barack Obama, the ostensible center of this book? Suskind describes him as a “brilliant amateur,” who “wasn’t ready” and “stumbled into town like a tourist.” Time and again, he appears like a more mediagenic version of Jimmy Carter: well meaning and book smart, but oh so indecisive.

In the end, Confidence Men is a more ambitious version of the books that Bob Woodward has made into a staple: the well-sourced snapshot of a Presidential administration in midstream. This genre challenges authors to blend the traditional advantages of a book — perspective, judgment and narrative depth — with the timeliness of a newspaper or magazine article.

That’s no easy feat, and Suskind doesn’t quite achieve it. Like Woodward, he’s compelled to leave off halfway through Obama’s term and cross his fingers that events won’t conspire to leave his assessments behind.

Suskind is astute enough to craft a satisfying denouement. Having blamed many of the administration’s problems on key appointees, he hails the housecleaning that swept out Summers and other officials after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections. Suskind describes “the great progress” and notes that Obama now has the team he really wanted in the first place.

The implication: Finally, the president’s huge promise can be realized. Suskind even argues that Obama and Geithner, once callow, are now “thoroughly in charge.”

Of course, those words were written more than six months ago, and the Obama administration is hardly thriving these days. In fact, Democratic Party luminaries like James Carville have recently argued that Obama needs to purge his staff again. Thus, the ending of Confidence Men is satisfying and hopeful — but already a bit dated.

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