Did Ron Suskind get it wrong in 'Confidence Men'?

Journalist Ron Suskind is being criticized for inaccuracies and misquotes in 'Confidence Men,' his book on the Obama White House.

In an interview on NBC’s Today Show this morning, Ron Suskind defended his book "Confidence Men" as “picture perfect” even as host Ann Curry recited a series of refutations from those quoted in the book.

As his controversial new book hits shelves today, Ron Suskind is increasingly coming under fire for inaccuracies and misquotes alleged by the White House. As the storm builds over “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” it’s difficult to determine – on both sides – where truth ends and image begins.

In an interview on NBC’s Today Show this morning, Mr. Suskind defended his book as “picture perfect” and “solid as a brick” even as host Ann Curry recited a series of refutations from those quoted in the book.

“Confidence Men” paints a picture of President Barack Obama’s lack of leadership and sometimes-dysfunctional White House economic team’s learning on the fly in the midst of an economic crisis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Suskind says he conducted 746 hours of interviews with over 200 former and current people in the administration, including 50 minutes with the President himself. Some of those administration officials are now saying they’ve been misquoted.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former chief economic adviser Christina Romer, and former Communications Director Anita Dunn, all contest the book’s reporting, saying their words were either taken out of context or never actually spoken.

In “Confidence Men,” Ms. Dunn is quoted as saying “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

Dunn told The Washington Post that she was quoted out of context and that she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House was not a hostile work environment. Suskind allowed a Post reporter to review a recorded excerpt of his original interview with Dunn, in which she tells Suskind about a conversation she had with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

“I remember once I told Valerie that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn is heard telling Suskind. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

When pressed on the quote, a serious omission, Suskind told NBC’s Ms. Curry “It’s a political season…. everyone’s under pressure.”

On Monday, Mr. Geithner also slammed “Confidence Men,” calling it “sad little stories.” In it, Suskind claims Geithner dawdled in carrying out Obama’s orders on the economic crisis, and occasionally ignored his advice.

"I haven't read this book, but, to borrow a phrase, I lived the reality," Geithner told reporters at the White House, according to an AFP wire story. "And the reports I've read about this book bear no resemblance to the reality we lived together."

Refuting that he and other economic advisers were slow to implement Obama’s orders on the economy, Geithner told reporters, "I would never do that. I've spent my life in public service. It's my great privilege to serve this president. And I would never contemplate doing that."

Not surprisingly, Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, is also questioning Suskind’s credibility and the book’s accuracy.

"What we know is that very simple things, facts that could be ascertained – dates, quotes, statistics – are wrong in this book,” Mr. Carney said Monday. "In fact, one passage seems to be lifted almost entirely from Wikipedia…. Based on that, I would caution anyone to assume that if you can't get those things right, you [can] get the broader analysis right," he added.

In the Today Show interview Tuesday, Curry also ran through a list of facts and statistics found to be inaccurately stated in the book.

Suskind, however, stood by his book. He pointed out that the book was 500 pages long and that it was hard to check every fact. He also said to Curry about the misquoting charges: “When the curtain is pulled back, [sources] often respond vigorously.” He maintained that “Confidence Men” was not about tearing Obama down but about charting his growth.

“The whole point of the book is the evolution of Barack Obama to now and the President is quite forceful. In a way saying ‘I'm the President, people hoped I would be,’ and that's part of what the book says.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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