WASHINGTON -- The roll-out of an explosive new book about the Obama administration's failings and early management of the economic crisis has devolved into questions over the veracity of the reporting and forthrightness of the reporter.
According to Ron Suskind, the book's author, that's by sinister design.
The publication of Suskind's "Confidence Men" this past week has been met with sharp objections from officials within and outside of the White House. The author, who was granted access to numerous administration aides as well as to President Barack Obama himself, has been accused of misrepresenting interviews, butchering basic facts, cherry-picking quotes, and even cribbing information from Wikipedia. The end result has been a series of interviews in which Suskind has found himself on the defensive. And in an interview with The Huffington Post, he argued that the totality of the errors doesn't match the veracity of the pushback.
"The intention of the White House, for whatever reason, is to kick up dust," he said. "The fact is there are many parts of the book that are uncomfortable for the White House. This is the first glimpse of what has gone on over several years. Clearly these things they are objecting to are distractions from what people are recognizing already ... the book is the first full rendering, full glimpse, of this era and its central actors with cooperation from the White House and the president himself."
Administration officials, naturally, couldn't disagree more, arguing that the errors they've pointed out in Suskind's work are far from trivial and that it would be political malpractice for them not to note where the written history deviates from the actual record.
"The book uses a combination of out-of-context quotes, exaggerations, mixed-up facts, and errors big and small to paint a picture that bears little resemblance to what actually happened," said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. "So it’s incumbent upon us to get the real story out.”
The back-and-forth peaked Tuesday when Suskind released an audio recording of his interview with Pfeiffer's predecessor, Anita Dunn, in order to rebut allegations that he had mischaracterized her position by selectively editing one of her quotes. The decision to release the audio only added to the debate over Suskind's techniques, leading the author to do a follow-up round of phone calls on Wednesday to, as he put it, put the controversy to rest. Once again, the damning portrait his book contained of Obama's economic team in crisis was relegated to the backburner.
A heated public relations battle over the content of one of his books is nothing new for Suskind. When he published "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill," based on extensive interviews with the former Bush Treasury Secretary, the Treasury Department launched a federal investigation into whether he had consulted classified documents while writing the book. The lawsuit, which was announced the day the book hit shelves, was frivolous. But the effect it had on Suskind and his book's debut was not.
"They win the pushback award there," he recalled. "I can joke about it now but it created a lot of friction."
Books that are critical about sitting presidents and other high-ranking politicians can produce the types of well-coordinated communications campaigns usually reserved for an election.
During Hillary Clinton's presidential run in 2008, her aides turned responding to negative books into a veritable art form. One former aide recalled that in anticipation of Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta's "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," campaign staffers frantically obtained an advanced copy of the book. After ripping through its pages, they bundled together its questionable assertions and (what the Clinton camp could pitch as) relatively small factual errors and fed them to other outlets, overshadowing its publication. Questions about the authors' motives, meanwhile, appeared regularly on Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog, and other sympathetic websites.
"It had enough in it that we worked proactively to shape it," the Clinton aide recalled. "We were able to get ahead of it and put our stamp and spin on it."
In response to two separate books released around that time -- Carl Bernstein's "A Woman in Charge" and Sally Bedell Smith's " For Love of Politics" -- Clinton's staff chose a different tactic: insisting that the books were both utter bores. "Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" Clinton's ever-present spokesman Philippe Reines said when Bernstein's book came out.
Attempts to pre-frame books risk drawing more attention to them than they would normally receive. But they had their desired outcome in the case of the Clinton books; none of the three made much of a ripple.
The respective authors, meanwhile, felt as though they had been unfairly targeted.
"[Clinton staffers] wanted their own narrative, not a competing one that would compete with their campaign," recalled Bedell Smith.
Two exchanges, in particular, remain imprinted in her mind. The first occurred at a September 2007 party in Washington D.C. where she said Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of Clinton's presidential campaign, told her that the Clintons had gotten their hands on a manuscript of her book and were devastated by its content. McAuliffe denied the conversation took place, but Bedell Smith remains convinced, to this day, that the former president someone managed to obtain one of the 20 galleys that had been printed.
The second discussion occurred in the spring of 2005 at a dinner party at Vice President Dick Cheney's residence. The famed Washington D.C. attorney Bob Barnett was talking to her, she recalled, and mentioned the horde of Clinton-focused books soon to come out.
"He said, 'We are just working to shut them all down,' and then he went on to tell me about how they had dealt with the Gail Sheehy's book," she recalled. "When that came out they had this strategy about how they would release one story every day about a factual error in the book. These were sophisticated operations."
Reached by phone, Barnett declined to comment. Yet it has been previously reported that Clinton aide Howard Wolfson showed up at Sheehy appearances to haunt and discredit her reporting.
These types of maneuvers weren't exclusively favored by Clinton allies. During the Bush administration, critical books came out with enough frequency that aides prided themselves on thinking of novel methods for downplaying or discrediting them. Then-Communications Director Nicolle Wallace said she listed the Washington Post's Bob Woodward's books on the Bush campaign website as "recommended reading" to "signal that we weren't worried about [them]."
The real challenge came when the author of a critical book had come from within the Bush orbit. After writing "Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor," former Bush aide Matt Latimer recalled facing a three-prong pushback campaign. Aides played him down as an insignificant wallflower, before accusing him of betraying confidences and, finally, disputing the content of the book itself.
"It's not a pleasant experience," Latimer recalled. "I found it interesting that certain books were perfectly OK to write for them. There have been lots of books written by White House aides or written from the inside but no one had a problem with them because they were glowing about the people in there. Suddenly, however, you've betrayed confidences when you look at things more critically."
As Latimer relayed, there is a personally taxing element to being at the sharp end of an administration's pushback. All authors have to lean on is the firmness of your reporting, which is where the debate over "Confidence Men" currently stands. Other acclaimed White House chroniclers have been there before.
"Of course I have had errors, but I believe none have been major," emailed Woodward, when asked about his catalogue of White House-related books. "I have, over the years, played tapes or showed documents or notes to various people to demonstrate the accuracy of the reporting. In some cases officials have heatedly denied certain things, only to write about them in more detail in their own memoirs (e.g. Henry Kissinger denying he had prayed with Nixon on the eve of Nixon' s resignation, then writing a much more devastating, emotional version in his own White House memoirs.) Cheers."
This piece has been updated for clarity
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