WASHINGTON -- The debate over whether the Obama White House has been a hostile work place for women devolved on Tuesday into a sharp dispute over reporting methods and quote context.
At issue is a provocative portion of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind's new book "Confidence Men" that quotes former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn waxing critically about her time with the administration. Dunn has insisted that her statement to Suskind was taken out of context. A fuller quote provided by Suskind to the Washington Post reveals that a portion of Dunn's remarks did not make it into the book's pages.
But the extent to which that portion alters the underlying premise of Suskind's reporting -- mainly, that women have been marginalized in this administration -- is unclear. And in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Suskind said that he discussed the portion of the interview he was planning on using with Dunn before the book was completed. Dunn subsequently denied that Suskind had circled back to her to clear the material before publication.
The actual charges themselves have been examined by authors of previous books about Obama. But in "Confidence Men," Suskind suggests that the male-dominated hierarchy and boy's club culture inside the White House was more alarming than has previously been reported. He writes that when Dunn joined the election team as the first significant female hire, she was shocked to see that the campaign "had more to do with frat house antics than third-wave feminism." (Suskind's words). The most provocative section came next.
"But looking back," recalled Anita Dunn, when asked about it nearly two years later, "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's suggestion that the administration could have been legally culpable for the way in which women staffers were treated is a loaded one, in part because her husband Bob Bauer was White House counsel during her tenure, but mainly because the Obama administration is wary of projecting an image of inclusivity -- be it in its internal composition or in political negotiations. And as soon as the Suskind passage became public, Dunn was disputing it.
On Tuesday, the Post published a fuller version of the remark, culled from an audio recording of the interview that Suskind provided the paper.
"I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] 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."
Pointing to the preface -- "if it weren't for the president" -- Dunn argued that the Post story explained the true intent behind her quote. Suskind, she wrote in an email to The Huffington Post, had "added words to my mouth and took out the supportive words about the President!"
"There is a difference between 'the White House is a hostile environment' and 'if it weren't for the President, the White House would be a hostile environment,'" she wrote. "The fact that the second sentence contains the same words as the first doesn't mean they mean the same thing.
"[I]f we concede for the sake of argument that [the Post] quote is ... not also wrong or grossly out of context, we already have a situation where Suskind by his own admission doctored a quote to make it appear that 1. I said it directly to him as commentary on the White House, which is demonstrably untrue from the tape fragment; 2. He edited out six very important words, which change the meaning of the entire quote."
Reached by phone, Suskind said he interviewed Dunn in April and talked to her again during the summer, at which time he went over the material he was using in the book. Dunn, he said, explained that she had not raised concerns about the environment at the White House while she was serving as communications director out of respect for the president. [UPDATE: Her quote was also placed in the past tense ("but looking back"), Suskind said, because of complications that could result from her marriage to Bauer.]
As for not including those six words, Suskind noted that he had expressed Dunn's position in his own voice in the preceding sentence, which reads: "The woman would do almost anything for the president, and carried on with few complaints."
"When I talked to her she said all sorts of things that nobody was expecting she would tell me, which revealed that the situation was much more dramatic than reported," he said. "Those things going into the book have caused her to do whatever she can to back away from the things she said, as we move closer to an election. Period. That’s what happened here. They thought she would be tamer -- and others too, it wasn't just her."
Far from a trivial he-said-she-said dispute, the argument over the treatment of women in the Obama administration has larger political implications, illustrating an aspect of the president's managerial skills in an age of hyper-scrutinized politics.
According to "Confidence Men," the president and his communications team were late to start thinking about the issue, only addressing the role of women in the administration after sitting down with several top female aides during a November 2009 dinner. Dunn doesn't dispute the idea that there was, at one point in time, cause for concern about whether or not women were being valued inside the White House. Her full quote, as relayed in the Post, implies that much. But she insists that the president should be credited for both controlling and changing that climate.
"Factually, the quote [Suskind] reported and what I said are very different," Dunn said. "What I actually said and believe, what is the case then and today is that the president of the United States proactively took steps and [that] is one of the reasons why women are loyal to him."
As far as Suskind is concerned, however, the pushback from Dunn and others doesn't actually have anything to do with the book itself -- which is the product, he says, of scrupulous reporting and fact checking. Rather, he sees something a touch more sinister in the White House "kicking up dust" in the wake of its publication: a classic bait-and-switch technique that he says distracts from the larger issues "Confidence Men" raises.
"Traditionally when books like this are written –- the first unvarnished glimpse of the White House of the sitting president -- there is always some buyer's remorse from the sources involved," he said. "The White House and the subjects themselves were informed of how they would be rendered in the book and had a chance to respond in the pages of the book. Those responses are full and considered. And the most important response in the book is the long interview with the president, where he talks about the difficult times that he has lived through over the past few years and what he has learned from it to make him a better president going forward."