Lawrence of Absurdia


In January of 1991, economist Lawrence Summers took a leave from his Harvard professorship and moved to Washington to work for the World Bank. His job was to create economic plans for countries in need of aid. It was a weighty task, but Summers relished the challenge. Using the kind of provocative imagery for which he would become notorious, he once explained that countries without a strong central government and vigorous private sector were like “a cripple . . . with no legs, pushing himself around on a crude board with wheels, surviving only with begging and trying to look sympathetic.”

But something Summers didn't even write would mar his tenure at the bank. In December 1991, he signed off on a policy memo written by an aide who argued that less-developed countries, or LDCs, could benefit from accepting the pollution generated by First World nations. “Just between you and me,” the memo read, “shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?” Poor countries could earn needed revenue without great cost, because their citizens tended to have a short life span anyway.

Someone leaked the memo to the Economist, which in February 1992 ran an article about it titled “Let Them Eat Pollution.” Though the magazine concluded that “on the economics, [Summers's] points are hard to answer,” the memo provoked a furor. For years to come, anti-globalization activists, already skeptical of the World Bank, considered it proof of the bank's callous attitude.

Summers claimed the memo was simply part of the free-flowing discussion he tried to foster among his colleagues. He suggested it was intended to be “ironic.” Eventually he dispensed with explanations and simply apologized, quoting New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's line, “When I make a mistake, it's a whopper.”

It was a good line, and Summers would have ample opportunity to reuse it.

Eight years later, he returned to Harvard as its president. Expectations were high, and Summers wasted no time in laying out an ambitious agenda of developing an Allston campus, reinvigorating the undergraduate curriculum, and building up the sciences. He also displayed the same embrace of power and love of the limelight for which he had become known in Washington — and the same stubborn habit of speaking injudiciously.

Thanks to that and a pattern of bizarre behavior in social situations, Summers has offended many of Harvard's diverse constituencies: blacks, Hispanics, gays, Asians, Muslims. Meanwhile, conservatives outside Harvard Yard have turned him into a cause célèbre. Now Summers has added women to the list of those he has alienated, telling an economic conference that they may lack the genetic gifts to succeed at the highest levels in science and math. The remark touched off a fury that may never fade completely and that has left Harvard's president standing precariously at the top of a divided campus.

After Bill Clinton was elected pres ident in 1992, Summers hoped to be named chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. But Vice President Al Gore was reportedly so offended by the World Bank memo that he blocked the appointment. Instead, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen asked Summers to join that department as undersecretary for international affairs, and Summers agreed. Over the eight years at Treasury, he acquired new stature, new skills, and a new education. Helping Treasury respond to financial crises in Mexico and Asia, Larry Summers would become one of the most powerful unelected officials in the world. And by all accounts, that was something he very much enjoyed.

After Bentsen resigned in 1994, Robert Rubin became the new Treasury secretary. He elevated Summers to deputy Treasury secretary, where he had greater influence — but also caused more controversy.

Summers was impatient with politics and the legislative process, and he had a hard time hiding it. His no-holds-barred speaking style raised hackles in Washington offices. During a 1997 debate over cutting the federal tax on inheritances, Summers remarked that “when it comes to the estate tax, there is no case other than selfishness.” That didn't sit well with Republicans. “I believe in trying to find the essence of issues, to probe different positions in a very strong way to discover the right approach,” Summers explained later. “I'm sorry when that way of thinking gives offense.”

Though deferential to his superiors, Summers could be a boss from hell. “If you're in a meeting, whatever you say, he will make you feel like you're an idiot,” says one Treasury aide who worked for both Summers and Rubin.

Rubin, however, wasn't troubled by what he later called Summers's “rough edges.” The Treasury secretary was secure enough not to mind his deputy's oversize ego and to realize that Summers's formidable intellect was an asset to him. It was a classic good-cop, bad-cop routine. The slender, elegantly tailored Rubin was a polished veteran of the New York financial world and a graduate of Harvard College — suave, sophisticated, mannered, charming. The portly, sloppily dressed Summers was a product of MIT and its debate team and Harvard's graduate program in economics, two experiences that had encouraged an argumentative nature.

Under Rubin's tutelage, Summers began to evolve. Socially, he started to move in high company, playing tennis with Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan at the tony St. Alban's Tennis Club. Not exactly fleet of foot, Summers wasn't a natural player. His strength was in his strategy, the angles and diversity of his shots, his positioning on the court. “I play a lot better than you'd expect, looking at me,” he said.

It was, in a way, the story of his life.

Lawrence Henry Summers was born in New Haven on November 30, 1954. He was the first child of Robert and Anita Summers, husband-and-wife economists then at Yale. In 1959 the pair moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where they would teach for the rest of their careers. They raised Larry and his two younger brothers, Richard and John, in Lower Merion, a pretty, prosperous suburb on Philadelphia's Main Line.

Young Larry had an uncanny knack for absorbing numbers and interpreting information. By the time he was seven, he could recite the names of JFK's cabinet members. “I was a curious kid, not especially outgoing,” Summers would remember. Curious — and precocious. At age 10, he appeared on a local sports-radio quiz show and answered everything so quickly that the show ran out of questions.

Summers's parents were not the only influences on his intellectual life. Two of his uncles ranked among the finest economics minds of the 20th century. Paul Samuelson is the older brother of Robert Summers (who, as a young adult, legally changed his name); Ken Arrow is the brother of Anita Summers. Over the course of their careers, both men fundamentally changed the discipline. In 1970, Samuelson won the Nobel Prize in economics. Two years later, so did Arrow.

Not surprisingly, Larry Summers was expected to achieve great things. When he applied to Harvard in the 11th grade in 1971, however, the school turned him down. In 1974, after finishing at MIT, Summers would apply to Harvard again, this time for graduate study in economics. He was accepted. It was clear by now that Summers was a young man to watch.

After finishing his graduate coursework, Summers taught at MIT. Then, in 1981, he traveled to Washington for his first job outside academia: assistant to Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, the new head of President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. The left-leaning Summers was no advocate of Reagan's supply-side economics; the experience, says one economist who knows Summers well, “was a calculated résumé-builder.” In 1982, Henry Rosovsky, a member of Harvard's economics department and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, urged President Derek Bok to offer Summers tenure. Bok did, and Summers accepted. He was all of 28.

That was a good year for Summers, and not just academically. He had fallen for a Harvard Law student named Victoria Perry, and she for him. In September 1984 the two were married at the Harvard Club in Boston.

Summers was an energetic and demanding professor. His graduate students sometimes felt pressured by him, but they conceded that he frequently coaxed better work from them than they had thought themselves capable of doing. In his own work, Summers was a prolific author of economics papers — nothing as earthshaking as what his uncles had done, but still important, valuable research.

Yet Summers was restless. He wanted more than the scholar's life. In 1988, he signed on as an economics adviser with the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Democrat lost that race to George H. W. Bush, of course, but the campaign was a turning point for Summers. He learned that he enjoyed politics; he liked being not just a student of power, but a player. And during the campaign he met two people critical to his future: Bob Rubin and rising-star Governor Bill Clinton. Years later, Rubin, Clinton, and Summers would agree that when Rubin stepped down from the post of Treasury secretary, Summers would step up, and when Rubin resigned in July 1999, that is exactly what happened. Had Al Gore won in 2000, it is very likely Larry Summers would still be in Washington.

At Harvard, as in Washington, presidential transitions are rarely simple. When James Bryant Conant announced in 1953 that he would leave the Harvard presidency, no one on campus expected Nathan Marsh Pusey to succeed him. How could they? Few even knew who Pusey was.

Yet for most of his presidency, Pusey confounded his skeptics. He smartly appointed hotshot scholar McGeorge Bundy as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Pusey was an excellent fundraiser. And he wasn't afraid to use his bully pulpit to rebuke an American bully, Joseph McCarthy.

But the moral certitude that served Pusey so well in the 1950s proved less suited to the 1960s. As student protest embroiled campuses nationwide, Pusey refused to believe that Harvard too might succumb to unrest. “The number of undergraduates who get excited about political problems is not large,” he declared. “Most of them are above that sort of thing.”

As it turned out, they weren't. On April 9, 1969, some 300 students and outside activists, angered by Pusey's refusal to evict ROTC from the campus, raced into University Hall, the central administration building. Pusey's response was to call the cops — and not just Harvard police, but Cambridge and Boston officers as well. Before dawn on April 10, about 400 masked policemen filled the building with tear gas and waded inside, liberally wielding their nightsticks. Gasping for breath, the demonstrators staggered out doors and jumped out windows.

The immediate consequences were a 10-day campus strike, vociferous denunciations of the president, and media portrayals of a bitterly divided university. Those would pass. But in less tangible ways, the assault on University Hall — both assaults — scarred the campus for decades. The trust between students and faculty was shattered. No longer would students see the Harvard president as an Olympian figure to whom they deferred, but as a flawed and fallible person against whom they protested.

Pusey retired in 1971. His successor was law school dean Derek Bok, a conciliatory figure. For the first years of his presidency, Bok aimed simply to keep the peace. He also moved to redress an institutional shortfall some Harvardians felt contributed to the unrest of 1969: a paucity of administrators. Bok agreed that the university needed more experts in law, finance, political affairs, public relations, and real estate, and he hired them.

If the Bok years were an era of healing and growth, the Neil Rudenstine decade, which began in 1991, saw what might be called the normalization of the '60s. With his commitment to the Afro-American studies department and affirmative action, Rudenstine endorsed some of that decade's legacy. Another, less constructive consequence of youth protest was the growth of identity politics, with students fighting turf battles over ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

None of this recent history appealed to Larry Summers, who felt a profound skepticism toward 1960s-style protest. Born in 1954, he was too young to have been swept up in the turmoil of the times. A physically ungainly young man, Summers relied on his enormously powerful intellect. “The reason I decided . . . to become an economist is that I wanted to work on solving what felt to me the most important problems in the world: poverty, unemployment, helping poor people,” Summers said in a 2001 speech. “But I knew that I didn't want to just shout and rant about them.”

If anything, Summers had an emotional distaste for the rebellious actions of people just a few years older than he. His training instilled in him what he called an “economic rationalism,” and he looked upon activism as if it were something to scrape off his shoe.

In the spring of 2001, the Harvard Corporation chose Larry Summers to succeed Rudenstine, and Summers returned to Cambridge to become president of the university that had once rejected him. His reentry did not go smoothly. At Treasury, Summers had enjoyed the perks of power, and at Harvard he replicated as many of them as possible. When starstruck students approached him bearing dollar bills for him to autograph — bills that already bore his signature from his time as Treasury secretary — the new president was delighted to oblige. Image was important. He replaced the aging Lincoln Rudenstine had used with a brand-new Town Car. That shiny black sedan soon started popping up all over campus, with Summers's chauffeur waiting patiently inside, sometimes for hours at a time.

Summers surrounded himself with Washington veterans, but the newcomers did not go over well. Cell phones glued to their ears, they trailed Summers around campus, scribbling notes, snapping photos of their boss, fetching him Diet Cokes and pizza.

As had been the case at Treasury, Summers's closest staff members were female; he seemed to feel most relaxed in the presence of women. “Larry surrounds himself with these women who see the vulnerable side of him and think they can change him,” says one Clinton aide who worked closely with Summers. Conversely, whether at MIT, Harvard, or in Washington, virtually all the colleagues Summers considered intellectually challenging were male.

Yet Summers didn't get much credit for spending time with one woman who probably did challenge him. As early as September 2001, the campus was buzzing with the rumor that Summers, now separated from his wife, was dating conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. It was a difficult situation: Harvard hadn't had an unmarried president since 1828. There was no social code to help Summers adjust. But even if there had been, Laura Ingraham wouldn't have been Harvard's choice for an appropriate presidential girlfriend. She had written speeches for Ronald Reagan, clerked for Clarence Thomas, and authored a book slamming Hillary Clinton. She had posed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine wearing a leopard-print miniskirt.

Summers's fling with Ingraham didn't last long and was soon replaced by a more serious relationship with English professor Elisa New. A more enduring source of unease was something the campus found awkward to discuss. Harvard had a new president with — there was no other way to put it — bad manners.

When visitors came to his office, Summers propped his feet up on a table, sometimes with his shoes off. He often appeared in public with a toothpick dangling from his mouth. He repeatedly mangled the names of people he was greeting or introducing. If someone said something he deemed uninteresting or foolish, he would conspicuously roll his eyes. Other times Summers would stare into space when being spoken to, as if no one else were in the room. “Larry's always looking away,” says one junior professor. “At first you think he's scanning the room for someone more important, but no, he's just looking away.” And then there was the recurring problem of his eating and talking at the same time, during which Summers sometimes sprayed saliva on his audience.

Tellingly, the beat reporters covering the Treasury Department had never written about such peccadilloes, though many were aware of them. “He had the worst table manners of any cabinet head ever,” says one Washington Post reporter who socialized with Summers on several occasions. But readers of the paper never heard about that. Any beat reporter who made note of it would quickly find his or her access at Treasury much diminished.

The Harvard Crimson, on the other hand, repeatedly noted how Summers's lack of social graces impeded his interaction with students and faculty. The new president's manners, or lack thereof, were so widely discussed that student reporters were really just transcribing an omnipresent campus conversation.

Summers also had a bizarre habit of falling asleep in public. Eyewitnesses caught him dozing at a talk by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a lecture by United Nations head Kofi Annan, a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in Sanders Theatre, a service at Harvard Hillel, and a festival celebrating cultural diversity.

When he was more engaged by speakers, Summers often acted derisively toward them. At one fall 2001 meeting with the law-school faculty, a female professor asked a question that Summers didn't think much of. “That's a stupid question,” he responded. Later that autumn, he brusquely terminated an interview with a female journalist from the Financial Times after a disagreement over whether his remarks were on or off the record. Just as they had at Treasury, his aides insisted that Summers's style was typical of the intellectual free-for-all that characterized economics seminars and that people shouldn't take it personally. Inevitably, they did.

So great was the bewilderment over Summers's lack of social skills that some in the Harvard community wondered if there might be a clinical reason for his behavior: a neurobiological disorder called Asperger's syndrome. A form of autism, the disorder was first described by a Viennese physician named Hans Asperger in 1944. People with Asperger's, which affects mostly boys, aren't likely to have any physical disabilities. They sometimes show an extraordinary grasp of obscure topics. As a result, the condition is sometimes known as the “geek” or “little professor” syndrome. Some scientists believe Asperger's has a genetic basis, possibly present when a child has intellectually similar parents. The theory goes that in university towns and research-and-development corridors such as Silicon Valley, many highly intelligent but socially maladroit men marry women with similar characteristics, which can result in offspring with an excess of genes related to autism, Asperger's, and associated disorders.

People with Asperger's may be unnervingly smart in specific modes of thinking but have trouble functioning in rudimentary social situations. They have difficulty handling change and transition. They don't work well on teams. One on one, they won't make eye contact, instead staring at a wall or into space. While they may have excellent vocabularies, they can also be linguistically tone-deaf and use words that convey a different meaning than they intend, which can result in their sounding brusque, dismissive, or simply as if they're not listening.

To some campus observers, Summers regularly manifests all of these characteristics. No one on campus has raised the issue publicly, but to a number of faculty members — who do not appear to have spoken to one another — Asperger's explains virtually everything about Summers that seems otherwise inexplicable, including his now-famous dressing-down of Afro-American studies professor Cornel West. Half gossip, half scientific speculation, and fueled by an intense bewilderment over the president's behavior, the Asperger's theory has bubbled beneath the surface of Harvard life.

With Summers's remarks in January about women in the sciences, the questions have become even more pressing. Those comments have provoked a massive outpouring of anger from female students, faculty, and alumni, and from women all over the world. Harvard's president, they say, was legitimizing discrimination. Pointing out that the number of women receiving tenure each year at Harvard had dropped precipitously since Summers became president — down to 4 of the past 32 offers — the National Organization for Women has called for Summers's resignation. Once again, conservatives have defended him, saying that the blunt-speaking president offended only the forces of political correctness. Nonetheless, under pressure, he has issued mea culpas that have ranged from the mildly apologetic to the utterly abject. The issue seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.

Summers once told a reporter, “I don't think of leadership as a popularity contest.” Members of the Harvard community now have no doubt about that.