But Summers never came to grips with, or perhaps recognized, the special problem of the supremely self-regarding culture. As it happens, I have written about just such situations before, and have even, when Tina Brown was editor of The New Yorker, worked at one. (Full disclosure: I was not one of Tina's favorite writers.) One thing I've learned is that the wise steward of such majestic institutions says, or at least is understood to say, "I love this place so much that I will not accept anything less than the best."Speaking of disappointing "fresh blood"-type recruited leaders, whoever expected that the only good thing to come of Larry Brown's first year as Knicks coach would be that short little Nate Robinson would win the slam dunk contest? ("Iguodala was robbed" is the new "Scorcese was robbed"--his finale dunk was just as bland as Leo's Howard Hughes!) The Knicks are currently two losses out of dead last in the league, on track to finish the season with 46 fewer wins than Brown's old Pistons (sorry for the math, ladies)--a failure on par with Talk Magazine!
Summers had a gift for arming, rather than disarming, his audience. One of his own aides described for me a famously contentious meeting with Law School faculty at which, he said, "Larry told them he wasn't going to pay any attention to their views, when in fact he was going to be listening to their views." Summers so offended his own preferred candidate to head the Graduate School of Education, whom he subjected to a withering cross-examination, that she changed her mind about taking the position until members of the school interceded.
You do, of course, have to wonder about professional intellectuals who get so wobbly under cross-examination. Harvard professors appear to be accustomed to a level of deference that few of us on the other side of those Ivy walls could ever expect. Clearly this had much to do with the fabled Cornel West affair, when the president grievously offended this overhyped superstar by tendering what Summers apparently regarded as delicate hints on matters such as grade inflation and the production of serious academic work. Summers was right, as he generally was. But he never intended to insult West. In fact, he had no idea that he had insulted West. Summers himself wouldn't have been offended, and it never crossed his mind that Cornel West might be made of different material than Larry Summers, or that West might need to hear some malarkey along the lines of, "I love your work so much that I don't want to accept anything less than the best."
Wow, that came together rather nicely.