Rapport With Reporters

Although Larry Summers has given the media plenty of ammunition over the course of his career, journalists who covered him in Washington say he was never willing to give the press a blank check. He would challenge reporters on a regular basis, veteran journalists recall, often questioning their conclusions and making a point of explaining his side of the story.

“I think what made Larry a very effective public official, particularly in talking to reporters, was that he would let you in on his thinking,” says David E. Sanger ’82, a reporter with the New York Times who is also a Crimson editor. “He would argue with views that he saw in the paper. If I wrote something that he thought was misguided, he would call up and tell me why.”

Sanger and Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof ’81, who is also a Crimson editor, spoke at a panel with Summers at their 20th anniversary Harvard reunion—a discussion Sanger says yielded some pointed media criticism from the press-weathered University President.

“He was hilarious in his criticisms of the New York Times, and me in particular,” Sanger recalls. “Basically he [attacked] the certainty that the Times has that we’re right when we’re describing a set of events—the exact same critique one hears about Larry.”

For his part, Summers says that while media attention is distracting, it is part of being at Harvard. And while he has certainly become more reluctant to grant interviews since he became University president, he has formed close personal relationships with several of the journalists who covered him earlier in his career.

Sanger recalls a time several years ago when Summers came to his house and offered advice about Hodgkin’s Disease—an affliction familiar to Summers that Sanger had recently been diagnosed with.

“[That’s] another side of Larry that people rarely see,” he says. “I was sick five years ago with the same thing that Larry had had many years before, and he was terrific. He called me up and came by to visit and said immediately what the doctors were going to do. Here’s what to listen to, [he said,] and here’s what to ignore. It was very straightforward, and he was right.”

Sanger explains that the press corps would routinely travel with Summers, and reporters from the Wall Street Journal recall flying with him on his whirlwind tour of Asia in 1998. According to several accounts, Summers usually treated unfamiliar journalists with a tightlipped cautiousness, keeping much of what he said “off the record,” but as he grew better acquainted with them, he would quickly grow comfortable, friendly, and invariably frank.