'It Seems to Me' Now Always How it Seems to Them

President Summers' speaking style is not the stuff of Cicero, but he's learning to adapt

"Much as I admire the movie ‘Love Story,’” Lawrence H. Summers said in his inaugural address four years ago, “I do not believe that being president means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Indeed.

Faced with the wrath of an embittered Faculty, Summers spent a harried spring semester offering every conceivable variation of mea culpa: not apologizing (“I was trying to provoke discussion”), not really apologizing (“I’m sorry for any misunderstanding”), apologizing (“I made a big mistake”), and apologizing again (“I was wrong”).

In his first four years at Harvard, Summers has slowly discovered that his words, often more so than his actions, come loaded with a high potential to inflame the University. For a man who has never quite chosen his words delicately, it has been a hard lesson to learn.

“I certainly do intend to continue to engage in intellectual discussion,” Summers said in an interview this February, “but I’ve certainly learned some important lessons from this experience about choice of words, choice of subjects, the posing of hypotheses, and other things.”

Still, Summers has shown something of an innate ability to offend his audience—even when he’s trying his hardest not to.

At the Fong Auditorium in March, Summers was nothing but praiseworthy in his introduction of Helen Vendler, the Porter University professor, whom he called “a remarkable person.” But several humanities professors came away miffed by a comment Summers made in attempting to stress the importance of Vendler’s contributions to literary analysis.

Summers said that while other disciplines, from architecture to mathematics, would endure even without Harvard’s efforts, the humanities would not. “If the University does not foster, nourish, and sustain humanistic study, I don’t know where in our society that will happen,” he said.

“It was really remarkable,” recalled a humanities professor who asked not to be named. “Summers was clearly trying to throw us a bone, but instead he ended up calling our field of study irrelevant outside of academia. What?”

‘MY BEST GUESS, TO PROVOKE YOU’

Summers’ most incendiary—nay, provocative—remarks often begin innocently enough with his favorite phrase, “It seems to me...”

Speaking in Jerusalem this past December, Summers revived his criticism of campus activists who two years prior had called on the University to divest from companies conducting business in Israel.

“It did seem to me to suggest that serious and thoughtful people were advocating and taking actions that were anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent,” Summers said. “It seemed so to me then, and it seems so to me now.”

In that roughly 40-minute speech, Summers managed to utter some variation of the phrase “it seems to me” a whopping 18 times. At the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in January, when Summers ruminated on the intrinsic aptitude of women, he said “it seems to me” eight times, more often than he said the word “science,” which garnered only seven mentions in a speech that was about science. Summers says “it seems to me” the way most people say “um.”

Why this vernacular habit? Benjamin Franklin called it “modest diffidence,” advising orators to avoid “the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.” A spoonful of humility, Franklin argued, helps the assertion go down.

But Summers’ audiences are frequently unimpressed by his qualifying remarks. His speech on women and science, as Summers has repeatedly pointed out, included such caveats as “my best guess, to provoke you” and “if my reading of the data is right” and “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.” Yet many of those who heard the talk pointed out Summers was still stating his opinion, no matter how often he qualified it.

Indeed, when Summers first said calls for divestment from Israel were anti-Semitic, in a speech at Memorial Church in September 2002, he concluded by saying, “I would like nothing more than to be wrong.” But to most observers on both sides of the issue, Summers clearly thought he was right.

‘A LITTLE BIT OF A REPUTATION’

The president’s speaking style, by his own admission, is not the stuff of Cicero. But to compensate for his oratorical shortcomings, Summers has mastered an essential art of public speaking: making fun of himself.

“An economist is someone who’s pretty good with figures but doesn’t quite have the personality to be an accountant,” Summers told alumni donors at the annual assembly of the Harvard College Fund last year. And at events outside Harvard, where he is often introduced with effusive praise, Summers frequently begins with a line cribbed from Lyndon B. Johnson. “Thank you very, very much for that overly kind introduction,” he said in Israel this December. “My father would have appreciated it, and my mother would have believed it.”

Summers’ penchant for self-deprecation has proven especially useful this semester as his speaking engagements have occurred under the specter of his comments on women in science. Professor of Public Service David R. Gergen—onetime adviser to Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and now Summers—has been largely responsible for the profusion of modesty and self-effacing humor in Summers’ speeches of late, according to a former Mass. Hall staffer who asked not to be named. Gergen did not respond to a request for comment through his assistant.

Speaking to the parents of junior undergraduates in Sanders Theatre this March, Summers addressed the elephant in the room early in his speech. “Since you may have heard I’ve got a little bit of a reputation for being provocative,” he said, “I’ll leave a few minutes to respond to anybody’s provocative question or comment that they want to ask.” (As it turned out, the parents had plenty to say; one father yelled out from the audience to call Summers a “jerk.”)

Humor helped defuse an uncomfortable situation for Summers in March at the physics department library, where he took questions from an audience largely unhappy with his record on women in science. Lisa Randall ’83, a professor of physics and harsh critic of Summers, was enlisted to introduce the president but could barely muster a kind word. “We’re perplexed how you could draw those conclusions,” Randall said of Summers’ NBER remarks, “given the lack of evidence.” Then she rolled her eyes and, sensing the awkwardness, blurted “sorry” before sitting down.

“Of all the introductions I’ve ever received,” Summers said, “that was surely the most recent.” Laughter broke the tension.

As he prepares to address his largest crowd of the year this afternoon, Summers will have to decide whether to reference the controversy that defined the past semester and will undoubtedly be on the minds of his audience. But women in science certainly won’t be the topic of his speech. “I expect to talk about the global development challenge and Harvard’s role within it,” Summers said in an interview last week. He added, “My focus will be on looking forward.”

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.