Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A horrible way to fill the second most powerful job in America

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Larry Summers has dropped out of contention to head the Federal Reserve
  • David Gergen: Process of filling the crucially important job has been shameful
  • He says Summers' reputation has been trashed and his merits ignored
  • Gergen: President Obama should now nominate Janet Yellen for the post

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Before the story sinks beneath the waves, a few more words are in order about the recent selection process for a new chief for the Federal Reserve: It stinks.

The chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Bank is probably the second most powerful job in the United States. In combating the financial crisis and the slow recovery, it has often been more important than the presidency. Indeed, many in other countries believe it has become the most important job in the world.

Selecting a chairperson is thus a solemn, crucial undertaking. I have only participated once -- during the process when President Reagan decided to reappoint someone first named by his Democratic predecessor, President Carter. Reagan thought long and hard and, putting aside all partisanship, wisely asked Paul Volcker to stay on. Everyone at the White House and in Congress understood how big that decision was.

David Gergen
David Gergen

We once chose our Supreme Court nominees with the same degree of deliberation and thoughtfulness on both sides of the aisle. That is, until the debacle of the Bork nomination in 1987, when the process disintegrated into a partisan brawl. Nominations of justices have been subject to undue political considerations ever since.

One can only hope that the selection process for a Fed chair in recent weeks is no precedent for the future. It has been messy, ugly and degrading to the leading candidates and could ultimately diminish the authority of the Federal Reserve itself.

I have had the privilege of counting Larry Summers as a colleague and then a friend for more than 30 years; I have known and respected Janet Yellen for more than a decade and during college was a friend of her husband, George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner in economics.

Both Summers and Yellen are superbly qualified to lead the Fed. But both were also distinctly uncomfortable with the way the process played out as a political circus, so that whoever won would carry baggage into the job. These are serious people in serious times. They -- and we -- deserve better.

To read what was being said about Larry Summers might lead you to believe that he is a Wall Street-loving, Main Street-hating misogynist who chews up colleagues for breakfast. That caricature is wildly unfair.

Without rehashing the debate -- and because I am no economist -- let me just suggest a different way to look at him. First and foremost, the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, selected Larry Summers as a principal architect of U.S. economic policy and in both cases were extremely grateful for his leadership.

It has been messy, ugly and degrading to the leading candidates.
David Gergen

CNN Money: Economists react as Summers drops out

For Clinton, Summers and Bob Rubin were mainstays in an administration when there was an explosion in jobs and the income of the bottom 20 percent actually rose faster than the top quintile.

For Obama, Summers and Tim Geithner -- along with Ben Bernanke -- were the most important players in staving off a depression and helping the economy back on a growth path, albeit slow.

In both administrations and in days since, Summers has consistently spoken in favor of closing the opportunity gaps in the country; that issue goes deep with him.

Summers does believe in the power of the marketplace and he respects the U.S. financial industry as one of the nation's prize assets, a creator of growth and jobs. But he also believes in regulation.

As columnist Ed Luce pointed out in the Financial Times on Monday, he wanted to be tougher on banks than many of his colleagues early in the Obama years. The liberal Democrats who have chased him with pitchforks over repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 conveniently forget that it passed the House by 362--57 with Democrats voting in favor by 3-1. Nor do they take any responsibility for doing anything to correct it in the eight years between passage and the economic crisis. Nor do they admit that it had precious little to do with causing the crash.

Larry Summers is by no means perfect, but in the din of recent weeks, it has been hard to keep things in perspective. Yes, he was very clumsy in his comments about female scientists while at Harvard -- but he clearly did not mean to say that women are somehow inferior and he apologized repeatedly for his clumsiness. Who would have known from the past few weeks how many women like Sheryl Sandberg have worked for him and are fierce champions for him?

Yes, he can be difficult in interpersonal conversations. He is tough minded and likes to joust intellectually. But is that a disqualification for strong leadership of a major organization? If so, we would never have heard of Steve Jobs or Jack Welch.

One could go on but the point should be clear: This was a terrible process in which injustices have been done. The president and his White House staff obviously bear part of the blame. So do those who have rushed to the barricades, turning out press releases and petitions.

The only way it could get worse is for the president, as suggested by the press, to turn away suddenly from Janet Yellen out of annoyance with liberal Democrats or because he feels he has been boxed in. This is a decision that must be made strictly on the merits. Larry Summers had the grace to make the right decision. Now the president must make the right decision in choosing Janet Yellen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT