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Judging Kagan

Larry Summers, relentlessly smart and just as abrasive, saved Elena Kagan’s career. It’s not going to help his, though.

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Illustration by Adam Garcia  

I t’s not often that the National Journal describes a government economist as “brilliant, bullying, and packing an ego the size of the national debt,” but then Larry Summers isn’t your normal government economist. Certainly, the former Treasury secretary under Clinton and president of Harvard is a genius, but his lack of politesse is just as notable: According to Jonathan Alter’s new Obama book The Promise, the president nicknamed him “Dr. Kevorkian” for this reason and even “privately supported Harvard’s decision to fire Summers” because he “clearly lacked the ‘diplomatic skill set’ for the Harvard presidency.” Instead of getting Treasury back, or running the Fed—either of which he desperately wanted—Summers currently toils in the unglamorous post of director of the National Economic Council.

Contrast his fate with that of his protégée, Elena Kagan, whom he’d gotten to know working on tobacco legislation during the Clinton administration. Were it not for Summers, she would probably be grading law-school finals right now rather than prepping for her Senate confirmation hearings. After swiftly passing through the legal meritocracy’s Stations of the Cross—Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, Chicago Law professor, and associate White House counsel—Kagan encountered her first professional setback in 1999, when the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee effectively killed her nomination by Clinton to serve as an appellate judge on the D.C. Circuit. She went to lick her wounds as a visiting professor at Harvard Law, eventually getting tenure there in 2001. And that’s where she might still be, teaching civil procedure and writing about administrative law, if Summers hadn’t made her the law school’s dean in 2003.

It was still relatively early in Summers’s tumultuous five-year tenure as Harvard president, but he was already ruffling feathers. In Kagan, he saw a kindred spirit. She did shake things up, from offering free tampons in the ladies’ rooms to devising a new core curriculum. But, unlike her boss, Kagan managed to do it without pissing everyone off. “I think she knocked a few heads,” a Harvard Law colleague told the Boston Globe last year. “But she worked by and large by persuasion.” While she, like Summers, is viewed suspiciously by some on the left—Salon’s Glenn Greenwald calls her “a blank slate, institution-loyal, seemingly principle-free careerist”—she’s been careful never to give her opponents any openings. “She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life,” one of her Harvard colleagues told the Times last week. In other words, she’s the opposite of Summers, a sometimes appealingly unfastidious man who unappealingly seeks out confrontation.

Summers now finds himself in the increasingly familiar position of watching a former underling pass him by. Tim Geithner, who was Summers’s protégé at Treasury, beat him out for that job and, more important, usually wins the backing of Obama when he and Summers disagree on policy. Even the deputy Treasury secretary, Neal Wolin, who served as the department’s general counsel under Summers, arguably now has more bureaucratic juice than his old boss. Now Kagan, already solicitor general, is up for the high court.

For Summers, this can’t be easy. Which is presumably why there are often rumors—sometimes in the form of damaging leaks from his enemies—that he will soon be leaving the NEC. But if Summers’s next step is unclear (“A university presidency isn’t going to happen,” The Atlantic’s Josh Green deadpanned), with Kagan, his reputation as a talent scout is assured.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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