It is an unfortunate truth of cinema that the third movie in a trilogy is necessary but often poorly executed. Take “Return of the Jedi.” Sure, we needed to know what happened in the storyline, but did we need the Ewoks? Did anyone watch “Jurassic Park III?” Didn’t think so. How about “Back to the Future III?” Ok, a decent ending, but that western business was straight corn. And let’s not even discuss “The Godfather III.” Sofia Coppola “dying” on the stairs at the end? Nearly ruined the entire franchise. The third movie in the trilogy is fraught with peril—you overexpose a plotline, force a storyline, or even just annoy your audience as they get to know the characters too well. Trilogies are risky business.
Why am I talking about movies? I’m really not. I’m talking about trilogies. Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men” was recommended to me by someone I respect, and was described as the third book in a trilogy that would also include “Too Big to Fail” and “The Big Short” (reviewed earlier on this blog). Given that I enjoyed both of those books tremendously, I overcame my skepticism about Suskind (he was criticized for reporting some incidents that the Obama administration denied), and bought the book.
My friend is right (and I apologize for shamelessly stealing his trilogy premise): “Confidence Men” should absolutely be sold as if it were part of a trilogy with the abovementioned books. It is the missing piece of the great story of our recent national recession and global financial meltdown. “Too Big To Fail” covers the story with the dateline of Wall Street; “The Big Short” is set in the basements and windowless rooms where renegade investors discovered a fatal weakness in our markets. And “Confidence Men” comes to us straight from our nation’s capital.
But it is also the least impressive of the three works. Among the three, Andrew Ross Sorkin is the master storyteller; his effort is almost difficult to believe as he describes the wild drama that happened over several weeks on Wall Street. And Michael Lewis is a Ken Burns-style documentarian, easing us into complex concepts as if he were a Calculus PhD teaching eighth grade. Suskind is neither; his book is part-history, part analysis.
At times, “Confidence Men” is a narrative of the financial crisis as seen from Washington. At other times, it is a political story, focused on the politics of 2008-2011, and how the administration got its sea legs (or didn’t, I guess, depending on your perspective). And at other points, it’s a straight psycho-analysis of the personalities and styles of the nation’s leaders. If that’s not enough, it’s also a look at several people loosely associated with the crisis, told from a very human perspective.
I had to reconcile my feelings that this book wasn’t as good as the other two, yet it was also strong reporting of a critical perspective to the overall story.
More than anything, Suskind’s theme is clear. Throughout the book, Suskind repeatedly shows how the government and high financiers felt their main job was to project confidence in the markets, the banks, and to an extent, the government. But his title is also a play on words, not-so-subtly suggesting that the men he is writing about are, in fact, con men. It’s a bold statement, but by the conclusion, you wonder if in fact that term isn’t so far off.
He sums up his skepticism nicely:
“The confidence of the nation rests on trust and can endure for years after this trust has been broken. But it cannot endure indefinitely if the foundation of trust is not at some point earned…Separating the two—gaining the trust without earning it—is the age-old work of confidence men.”
Suskind repeatedly references the nexus between official Washington and New York high finance, and at first it is interesting. Quickly it becomes daunting. And by the end, it’s grotesque. His distaste for both Washington and New York is palpable. While he uncovers certain redeeming characters in each place of power, overall, Suskind seems to acknowledge the revolving door that exists between the powerful in DC and NY is troubling.
The author picked favorites in the book, and perhaps that’s one reason he was pilloried in the press so soon after “Confidence Men” was published. He dislikes Tim Geithner and loves Gary Gensler. Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren is preferred over Harvard’s Lawrence Summers. And Romer trumps Rahmbo.
Another reason Suskind may have been criticized by some is because he wanted to sell books. Many of the juicy tidbits that got cable TV tongues wagging and official Washington gossiping, existed solely to sell books. The book could have existed without these kinds of anecdotes; indeed it may have been better. But then again, maybe no one would have read it.
Bottom line, I thought this was an important work. It’s not as impressive as “Too Big To Fail” and not as instructive as “The Big Short.” But it matters. Suskind rightly covers the health care bill as much as he does the economic response. He uncovers flaws in Obama’s leadership style and he builds a case that the President may have been in over his head at times. He also gives the President plenty of credit for navigating difficult waters and making the appropriate course corrections in his leadership style. It’s a first draft and maybe not a perfect one, but as contemporary non-fiction goes, it’s a useful work.
Thanks for reading.