News & Politics

Do Obama and Geithner Have the Same Flaw: Accommodation Instead of Moral Action?

Tim Geithner has a long history of caving to moral pressures and smoothing over colossal failures. But his personality is much like Obama. Maybe that's how he keeps his job.

A lot of us have been wondering, despondently, why the Hell Barack Obama is keeping Timothy Geithner on the job as Treasury Secretary, given his central role in the plunder of trillions of dollars from American taxpayers, and his record of subverting democracy in the service of Wall Street billionaires. Geithner's the guy that drove the getaway car in the heist -- so why was he hired to run the Treasury? You'd expect to see a guy as corrupt as Geithner serving as the Finance Minister in some Central Asian autocracy -- but not in Barack Obama's government, not after all he promised in the campaign.



Maybe a better question is: Why did Obama choose Geithner in the first place? On the surface, those two are supposed to be on relatively opposite ends of the American spectrum: Geithner is an East Coast Republican blue-blood whose catastrophic tenure at the New York Fed represented everything Obama -- a half-Kenyan liberal Democrat from America's western-most state -- promised to change for the better.



The most recent hope-crushing revelation about Geithner -- emails showing that the New York Fed under Geithner's watch forced AIG to lie to the public in order cover up tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that were being funneled through AIG and out the backdoor to top financial institutions like Goldman Sachs -- proves once and for all that Geithner is the worst choice imaginable for the job. He's the epitome of the sort of incompetence, sleaze and corruption that Bush specialized in -- so why did Obama name him, and why is he sticking by him?



So far the most convincing rational explanation I've read comes from William Black, the former Savings & Loan investigator-hero who understands public-private corruption in this country like few others. Prof. Black, like a true prosecutor, puts Geithner's rise to head the Treasury in simple crime-world terms: he's there to cover up his own heist. All across the board, as Black has pointed out, the same perps who caused the collapse of the financial system and the looting of all those trillions are all in positions of power to cover up their crimes, and keep the details out of the public eye.



But there are also other, deeper, personal reasons too. I came across some rather disturbing biographical similarities between Obama and Geithner that show why Obama might be more comfortable with a guy like Geithner on a deeper, mammalian level.



Even though Geithner and Obama come from such different backgrounds and from different political parties, both have strikingly similar temperaments -- both earned reputations as conciliators and centrists in campus debates at their respective Ivy League schools, over the very same hot-button issue: affirmative action.



In the early 1980s, when little Tim Geithner was a student at Dartmouth (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather), he reportedly made his first big mark on campus by inserting himself in the middle of a nasty battle over the university's affirmative action program. The reason it got so nasty was because the anti-affirmative action movement was being led by the notoriously racist, homophobic Dartmouth Review, a new student paper founded while Geithner was a student, funded and patronized by some of the biggest names in the emerging American rightwing: Irving Kristol (Bill Kristol's daddy), William Buckley of the National Review, and the conservative Republican Jack Kemp. The Dartmouth Review's editor at that time was Dinesh D'Souza, an Indian immigrant eager to play the suck-up waterboy to the university's white rightwing elite -- even if that meant being their dark-skinned face of elitist white racism.



Under D'Souza's editorship, the Review not only attacked the very same affirmative action that helped D'Souza get into Dartmouth, but it also published the sort of rank racist drivel that would have made George Wallace wince. One such article was described as a "lighthearted interview with a former Klan leader" -- which D'Souza illustrated with a staged photo of a black man hanging from a tree on Dartmouth's campus. Another Review article on affirmative action was even more racist: It was headlined "Dis Sho Ain't No Jive, Bro," and it included lines such as, "Now we be comin' to Dartmut and be up over our 'fros in studies, but we still be not graduatin' Phi Beta Kappa." It was so offensive that even Jack Kemp, a hero in the National Review rightwing crowd, resigned from the Dartmouth Review's advisory board in disgust.



Young Tim Geithner was a student at Dartmouth at the same time D'Souza was -- meaning he saw the whole thing develop. When the racist articles were published, the student body was practically in revolt, and according to a Bloomberg article published last year, some students were so pissed off they were gearing up to mob-attack D'Souza. That would have been the sane, decent thing to do -- hunt D'Souza down brand "Suck-Up" across his forehead. But little Timothy Geithner, the "natural mediator," was more concerned with keeping things as they were, playing the role of human lubricant. Some today might think that this shows something decent and solid in Geithner's character -- but in fact, it reveals a total absence of ethical engagement, and instead, a natural willingness to preserve the status quo, no matter how warped and loathsome that status quo is. D'Souza should have been chased out of America and out of the Western Hemisphere for good; but Geithner saved him, according to a Bloomberg article:





From his years as a Dartmouth College student and mid-level Treasury official through his stint at the New York Fed, Geithner, 47, has thrived as a backroom negotiator and conciliator.



Geithner's knack for diplomacy surfaced in the midst of student demonstrations over affirmative action. The Dartmouth Review, a student biweekly, was edited by Dinesh D'Souza, a social conservative who later rose to prominence with books attacking multiculturalism and feminism.



The Review lambasted what it called Dartmouth's liberal bias and its minority admission policies, riling many students. During gatherings in which some students said D'Souza should be attacked, Geithner calmed them down, proposing that they start an alternative publication, says Rudelson, the former roommate. Geithner kept his distance from the new publication, called the Harbinger, occasionally taking photos for it.



"He was always the natural mediator," Rudelson says. "He had this amazing ability to listen to people, no matter how extreme their views might be."



So we can see early on in his life that Timothy Geither, even when confronted with the most obvious ethical choice -- fighting racism -- our Treasury Secretary chose instead to protect and preserve both the racists and the anti-racists. And that is another way of saying, Geithner protected the bad guys. After all, they're the ones who needed to be preserved -- they needed a "mediator" who legitimized their presence, a mediator who appeared to be "in the middle" and "without an agenda" to preserve and protect them. Geithner was that man.



The result: D'Souza went on to become a highly-influential rightwing author and an inspiration to scores of waffentwerps, earning millions for himself by promoting racism and bashing the disadvantaged. One of D'Souza's first proteges was that human lamprey and radio host Laura Ingraham, whose first big article for D'Souza was to publish the names of students who belonged to Dartmouth's Gay & Lesbian Union. Many students were devastated by the outing: One gay student reportedly dropped out, and another reportedly attempted suicide. (Ingraham's brother, ironically enough, was gay.)



Ingraham later dated Larry Summers, who was Geithner's boss in the 1990s, and whom Obama picked to run the economy from the White House. Summers, as we know, created controversy while he was president at Harvard by picking fights with prominent African-American academics, and his claims that women were genetically inferior at mathematics and science. You can see how this depressing picture is starting to come together -- because Obama picked these guys to run our economy.



Anyway getting back to Obama-Geithner -- in the early 1990s, a decade after Geithner protected D'Souza from a mob of angry students, Barack Obama found himself in a similar situation at Harvard law school. Obama had been named the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, meaning he had to take a stand on one of the biggest issues dividing the law school's students: affirmative action. Keep in mind that, without affirmative action, it's unlikely that Barack Obama would have been where he was, at Harvard Law, the first African-American editor of the esteemed school's legal magazine. Not because Obama wasn't qualified, but because affirmative action made it harder for the entrenched white elite to keep all the slots to themselves.



So how did Obama handle the battle between rightwing anti-affirmative action students and liberals? Just like Geithner would have. According to a profile a couple of years ago in the Boston Globe:





Classmates recall an especially emotional debate in the spring of 1990 over affirmative action, which conservative students wanted to abolish.



Presiding over an assembly of 60 mostly white editors in a law school classroom, Obama listened to impassioned pleas and pressed conservatives to explain their reasoning and liberals to sharpen their thinking. But he never spoke about his own point of view or mentioned that he believed he had benefited from affirmative action. "If anybody had walked by, they would have assumed he was a professor," said Thomas J. Perrelli, a classmate and former counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. "He was leading the discussion but he wasn't trying to impose his own perspective on it. He was much more mediating."



Obama was so evenhanded and solicitous in his interactions that fellow students would do impressions of his Socratic chin-stroking approach to everything, even seeking a consensus on popcorn preferences at the movies. "Do you want salt on your popcorn?" one classmate, Nancy L. McCullough, recalled, mimicking his sensitive bass voice. "Do you even want popcorn?"



So you can start to see why Obama's press spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters that the President has "full confidence" in Geithner. They're peas in a pod. In more ways than just their temperament.



To most of us, this sort of one-note obsession with conciliation and even-temperedness seems ill-suited to the times and circumstances. This country doesn't need the status quo maintained, it needs a complete change of the way this country is run, and the type of people running it. But if you were one of the plutocrats, you'd have a different view of things. You'd want to preserve what you'd plundered, and hire some human buffers to get between you and the 300 million Americans you'd ripped off. And as the record shows, you couldn't choose two more perfect, reliable buffers than Tim Geithner and Barack Obama. Geithner, we know, was hired and promoted at the NY Fed and then at Treasury to do precisely that -- make sure that the heist went off smoothly and to keep the mobs away from the plutocrats. So now the question is, is that why so much of the establishment, including Wall Street, also got behind Barack Obama? Did they look at his record, and his temperament, and say, "This guy's just like Timmy. Only better."


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Further Note:In one of those too-bizarre-to-be-true coincidences, when Barack Obama's mother ran a microcredit program in Indonesia funded by the Ford Foundation, it was Tim Geithner's father, Peter Geithner, who disbursed the money on behalf of the Ford Foundation. Both Barack and Tim spent a part of their childhoods growing up in Southeast Asia, thanks to their parents' work. Of further interest is the fact that the Ford Foundation -- which Geithner's dad ran in Indonesia -- was a well-known CIA front in Indonesia's savage anti-communist civil war in the 1960s.