A Washington reporter’s review of Barofsky’s book is unintentionally revealing

Shield's up!

Jackie Calmes’s review of Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout, to me, says so much more about Washington press culture than it does about the book, which I’m reading and which Calmes didn’t like at all.

It’s not the dubious factual assertions, which Yves Smith and others argue against, or even this remarkably complacent view of the crisis and aftermath:

As ugly and flawed as the rescue process was, and as galling as Wall Street’s revived bravado and bonuses can be to most Americans, the fact remains that an economic collapse was averted, and that Main Street is recovering: slowly, but typically so for recessions brought on by credit crises.

It’s that the tone of the review positively drips of Washington-insiderism, starting from the top where Calmes describes the book as “populist,” which, as I’ve written, is code for something which is unsophisticated and unwise even if it might be popular, or perhaps because it‘s popular.

She (almost audibly) sniffs that the book adds “little of substance” to crisis literature, then cites, of all the books, On the Brink, by Hank Paulson, and Too Big to Fail, by fellow Timesman Andrew Ross Sorkin, as well as In Fed We Trust, by David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal. I haven’t read the last one (and I won’t hold Calmes’s citation against it), but to cite the first two as representing the crisis books in print says plenty. Sorkin’s book is the Wall Street’s-eye view, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It is, as I said in my review, an “example of access journalism par excellance.”

And Paulson? Wow.

In fact, Barofsky’s book is the diametric opposite of those first two books. He “adds” a (semi) inside view of wholesale regulatory capture by the financial industry of its purported overseers. To me, that’s substantive.

Barofsky “adds,” for instance, a conversation with Herbert Allison, a former top executive of Merrill Lynch and Fannie Mae (lovely resume there), who came out of
retirement to run the bank-rescue program for the Treasury Department. Over drinks, he basically tells Barofsky to think about his career and lay off. “Have you thought at all about what you’ll be doing next?” he asks.

This is an extended, on-the-record passage—Allison won’t shut up, despite Barofsky’s attempts to steer him off the awkward topic. It ends with Barofsky musing that Allison wasn’t really threatening him but “was, in a very Washington way, sincerely trying to be helpful.”

Calmes takes the last bit as an admission of some sort and says it shows how the episode, “embodies the contradictions and inconsistencies throughout Mr. Barofsky’s account.”

Um, no. If you read the passage, Barofsky’s observation is neither contradictory nor inconsistent. Allison was trying to be helpful. That’s the problem. The anecdote is actually devastating, and, as Barofsky suggests, all too revealing about Washington elite culture, including, and this is important, regulatory culture. This is what we call “substance.” What’s remarkable about the passage, the “problem,” if you will, is the degree to which it violates DC press norms by putting such a conversation on the record.

And finally, there’s this snarky description of the book:

Mr. Barofsky, a former Manhattan prosecutor, is the idealistic alien sent in an emergency to Planet Washington, where he does battle with the self-important, self-serving powers entrenched there or simply taking a spin through its revolving door to Wall Street. He is SIGTARP (in Washington-speak, the Special Inspector General for TARP). But ultimately he is outmatched, and evil triumphs over good.

As you can imagine, I don’t think that’s a terribly reliable summary. But even it if is, the passage, and the rest of the review, suggest that because Barofsky views the financial crisis through a frankly moral prism, he’s either not very bright or there’s something wrong with him.

That’s the DC press corps’s problem, not Barofsky’s.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.