A Summers tale
The modish nonsense word of the moment is "narrative." "The bailout narrative is changing on Capitol Hill"; "The narrative of the black politician has been altered forever"; and so on. It means "story" or "story line" and is often used in tandem with the vaporous Hollywood nonsense word "arc."
This column concerns the Larry Summers narrative, which has been changing in some very interesting ways.
Story Line 1, c. 2001: Fresh from the Bill Clinton cabinet, Larry Summers assumes the Harvard presidency. The accepted narrative is that he's a cage-rattler who will get the university moving again after the genteel torpor of the Neil Rudenstine years.
Fast forward to Story Lines 2 and 2A, c. 2006: Summers leaves Harvard in disgrace . . . or does he? The ex-president and his press-savvy paladins quickly push a counter-narrative, seized on by op-ed typists across the land: Harvard's pampered, super-liberal faculty couldn't handle Larry's brand of hard-headed, 21st-century realpolitik. Plus, look at all the good he did: The World's Greatest University became the World's Even More Astonishingly Rich University with a $30 billion-plus endowment and a whole new campus under construction. In 02138 code, the line was: He may not have been a Greek (a thinker), but he was a Roman (a builder).
Now, as Summers prates and japes on the national stage as Barack Obama's chief economic adviser, the tale of his Cambridge tenancy is mutating.
It's true that everyone is a hero in up markets, and down markets demonize whomever happens to be around. "Summers probably feels he could have handled the downturn if he had been permitted to stay," economic columnist David Warsh wrote this week. "But a substantial reinterpretation of the overall [Harvard economic] story is underway."
Immediately after Obama's election, Sandberg boomed Summers for an administration job, in a fulsome Huffington Post column. Excerpts: "A supportive and deeply caring mentor for me . . . our nation has few economists with his intelligence" blah blah blah.
It is no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that Harvard hired its first big-time compliance cop - a vice provost for research - only after Summers left Massachusetts Hall. Such policemen are quite common at major universities.
What does it all mean? Summers has more pressing concerns than to worry about how he's perceived in area code 617; he's busy printing new money to finance Obamanomics. The new Larry Summers narrative does bode well for the current president, Drew Faust. Comparisons are odious, but as Summers' stock declines, hers rises proportionately.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is email@example.com.