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Fed Faceoff: Website runs anonymous attack on Larry Summers

FedChairCandidates.jpg

This photo combo shows Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, left, and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. (AP)

Howard Kurtz’s “Media Buzz” program debuts this Sunday at 11 a.m. EST.

The Obama administration is involved in another campaign that has nothing to do with Syria.

It’s the surprisingly public horse race for chairman of the Federal Reserve.

So public that the Huffington Post has a piece in which a “former senior White House official," who is allowed to take potshots from behind a curtain of anonymity, insists that Larry Summers must not get the job.

The reported finalists are Summers, the former Treasury secretary, and Janet Yellen, the Fed’s vice chairman. Yellen's candidacy also gives the media the chance to pounce on a royal gender battle, as she would be the first woman to lead the institution. The New York Times and Washington Post have big pieces today about Summers being on the verge of getting the prize. 

If memory serves, a president picking a Fed chairman has always been a quiet, behind-the-scenes affair. Sure, there are leaks about this or that potential candidate, but nothing like the dramatic showdown that has emerged in the race to succeed Ben Bernanke.

It’s not helpful to the administration that the messiness has spilled into public view. President Obama probably guaranteed that when he mounted a public defense of Summers, who came under withering criticism for his abrasive style when his name surfaced in the press. 

It was reminiscent of Obama’s impassioned defense of Susan Rice over the Benghazi talking points before he decided against naming her secretary of state.

But what makes the process especially surreal is that the stakes here involve not a Cabinet job, but that of an economic czar who, once appointed, is independent of the president. 

It might be the most important nomination, short of any Supreme Court vacancies, that Obama makes in his second term.

In the Huffington Post story, the former top official says of a Summers nomination: 

“I think it would be very problematic. He's smart on many topics; I don't think monetary policy or regulatory policy is the area where he's actually smart or particularly good. I think the possibility of severe dysfunction at the Fed is the most worrisome part of all of this. Exactly the skills you need in the modern world to get things through in the Open Market Committee -- you need to win people over behind a mixture of the strength of your arguments and your ability to persuade -- and that is not where Larry is going to be good."

This person says a Summers appointment “would be a bad enough thing that I have certainly damaged my relationships with people in the administration, because I think it really does need to be stopped, so that's why I'm willing to do something.”

But not willing to go on the record. Even though administration officials apparently know who the person is. So since his or her job is not at stake, what exactly is the rationale for using the blind quotes (from someone who insists Summers is a “friend”)?

By the way, when Obama defended Summers for not pushing a larger stimulus bill in a closed door meeting with House Democrats, he cautioned them “not to believe everything you read in the Huffington Post,” according to one lawmaker.

The rest of the media, not surprisingly, have covered it like a campaign, as if there were PACs and polls and front-runner status. 

The New York Times even endorsed Yellen in an editorial, saying “no one else can match Janet Yellen’s combination of academic credentials and policy-making experience.” 

The Washington Post ran a tale-of-the-tape piece on how the two contenders stack up. 

"(Summers') supporters rave about his intellect while conceding he can be prickly and supercilious and is better known for winning arguments than building consensus,” the Post says.

The paper says Yellen benefits from a “gender issue” that “is all the more prominent because Summers was forced to resign as president of Harvard in 2006, in part because of comments he made raising questions about whether women were skilled in math and science.”

Columnist Michael Wolff says it’s all about the gender card. 

“Janet Yellen's stand-out credential is that she is a woman," he writes. "Larry Summers' main drawback — or, certainly, among his most conspicuous characteristics — is that he is not.”

Paul Krugman says Obama’s inner circle has made “a gratuitous mess of this one.” 

Summers, says the New York Times columnist, “been carefully cultivating an image as a Very Serious Person, in a world where VSP-ness has gone from a source of cachet to being a liability on both right and left.”

Yellen’s “ face-off with Summers has evoked the passions of a baseball pennant race,” says USA Today, “with Washington's political elite lining up behind one or the other candidate. Senate Democrats signed a petition backing Yellen in July. Even singer and actress Bette Midler weighed in, tweeting her worries about Summers' resistance to regulating banks before the financial crisis.”

What’s curious here is that neither Summers nor Yellen can say a word in support of their candidacy, at least not publicly. But, like a campaign, one will be seen as a winner and the other a clear loser once the president makes his pick.

Jeff Bezos Addresses the Troops

A decade ago, when New York Times staffers were revolting against their editors during the Jayson Blair fiasco, I called plenty of people to piece together an account of an uproar at a staff meeting. The Times, not surprisingly, carried not a word.

I thought I might have to make similar calls to find out what happened when Jeff Bezos held a town hall at his new property, the Washington Post.

Guess I’m in the wrong decade. The whole thing was live-tweeted.

Some highlights from Erik Wemple and other staffers:

The Amazon founder was untroubled that he now owns a newspaper even though his company often refuses to comment on stories, saying “I’ve always felt that the most powerful minds in the world can hold powerful inconsistencies.” (Nice dodge!)

Will he remake the Post’s editorial page? Most of its positions “line up” with “mine anyway” (and besides, he doesn’t know much about Syria).

Bezos worries about a product that is 100 percent ad-supported, because you “start thinking your customer is advertisers.”

What about his relationship with the D.C. community, of which Don Graham is such an integral part? “I will never out-Don Don.”

The new boss should be proud. That’s the Internet in action.

Media Buzz, hosted by Howard Kurtz, airs on Sundays at 11AM and 5PM ET on Fox News Channel.