Saturday, July 11, 2009

My lunch with Larry

By Chrystia Freeland

Larry Summers, head of Barack Obama's National Economic Council, usually eats at his White House desk, which I imagine to be quite grand, yet nonetheless a desk. At times, perchance, he joins the president for lunch at the Oval Office desk, grander still, since one imagines that it can be transformed in a wink to a buffet table brimming with succulent dishes prepared with the utmost care for a president, who one imagines, eats the occasional bangers and mash only to prove his affinity for the common man. These meals must be exquisite, but truth be told, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a desk is a desk is a desk.

Today shall be different, as Summers breaks bread and talks fiscal policy with the Financial Times, the international economic broadsheet of unparallel influence. I have challenged Bill Clinton's former Treasury Secretary to take me 'some place interesting', and he has settled upon the Ward Room, one of the many legendary dining rooms secured within the bowels of the White House itself.

Dressed in a navy suit accented by a white shirt and blue tie, Summers appears both understated and elegant, as does the Ward Room itself. It is a small room without windows, dark wood and nautical paintings, and it looks exactly what I imagine an Admiral's dining room would look like if I should ever find myself in such a space. But here the similarity is lost, for my table is Formica and without linen, and the cutlery, which is made of white plastic, is itself enclose in plastic, which I assume I am meant to open by tearing it with my incisors. Never mind, I tell myself, swallowing my pride. I shall order finger food.

Which I do. Chicken fingers, to be exact. A chalkboard informs me that they are today's special, although I must confess that I do not imagine something that goes by the name of chicken fingers to be special in any way whatsoever, although I shall never know, for 'Cathy' (the inelegantly dressed individual provided in lieu of a waiter) informs me that it is late and this particular delicacy has run it's course.

"When we got chicken fingers, people just gobble them up" is the way she put it. She recommends, instead, the cheeseburger, "cause we always got some more burgers in the back". I shudder and nod, noting that she does not ask me how I wish for it to be prepared.

“The crises that we addressed during the 1990s internationally," Summers is saying, "in almost every case, took the form of a foreign lack of confidence in a country that led to a mass withdrawal of funds and made reassuring foreigners the central priority." I do not recall asking him a question, but perhaps I did. I stare at him, much as I imagine someone would stare at a horrible car crash filled with decapitations and disembowelments, for he is eating a Caesar salad out of a plastic box. With a plastic fork.

Crackers in tiny plastic packs - 'Captain's Wafers', appropriately enough - complete the scene.

"That’s why interest rates often had to be increased," he prattles on. "The American problem this time has more in common, at least qualitatively, with the Japanese post-bubble problem..." I cannot follow his post-bubble talk, not at this time, not in this place. The man is twisting the top off of a bottle of soda and there is every indication that he intends to drink it straight from the container.

And then my 'meal' arrives. The dreaded cheeseburger, for some reason, is wrapped in greasy waxed paper, as if to keep the awful truth hidden inside. It is served on a paper plate - not even Chinet - and accompanied by an unopened bag of potato chips. Not that I had any intention of opening them.

I want to tell 'Cathy' that when I reluctantly settled for a cheeseburger and chips that I naturally assumed that chips were freshly fried potato wedges, but 'Cathy' is gone, imagining, perhaps, the wrath I would have unleashed upon her had I been given the opportunity to soak in the sight of my woe begotten banquet. She need not have feared me, however, for I am from the Financial Times and know quite well the hazards of the journalist's life. Today I'm feeling only shock and sorrow.

I nudged the hideous red plastic tray away from me and began to plot my exit. Larry Summers was a changed man, a man who did not recognize the squalor all around him, a degradation so thorough and pervasive that it has spread like cancer even to the inner sanctum of the White House.

“I don’t think the worst is over..." I heard him say as he futilely attempted to spear a crouton with his feeble plastic fork, and alas I fear it's true. I would have told the once mighty man that I prayed for him and prayed for America, but I was already gone, fleeing for the airport and the safety that is Britain. Tomorrow I head for Istanbul, where I shall dine with Economic Minister Ali Babacan, and I look forward to the comparative gastronomic relief I imagine the evening shall provide.

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