Don Pesci: What about the Clinton-Putin connection?

" The Stolen Kiss,'' by  Jean-Honoré Fragonard  (1786).

"The Stolen Kiss,'' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1786).



The last few weeks of 24-7 news has been dripping with unintended irony.

Just as the Democratic Party was setting up to attribute former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s loss to political stumble-bum Donald Trump as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin's interference in her campaign, President Trump bombed an air base of Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, Mr. Putin’s Kewpie Doll. The bombing served to mute some of the more outrageous claims. Everyone but Connecticut Sen. Dick Blumenthal has been investigating the Trump-Putin connection.

Along with a chorus of other Democrats, Mr. Blumenthal lately has been calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump-Putin connection but, oddly, not the Clinton-Putin connection. While Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state, tons of high grade uranium moved under her winking eye from the United States to Russia.

Warming to Putin, Mrs. Clinton presented Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a defective “reset button.”

CNN noted at the time:

“When it comes to Russia, the Obama administration has been talking about ‘pressing the reset button.’ It’s meant to symbolize a possible new start in U.S./Russian relations, which ‘crashed’ after Russia invaded Georgia last August [2009].

 “‘I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: 'We want to reset our relationship, and so we will do it together....'

 “‘We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?’ she asked Lavrov, laughing. 

 “‘You got it wrong,’ said Lavrov, as both diplomats laughed. 

 “‘It should be 'perezagruzka' [the Russian word for reset],’ said Lavrov. ‘This says 'peregruzka,' which means ‘overcharged.’”

The overcharged Putin was understanding. Sending a message of his own, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Mrs. Clinton winked. Her eyes were fixed on the prize; the term-limited president later would endorse Mrs. Clinton's bid to continue his legacy. How could she lose to a New York real estate developer whom even Bill Buckley tagged “a vulgarian?”

She did lose. Democrats theorized that she lost owing to the gross interference in her campaign of Putin and FBI Director James Comey, now fired by Trump. Concerning Mrs. Clinton’s loss to the vulgarian, Republicans and Democrats have agreed to disagree. Republicans think that Mr. Putin, advised that Mrs. Clinton would  win the election, intervened to weaken her inevitable presidency.

They argue further that Mrs. Clinton lost because her own campaign was defective. Further, the damaging e-mails circulating during her campaign were not forged by Putin’s intelligence operatives; they were written by Mrs. Clinton's operatives and circulated through her private unsecured server which, Mr. Blumenthal may wish to note, is a violation of law.

Democrats now argue that Mrs. Clinton might have prevailed in the general election were not Mr. Comey such a duffer. Mr. Trump has now fired Mr. Comey because, according to his dismissal letter to Mr. Comey, he is “not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

In Mr. Blumenthal’s mind – and in the Democratic Party campaign cheat-sheets – all this is wondrously connected: The firing of Comey and Mr. Trump’s cozy posture with Mrs. Clinton’s past reset-chum necessitate the need to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Gordian knot of suppositions put together by Democrats to rescue our democracy from a fascist president.

Here is Bill Curry, former comptroller of Connecticut and two-time Democrat gubernatorial contender, on the fascist:

“Trump isn't just Putin's pal. He's Putin. His firing of Comey is an all-out attack on the rule of law. We have only one branch of government left in anything close to working order and he seeks to destroy it. This is now clear: Anyone still opposed to appointing a special prosecutor is a traitor to our Constitution. It is time to call Trump what he is-- a flat out fascist-- and to call his ceaseless assaults on the first amendment and his political opponents what they are: a fascist power grab. To be silent now is to betray our democracy in the hour of its great peril. In the next few days we'll learn who the real patriots in this country are. I only pray we have enough of them.”

Patriot Blumenthal has not yet called for a special prosecutor to investigate the tortured logic evident in Mr. Curry’s intemperate outburst. That would be a misuse of a special prosecutor. Blumenthal has not yet been asked whether he intends to be present during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s upcoming graduation on May 17. The keynote speaker for the event will be our "fascist" president.

Don Pesci ( is a  political and cultural writer who lives in Vernon, Conn.



Chris Powell: Taking down a tower of election misconceptions

The daily newspaper in Waterbury, Conn., spent $800,000 to repair this landmark tower. See item at bottom.

The daily newspaper in Waterbury, Conn., spent $800,000 to repair this landmark tower. See item at bottom.

Having lived by executive orders during President Obama's administration, disregarding consensus with Congress, the left now may die by executive orders under Donald Trump's administration if the new president really believes some of the things he said during his campaign.

The left will deserve as much, but having received only 47 percent of the popular vote, about a million fewer votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received, Trump should not just try to fulfill his campaign platform, such as it was, but also try to build consensus rather than deepen division.

Democrats still have enough votes in the Senate to obstruct legislation and Supreme Court nominees, and the political margin in the House of Representatives is close enough that moderate Republicans who were appalled by Trump's campaign and character can still make trouble too.

But just as Republicans are claiming for Trump a mandate he did not win, Democrats are making too much of Trump's running second in the popular vote. For this doesn't necessarily mean that Clinton was the country's first choice.

Rather, Clinton so far has received only about 47.6 percent of the popular vote, with more than 5 percent having gone to minor-party candidates, mainly Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, who received 3 percent and 1 percent respectively.

Libertarians lean Republican, Greens Democratic. In a "ranked voting" system that transfers the votes of minor-party candidates to the second-choice candidates of minor-party voters, Trump might have come out first in the popular vote after all, if not by much. The failure of a major candidate to win half the popular vote makes the Electoral College look more undemocratic than it really is.

Indeed, while the country is in a rotten mood and this election may result in profound changes in policy, the popular vote contradicts claims that there has been a political revolution. Instead the Democrats lost the election for a very narrow reason — the alienation of part of their core constituency, working-class whites, in one part of the country, the swath from Pennsylvania to Michigan and Wisconsin. A shift of only 60,000 votes altogether in those states would have given Clinton the Electoral College as well as the popular vote and thus the presidency.

The claim that Trump's election disproved the opinion polls is also false, though it is being used to discredit national news organizations for what seemed like their prejudice against Trump. (Actually until it was too late the national news organizations largely gave Trump a pass about his grotesque business operations and potential conflicts of interest.)

On the whole the polls in the final days of the campaign were correct, showing a tightening race with Clinton still holding a measurable lead.

It was the uneven distribution of the vote, especially the huge and wasted Democratic plurality in California, approaching 3 million votes there, that skewed the Electoral College.


SAVING HISTORY IN WATERBURY: The Waterbury Republican-American, which for more than 60 years has occupied the city's grand former railroad station downtown, has just spent $800,000 repairing the station's 240-foot clock tower, the city's defining landmark, built in 1909 and modeled on the tower of Siena, Italy.

The tower produces no income for the newspaper, but, as the Republican-American's editor and publisher, William J. Pape II, said the other day, it's important to the city and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so "we just had to spend the money."

Now the tower should be ready for another century.

Of course in their ordinary operations newspapers are also very much about preserving local history, even if not all of them are as civic-minded as Waterbury's.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer.

Don Pesci: Apres le deluge, c'est Hillary?

The national elections at this point may remind poor battered voters of Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!”

Republicans, Victor Davis Hanson writes in National Review, will have much repair work to do after the election – whatever happens. National Review has not been hospitable to Donald Trump’s candidacy, but the election should awaken second thoughts among conservatives. In “Conservatives Should Vote For The Republican Nominee,” Hanson takes a birch switch to what Trump supporters might call disdainfully the Republican Party Establishment.

Here is the central premise in Hanson’s piece:

 “Something has gone terribly wrong with the Republican Party, and it has nothing to do with the flaws of Donald Trump. Something like his tone and message would have to be invented if he did not exist. None of the other 16 primary candidates — the great majority of whom had far greater political expertise, more even temperaments, and more knowledge of issues than did Trump — shared Trump’s sense of outrage — or his ability to convey it — over what was wrong: The lives and concerns of the Republican establishment in the media and government no longer resembled those of half their supporters.
 “The Beltway establishment grew more concerned about their sinecures in government and the media than about showing urgency in stopping Obamaism. When the Voz de Aztlan and the Wall Street Journal often share the same position on illegal immigration, or when Republicans of the Gang of Eight are as likely as their left-wing associates to disparage those who want federal immigration law enforced, the proverbial conservative masses feel they have lost their representation. How, under a supposedly obstructive, conservative-controlled House and Senate, did we reach $20 trillion in debt, institutionalize sanctuary cities, and put ourselves on track to a Navy of World War I size?”

In the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Peggy Noonan, a longtime columnist and once a special assistant and speechwriter in the reliably conservative President Ronald Reagan administration, permits herself to wonder what a Trump campaign might have looked like if Trump had been sane.

On the Democratic side, an email tsunami threatens to capsize Clinton’s plush ground-game schooner. And she is –- perhaps more than Trump –- unspeakable and uneatable. After nearly a half century in politics, ambition scrambles the brain. White privilege may or may not be a political myth, but political privilege is the original sin of politics. Just ask Machiavelli, or Hanson, a classical historian and author of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Here in Connecticut, the sort of people whose business it is to gauge the correlation of political forces are dusting off their crystal balls. All the editorials nominating so-and-so- for such-and-such have already been written. It remains only to pull the pins on the editorial endorsements.

Their left-of-center sensitive data receptors tell them that Clinton has the edge, both nationally and here in the Land of Steady Habits, which has steadily voted Democratic progressives into office. Connecticut progressives, in turn, have steadily voted in favor of cosmetic and temporary spending cuts. Once returned to office, they will vote in favor of higher taxes for two reasons: 1) They wish to use politicians to advance a particular rather than a general good, usually involving public worker unions; and 2) Despite the inescapably obvious consequences following tax increases and burdensome regulations – i.e. job losses, anemic economic growth and the flight from Connecticut of wealth-producing entrepreneurial activity -- they are perversely convinced, mostly for ideological reasons, that Connecticut is suffering a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Hanson’s recommendation to national Republicans that they should adjust their polity to changed circumstances is not likely to be adopted by Connecticut Democrats, our new Aristocrats. Demography, rather than a filial regard for democracy, is destiny, say the demographers, and Democrats outnumber Republicans in Connecticut by a two to one margin; unaffiliateds outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. And so – what has been must ever be. That is the operative principle of most politics, until the roof comes crashing down, at which point there will follow a peaceful, small “d”, democratic revolution.

The one thing we know for certain about democracy, G. K. Chesterton reminds us, is this: “Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.” To this many journalists reply, yearning for an aristocracy of thought and manners, “Bunk.” They can be safely ignored. Chesterton was a superb journalist, and that is why he said “Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based political writer.

David Warsh: A sense of grief at conventions

The disparity between political conventions was striking.  The Democrats were in good shape. The Republicans were a mess. Yet, as New York Times columnist David Brooks observed on PBS television, a sense of loss, of grief, pervaded both. What is that about?

Much more than individual losses were at issue; the deaths of soldiers in combat, of police officers in the line of duty, of victims of excessive force, of sufferers from treatable diseases.  The new mood involves both parties in at least the tacit recognition of the existence of a series of limits – on trade, immigration, military force, inequality, atmospheric pollution.

For 70 years these limits often have been overlooked, ignored or even denied in favor of the pursuit of the overriding goals of peace, prosperity and global poverty reduction, under the banner of “globalization.” At last these limits have become unavoidable.

The emergence of the Trump and Sanders insurgencies in the U.S., the Brexit vote in Britain, the formation of ultra-nationalists movements in Europe, are obvious markers of the new mood.  The sea-change presents itself in different ways in different places. ISIS is a protest too.

Writers on the left have been taking positions on these issues for years, not that a broad-based political platform has yet appeared. In "Abdication of the Left,'' Dani Rodrik, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, offered a short survey last month:

“Consider just a few examples: Anat Admati and Simon Johnson have advocated radical banking reforms; Thomas Piketty and Tony Atkinson have proposed a rich menu of policies to deal with inequality at the national level; Mariana Mazzucato and Ha-Joon Chang have written insightfully on how to deploy the public sector to foster inclusive innovation; Joseph Stiglitz and José Antonio Ocampo have proposed global reforms; Brad DeLongJeffrey Sachs, and Lawrence Summers (the very same! [as earlier pressed for financial deregulation]) have argued for long-term public investment in infrastructure and the green economy.

The Economist recently added to the canon Alberto Alesina, of Harvard, and Enrico Spolaore, of Tufts, for their 2003 book The Size of Nations. Robert J. Gordon, of Northwestern, belongs there as well, for The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. And, on the eve of the Brexit referendum, Angus Deaton, of Princeton, last year’s Nobel laureate in economics, weighed in with a short essay, “Rethinking Robin Hood.”

“As Rodrik wrote, ‘There are enough elements here for building a programmatic economic response from the left.”’

So far the Right is flummoxed. The Wall Street Journal holds out for accelerated growth. The Economist sees mainly a schism between open and closed, whereas  the new cautiousness with respect to the disruptive effects of immigration and trade wants a more pragmatic, conciliatory metaphor.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is a one-man wrecking crew of Republican Party orthodoxies: immigration, trade, social issues, the Iraq war, Russia, NATO cohesion.  Who knows what will be left of the party when he is done?

Ten “battleground” states, according to the Website 270toWin: Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida.  One hundred days until Tuesday November 8. My guess is that Clinton will win them all. Then we can get on with the hard part, coming to terms with grief.

David Warsh, a long-time economic historian and financial journalist, is proprietor of, where this originated.


David Warsh: Presidential race is swan song of the Baby Boomers

Journalist Andrew Sullivan speculated in New York magazine earlier this month that U.S. democracy is ripe for a tyrant, and that the candidacy of Donald Trump is potentially “an extinction-level event.”  Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, who seems to me (and to the Financial Times) the shrewdest of the current crop of U.S political commentators, thinks Sullivan’s widely-read essay is “one of the most important things written about the phenomenon of Trump.”

I think it is bunk. What about the Sanders phenomenon?

The outcome of the long primary season is best understood as fatigue-turned-protest against the initial promise of a Bush-Clinton race – two families that have loomed large in presidential politics since 1988 and 1992 respectively. The undertone of fascination with the possibilities of authoritarian rule is real enough, at least in some quarters, but it is easily exaggerated.

The second-most salient fact about the 2016 presidential election is the tight grouping of the candidates’ ages:  Donald Trump was born in 1946, Hillary Clinton in 1947, Bernie Sanders in 1941. This is not the beginning of the end of the U.S. democracy.  It is the last hurrah of the post-World War II Baby Boom.

Certainly the election has become much more dangerous since Trump clinched the Republican nomination. It is highly unlikely, but it is no longer inconceivable that the developer-turned-reality-television-star could become president. This in itself is  harmful to the reputation of the United States. I don’t quite see how the Republican Party recovers from its embarrassment, at least over the long term, but likely it will.

For the record, I wish Clinton would win 49 states in November (though it doesn’t seem very plausible that she will) and that Sanders goes back to Vermont.  Whoever wins is likely to be a one-term president. Today’s poisonous politics will continue for a while longer. My hunch is that the presidential candidates who lead the Republican and Democratic Parties in 2020 will have been born after 1964 – the last year of the Baby Boom.

.                                                                             xxx

Yuliy Sannikov, of Princeton University, last week was named winner of the John Bates Clark medal for 2016.  The award is given annually by the American Economic Association to an economist working in the United States judged to have made the most significant contribution before the age of 40. He received the recently-established Fischer Black Prize from the American Finance Association in 2015.

Sannikov, who won three gold medals in International Mathematical Olympiads after graduating from Sevastopol Visual Arts School in 1994, is often thought of chiefly as a tool builder, a master of adapting continuous time methods to dynamic games using the stochastic calculus.

But after learning economics as a Princeton undergraduate, the PhD he received from at Stanford Business School in 2004 (where his advisers were Robert Wilson and Andrzej Skrzypacz) immersed him in all kinds of practical problems – everything from corporate management to monetary policy. As the citation says,

Previous models abstracted from crucial economic forces in the name of tractability, but Sannikov’s methods allow models to include the most important forces and thus deliver results that are much more relevant. He is one of the few theorists in many years to have introduced a truly novel tool that changed the way theory is done.

Meanwhile, Olivier Blanchard, who served a heroic tour as chief economist for the International Monetary Fund from 2008 s until 20015, was slated to be elected AEA president. Before joining the IMF, Blanchard was for 25 years a mainstay of economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an influential architect of policy-relevant macroeconomics.

Named distinguished fellows of the AEA were Richard Freeman, of Harvard University; Glenn Loury, of Brown University; Julio Rotemberg, of Harvard University; and  Isabel Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution.

David Warsh, a longtime financial journalist and economic historian, is proprietor of Somerville, Mass.-based

Llewellyn King: The pernicious effects of polling on the body politic

Warning: the political news you are consuming may be synthetic, manufactured in a corporation and served up breathlessly by the media. Like many synthetic substances, it could be bad for your health.

I refer, of course, to the epidemic of polling. Polls have become a political narcotic. There is an appetite for them that knows no bounds. If you do not like or trust one poll, take another.

This, in turn, reflects a time when the science of polling faces challenges. Polling had become fearsomely accurate, but recently it has encountered two bugaboos: Changing demographics and changing telephone usage. These things have cleft polling in two: polls that are conducted through telephone interviews and those that are conducted electronically.

The evidence is that the old way remains more accurate, but it is bedeviled with fewer land lines and more people who do not want to be interviewed, or may not be comfortable speaking English.

It is, I am told, cheaper to poll electronically, but the bugs are not all out of the system and wide discrepancies in results are showing up. Hence, a poll that shows Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in the general election is followed by another equally reputable poll that shows Trump defeating Hillary.

The pollsters I have known are a canny lot, and I have no doubt they will get on top of these problems. The most egg that has landed on the face of the polling industry was in getting the last British election so wrong. That fiasco is informing the doubt surrounding polls on whether or not Britain should leave the European Union. They are struggling with a close call and public distrust of polling.

In the United States, polling has gotten the presidential primaries more or less right. But the putative contest between Clinton and Trump has wide swings in polling results; so wide that the pollsters themselves are having difficulty asking the right questions and managing the results.

Not since 1945, when it started seriously, has polling seemed so challenged as in this presidential contest.

But unreliable or not, the debate is fashioned by the polls. Talk radio, talk television and the newspapers are nourished by the latest polls, which pass as news.

For me the argument is not whether the polls are accurate, but rather the damage they do to the system. They are — and I am assuming that the pollsters will regain their former omnipotence — an impediment to the political process.

A poll is a snapshot that morphs into a narrative. A second in time becomes a reality, and candidacies are extinguished before they can catch fire.

Commentators extrapolate a grain of truth into a mountain of fact.

Polling has reached a point where not only is it part of the democratic process, but it also distorts that process, picking winners and losers before the electorate has assimilated the facts.

The news media has fallen onto the habit of taking this synthetic news — a suspect commodity for which the great news organizations pay — as the real thing. A poll gets the same weight as the ballot, thus affecting the ballot.

I believe that polls do reveal a truth, but a truth of one brief moment in time. The trouble is that revelation becomes the revealed truth, and the future gets tethered to that moment. Normal evolution in political thinking is hampered by this synthetic truth.

In hiring pollsters, news organizations are unwittingly setting up what is the equivalent of a posed photograph: a photograph that will be reprinted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times until it has become a kind of truth and its dubious genesis is forgotten.

Politicians are swayed by polls, fitting their policies to synthetic truths that have been certified as the will of the people: erroneous certifications, as it happens.

Llewellyn King is the host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a longtime publisher, columnist and international business consultant. This piece first ran on Inside Sources.



Llewellyn King: The body language of this presidential campaign


Whenever I go out to dinner lately, along with the first sip of wine, I’m served a pre-appetizer: a short, dispiriting conversation about the politics of the moment, complete with a special kind of head-shaking and eye-rolling that has been perfected for this election season.

First the diner’s head is lowered slightly and shaken slowly from side to side. Then the eyes are raised, as though in supplication by a puppy that has done something wrong but doesn’t know what: What did we do to deserve this?

Donald Trump elicits the most severe reaction. People quickly agree that he is not only unsuitable for high office but quite possibly bonkers, stark-raving mad, round the twist — whatever you call the unbalanced in colloquial speech.

Next comes the Ted Cruz shudder. After the shaking of the head over Trump comes a nervous, whole-body response to the mention of Cruz. It begins in the shoulders and migrates down to the pelvis while the head is stationary, having been stilled after shaking at the thought of Trump. Nobody suggests that Cruz is bonkers but quite the opposite, the extreme opposite. In whispers, the Cruz shudderers say “he is clever” and, ominously, “he has an agenda.” Cruz, it is intimated, is in touch with forces beyond he grave, and on the wrong side of that.

John Kasich doesn’t make the grade for dinner gyrations. With a little shake of the head and shrug of the shoulder, he is dismissed.

On to the Big Sigh.

The Big Sigh is reserved for discussion of Hillary Clinton. It is preceded by the “don’t make me laugh” expulsion of breath over Bernie Sanders. Devout liberals keep Sanders alive in conversation for a few moments, saying that they like his views on healthcare or taxing the rich. But he is gone with the first full exhalation.

The real sighing is for Hillary, the choice of last resort. People declare that they will vote for her then elaborate her failings. One is told, “she is overly ambitious,” “she is a terrible manager,” “she has baggage,” “she looks worn out,” and “she has to explain Libya.”

Clearly, she has locked up the hold-your-nose vote.

Look, I haven’t just been supping on sushi in Georgetown, although I’m guilty there, or on Dover sole at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, guilty again, but also on mac and cheese at the humble, working-class Harris Grille in Coventry, R.I., and barbecue at Calhoun’s in Knoxville, Tenn.

What amazes is where are the millions who turn out to support Trump so vigorously? Why don’t I run into them, hunt high and low though I may? Are they all sitting at home waiting for a pollster to call so they can give their man further ammo?

Where are the Cruzers? Are they out there testing the fallibility of Obamacare, or demonstrating against world conquest by Planned Parenthood? The rot starts with women’s health and ends with socialized medicine, don’t you understand?

At least one can find the Bernie Sanders legions. They are the young people with the special cellphone posture; who have turned themselves into question marks as they crouch over their devices, looking into the future on their tiny screens.

When they unwind in middle age to look around them, freed of the millennial stoop, will they morph into Republicans? Will there be any Republicans after Trump and Cruz have worked their magic?

What, I wonder, will we be doing at dinner parties after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland? Will we be doing the Trump headshake and confused eye or the Cruz full-body shudder?

After the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the Big Sigh is predictable at dinner tables across the nation.

In November, after electing President Unsuitable, we will all be holding our heads in a kind mute astonishment. 

Llewellyn King ( is a longtime publisher, columnist and international business consultant. He is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS. Mr. King is based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.\Ll

This first ran on InsideSources.

David Warsh: Deconstructing the Great Panic of 2008



Lost decades, secular stagnation -- gloomy growth prospects are in the news. To understand the outlook, better first be clear about the recent past. The nature of what happened in September five years ago is now widely understood within expert circles. There was a full-fledged systemic banking panic, the first since the bank runs of the early1930s. But this account hasn’t yet gained widespread recognition among the public. There are several reasons.

For one thing, the main event came as a surprise even to those at the Federal Reserve and Treasury Departments who battled to end it. Others required more time to figure out how desperate had been the peril.

For another, the narrative of what had happened in financial markets was eclipsed by the presidential campaign and obscured by the rhetoric that came afterwards.

Finally, the agency that did the most to save the day, the Federal Reserve Board, had no natural constituency to tout its success in saving the day except the press, which was itself pretty severely disrupted at the time.

The standard account of the financial crisis is that subprime lending did it. Originate-to-distribute, shadow banking, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, credit default swaps, Fannie and Freddie, savings glut, lax oversight, greedy bankers, blah blah blah. An enormous amount of premium journalistic shoe leather went into detailing each part of the story. And all of it was pieced together in considerable detail (though with little verve) in the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2011.

The 25-page dissent that Republican members Keith Hennessey, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Bill Thomas appended provided a lucid and terse synopsis of the stages of the crisis that is the best reading in the book.

But even their account omitted the cardinal fact that the Bush administration was still hoping for a soft landing in the summer of 2008. Nearly everyone understood there had been a bubble in house prices, and that subprime lending was a particular problem, but the sum that all subprime mortgages outstanding in 2007 was $1 trillion, less than the market as a whole occasionally lost on a bad day, whereas the evaporation of more than $8 trillion of paper wealth in the dot-com crash a few years earlier was followed by a relatively short and mild recession.

What made September 2008 so shocking was the unanticipated panic that followed the failure of the investment banking firm of Lehman Brothers. Ordinary bank runs – the kind of things you used to see in Frank Capra films such as "American Madness" and “It’s a Wonderful Life”– had been eliminated altogether after 1933 by the creation of federal deposit insurance.

Instead, this was a stampede of money-market wholesalers, with credit intermediaries running on other credit intermediaries in a system that had become so complicated and little understood after 40 years of unbridled growth that a new name had to be coined for its unfamiliar regions: the shadow banking system – an analysis thoroughly laid out by Gary Gorton, of Yale University’s School of Management, in "Slapped by the Invisible Hand'' (Oxford, 2010).

Rather than relying on government deposit insurance, which was designed to protect individual depositors, big institutional depositors had evolved a system employing collateral – the contracts known as sale and repurchase agreements, or repo – to protect the money they had lent to other firms. And it was the run on repo that threatened to melt down the global financial system. Bernanke told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission:

As a scholar of the Great Depression, I honestly believe that September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression. If you look at the firms that came under pressure in that period… only one… was not of serious risk of failure…. So out of the thirteen, thirteen of the most important financial institutions in the United State, twelve were at risk of failure within a week or two.

Had those firms begun to spiral into bankruptcy, we would have entered a decade substantially worse than the 1930s.

Instead, the emergency was understood immediately and staunched by the Fed in its traditional role of lender of last resort and by the Treasury Department under the authority Congress granted in the form of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (though the latter aid required some confusing sleight- of-hand to be put to work).

By the end of the first full week in by October, when central bankers and finance ministers meeting in Washington issued a communique declaring that no systemically important institution would be allowed to fail, the rescue was more or less complete.

Only in November and December did the best economic departments begin to piece together what had happened.

When Barack Obama was elected, he had every reason to exaggerate the difficulty he faced – beginning with quickly glossing over his predecessor’s success in dealing with the crisis in favor of dwelling on his earlier miscalculations. It’s in the nature of politics, after all, to blame the guy who went before; that’s how you get elected. Political narrative divides the world into convenient four- and eight-year segments and assumes the world begins anew with each.

So when in September Obama hired Lawrence Summers, of Harvard University, to be his principal economic strategist, squeezing out the group that had counselled him during most of the campaign, principally Austan Goolsbee, of the University of Chicago, he implicitly embraced the political narrative and cast aside the economic chronicle. The Clinton administration, in which Summers had served for eight years, eventually as Treasury secretary, thereafter would be cast is the best possible light; the Bush administration in the worst; and key economic events, such as the financial deregulation that accelerated under Clinton, and the effective response to panic that took place under Bush, were subordinated to the crisis at hand, which had to do with restoring confidence.

The deep recession and the weakened banking system that Obama and his team inherited was serious business. At the beginning of 2008, Bush chief economist Edward Lazear had forecast that unemployment wouldn’t rise above 5 percent in a mild recession. It hit 6.6 percent on the eve of the election, its highest level in 14 years. By then panic had all but halted global order-taking for a hair-raising month or two, as industrial companies waited for assurance that the banking system would not collapse.

Thus having spent most of 2008 in a mild recession, shedding around 200,000 jobs a month, the economy started serious hemorrhaging in September, losing 700,000 jobs a month in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. After Obama’s inauguration, attention turned to stimulus and the contentious debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Summers’s team proposed an $800 billion stimulus and predicted that it would limit unemployment to 8 percent. Instead, joblessness topped out at 10.1 percent in October 2009. But at least the recovery began in June

What might have been different if Obama had chosen to tell a different story? To simply say what had happened in the months before he took office?

Had the administration settled on a narrative of the panic and its ill effects, and compared it to the panic of 1907, the subsequent story might have been very different. In 1907, a single man, J.P. Morgan, was able to organize his fellow financiers to take a series of steps, including limiting withdrawals, after the panic spread around the country, though not soon enough to avoid turning a mild recession into a major depression that lasted more than a year. The experience led, after five years of study and lobbying, to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

If Obama had given the Fed credit for its performance in 2008, and stressed the bipartisan leadership that quickly emerged in the emergency, the emphasis on cooperation might have continued. If he had lobbied for “compensatory spending” (the term preferred in Chicago) instead of “stimulus,” the congressional debate might have been less acrimonious. And had he acknowledged the wholly unexpected nature of the threat that had been turn aside, instead of asserting a degree of mastery of the situation that his advisers did not possess, his administration might have gained more patience from the electorate in Ccngressional elections of 2010. Instead, the administration settled on the metaphor of the Great Depression and invited comparisons to the New Deal at every turn – except for one. Unlike Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Obama made no memorable speeches explaining events as he went along.

Not long after he left the White House, Summers explained his thinking in a conversation with Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, before a meeting of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Bretton Woods. N.H. He described the economic doctrines he had found useful in seeking to restore broad-based economic growth, in saving the auto companies from bankruptcy and considering the possibility of restructuring the banks (the government owned substantial positions in several of them through TARP when Obama took over). But there was no discussion of the nature of the shock the economy had received the autumn before he took office, and though he mentioned prominently Walter Bagehot, Hyman Minsky and Charles P. Kindleberger, all classic scholars of bank runs, the word panic never came up.

On the other hand, the parallel to the Panic of 1907 surfaced last month in a pointed speech by Bernanke himself to a research conference of the International Monetary Fund. The two crises shared many aspects, Bernanke noted: a weakening economy, an identifiable trigger, recent changes in the banking system that were little-understood and still less well-regulated, sharp declines in interbank lending as a cascade of asset “fire sales” began. And the same tools that the Fed employed to combat the crises in 2008 were those that Morgan had wielded in some degree a hundred years before – generous lending to troubled banks (liquidity provision, in banker-speak), balance-sheet strengthening (TARP-aid), and public disclosure of the condition of financial firms (stress tests). But Bernanke was once again eclipsed by Summers, who on the same program praised the Fed’s depression-prevention but announced that he had become concerned with “secular stagnation.”

The best what-the-profession-thinks post-mortem we have as yet is the result of a day-long conference last summer at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The conference observed the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Fed. An all-star cast turned out, including former Fed chairman Paul Volcker and Bernanke (though neither historian of the Fed Allan Meltzer, of Carnegie Mellon University, or Fed critic John Taylor, of Stanford University, was invited). Gorton, of Yale, with Andrew Metrick, also of Yale, wrote on the Fed as regulator and lender of last resort. Julio Rotemberg, of Harvard Business School, wrote on the goals of monetary policy. Ricardo Reis, of Columbia University, wrote on central bank independence. It is not clear who made the decision to close the meeting, but the press was excluded from this remarkable event. The papers appear in the current issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

It won’t be easy to tone down the extreme political partisanship of the years between 1992 and 2009 in order to provide a more persuasive narrative of the crisis and its implications for the future – for instance, to get people to understand that George W. Bush was one of the heroes of the crisis. Despite the cavalier behavior of the first six years of his presidency, his last two years in office were pretty good – especially the appointment of Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Bush clearly shares credit with Obama for a splendid instance of cooperation in the autumn of 2008. (Bush, Obama and John McCain met in the White House on Sept. 25, at the insistence of Sen. John McCain, in the interval before the House of Representatives relented and agreed to pass the TARP bill. Obama dominated the conversation, Bush was impressed, and, by most accounts, McCain made a fool of himself.)

The fifth anniversary retrospectives that appeared in the press in September were disappointing. Only Bloomberg BusinessWeek made a start, with its documentary “Hank,” referring to Paulson. The better story, however, should be called “Ben.” Perhaps the next station on the way to a better understanding will be the appearance of Timothy Geithner’s book, with Michael Grunwald, of Time magazine, currently scheduled to appear in May. There is a long way to go before this story enters the history books and the economics texts.

David Warsh is proprietor of, economic historian and along-time financial journalist. He was also a long-ago colleague of Robert Whitcomb.