Authors: Richard Bradley
But Larry was not the only member of his family influenced by his famous uncles. Their effect upon his father is an important part of Summers' story. Robert Summers was originally named Robert Samuelson, but as a young adult he changed his surname to Summers. Among economists who know the familyâand economics can feel like a very small field in which everyone knows all the rumors about everyone elseâit is widely believed that Robert Summers changed his name from Samuelson to avoid constant and diminishing comparisons made between him and his more accomplished brother Paul.
But there is another explanation for Robert Summers' name change: the fear of anti-Semitism and the desire for ethnic assimilation. The Summers family was Jewish on both sides. The rapid rise of Ken Arrow, Paul Samuelson, and Robert and Anita Summers to stature and prominence in American life is a remarkable immigration success story. But, particularly for Paul Samuelson, anti-Semitism was an ugly part of that story.
As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, Samuelson was manifestly brilliant, and that brilliance led to an invitation to join Harvard's Society of Fellows. Founded by President Abbott Lawrence Lowell in 1932, the Society of Fellows is a bit like the academic equivalent of the military's Navy SEALs or basketball's Dream Teamâthe elite of the elite. Fellows are chosen for one reason and one reason only: because they are astoundingly smart. They receive an annual stipendâcurrently around $50,000âbut are not required to produce any work for it. (As the Harvard website puts it, they are “free from formal requirements.”) They are, basically, paid to sit around and think big thoughts.
But though Samuelson's genius could not be ignored, he was nonetheless denied prime teaching opportunities. Instead, as historians Morton and Phyllis Keller write in their book,
Making Harvard Modern,
“he was shunted off with other Jewish graduate students to statistics and/or accounting, generally thought of as âJewish courses.'”
Samuelson accepted a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940. Seven years later, with his remarkable textbook on the verge of publication, a tenured position opened up at Harvard, and Samuelson was an obvious candidate. Strangely, he did not get the jobâand anti-Semitism may have been why. Six decades later, whether prejudice was truly behind the rejection continues to be argued at Harvard, but the advantage in the debate seems to fall on the side of those who think it was. For the Kellers, there was no doubt. “The failure to appoint Samuelson became legendary as the most destructive consequence of Harvard anti-Semitism,” they write. Certainly Larry Summers was struck by the incident. At a lunch at the Harvard Club of New York in 2004, he would declare that “an uncle of mine lost the opportunity to be a professor at Harvard because he was Jewish.” Samuelson would stay at MIT, which was, ironically, one reason why the Institute's economics department would rank above Harvard's for decades to come.
Robert Samuelson, Paul's younger brother, was surely aware of his brother's struggle. Who could blame him for believing that, if anti-Semitism could divert his brother's career, he, a lesser mind, couldn't afford to take a chance? And so, according to an article in
magazine by Paul's grandson, Couper Samuelson, both Robert and Paul's other brother, Harold Samuelson, “changed their surnames to Summers for fear that their respective careers might be marred by the anti-Semitism that their birth name engendered.”
Judaism was a part of Larry's youth, but intellectual life was consistently more important to the Summers family than their religious or cultural heritage. Larry Summers wasn't ashamed of or embarrassed about being Jewish, but he grew up in a safe, genteel world far away from his grandfather's drugstoreâeven if it was only one generation removed. His was a comfortable and prosperous childhood, insulated from the kind of anti-Semitism his uncle Paul had faced. “There were country clubs where I grew up that had few if any Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew,” Summers would say. “My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government officialâall involved little notice of my religion.”
In 1971, when Summers was in eleventh grade, he applied to colleges a year early. The result was unexpected: Harvard turned him down. Summers has never conceded this awkward fact in print, and the Harvard admissions office will not confirm it, but the question would later provoke so much speculation after Summers became Harvard president that, at a spring 2002 banquet for student fundraisers, one senior woman stood to ask Summers why he hadn't attended Harvard College. “Because I didn't get in,” Summers replied in front of a startled crowd. It was, said one person who was present, “an astonishing thing.”
So Summers went to MIT, geographically close to Harvard but culturally remote. The Institute is primarily a school for mathematics and the sciences; students who choose MIT tend to have graduate school already in mind. It's a rigorous place filled with hard-working, career-oriented students and a high-pressure atmosphere. One would not attend MIT for the study of the humanities, the social life, or because of its teams' athletic prowess. MIT students are stereotyped as geeks and nerds, and to a certain extent they revel in that identity: An MIT tradition is to play high-tech pranks during the annual Harvard-Yale football game, such as inflating a massive canvas balloon buried underneath the field. (It looked like a whale breaching.) More recently, a group of students built a model plane with a forty-five-foot wingspan and landed it on top of MIT's Great Dome, which is a hundred and fifty feet high. Their intention was to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. As the MIT news office succinctly reported, “The model was dismantled byâ¦the Institute's hack evaluation and technology team.”
Larry Summers thrived at MIT. He grew a heavy beard, more a sign of math-geek nerdiness than hippie rebellion. He joined the debate team and would become a national champion. “I traveled all over the country, attending debate tournaments and debating issues ranging from gun control to national health insurance to control of energy prices,” Summers would remember. According to one family friend, Summers wanted not just to travel domestically, but to study abroad; his mother, however, discouraged it, arguing that MIT was too good a place to leave for a semester. That was one of the few arguments Summers lost. Steeped in the intellectual jousting of his home life, he was never afraid to speak his mind or question others, whatever the context. “Larry is in permanent argument mode,” said a longtime colleague. “If you say, âHello,' Larry will say, âWhy?' For a lot of people, that's very unnerving. But if you say, âWhy not?' he'll come right back at you and engage.”
And Summers switched his course of study from mathematics to economics. He realized, he would explain later, that he could not compete with the astonishing students he encountered studying math at MIT. And if he couldn't be the best at something, he didn't want to do it.
As an MIT sophomore, Summers worked as an assistant to economist Martin Feldstein, then a thirty-four-year-old professor at Harvard. Feldstein was politically conservative, but other than that he represented a standard type in the Harvard economics department. He was an impressive, powerhouse figure who was deeply immersed in worldly matters and rather less interested in undergraduates. In later years, he would serve in the Reagan administration, become a director for several corporations, and contribute regular op-ed pieces to the
Wall Street Journal
. Though he was widely considered a soporific lecturer, his introductory economics classâpopularly known as “Ec 10”âwould become one of Harvard's most widely taken courses, with several hundred students a year enrolled. Students don't take Feldstein's course for his charismatic personality or scintillating presentation, but because they understand that high-paying jobs often require knowledge of economics. One-on-one, however, was a different experience, and Feldsteinâso politically unlike Summers' parents and unclesâwould become an intellectual mentor to the MIT undergrad.
In 1974 Summers would apply to Harvard again, this time for graduate study in economics, and this time Harvard accepted him. Even if Summers hadn't known Feldstein, it would have been difficult for the university to say no. For one thing, his uncle, Ken Arrow, was teaching in the department. More important, it was clear that Larry Summers was becoming an intellectual force to be reckoned withâcapable of absorbing huge quantities of information, constantly questioning, probing a subject from every angleâand fearless.
One of his graduate school classmates, a German economist named George Ziemes, remembered an incident in which Summers challenged his uncle. Arrow was illustrating a problem on the blackboard when Summers interrupted him and said, “Ken, I think you're wrong,” then proceeded to explain why. Summers' classmates watched in fascination; Arrow had won his Nobel just a couple years before, and a challenge from any student would have been remarkable. For a nephew to do so added a gripping familial subtext. The class ended before Arrow could address the issue. But at the start of its next meeting, he admitted that “Larry was right.”
Summers was “by far the most technically brilliant” of the graduate students in their year, Ziemes said. “I could work for twenty-five hours a day, and not be as smart as him.” At the same time, something about Summers made Ziemes uncomfortable. As Ziemes put it, “he was so strong that he could not walk. He was arrogant and ambitious. I believed he wanted to be the first Jewish president”ânot of Harvard, but of the United States.
As intense as he was intelligent, Summers often overlooked basic social niceties. When the econ grad students went out for pizza, Summers was an awkward fit, visibly uncomfortable in groups. And his table manners were disconcerting to say the leastâhe would take a huge bite of pizza and then, before he'd even swallowed, fill his mouth with soda. The other students joked that Summers would wear his meal home.
After finishing his course work, Summers would teach at MIT. Then, in 1981, he traveled to Washington for his first job outside of academia: assistant to his old boss Martin Feldstein, now the new head of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. Summers was hardly an advocate of Reagan's supply-side economics; the experience, said one economist who knew him at the time, was a calculated “rÃ©sumÃ©-builder.”
In 1982, seven years after starting graduate school, Summers completed his doctoral dissertation. (He would have finished considerably faster if not for the teaching and the time in Washington.) His dissertation, called “An Asset Price Approach to the Analysis of Capital Income Taxation,” would win Harvard's David A. Wells Prize for the year's best economics thesis. That same year, Henry Rosovsky, a member of Harvard's economics department and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, urged President Derek Bok to offer Summers tenure. When Bok did, Summers accepted the offer, becoming, at the age of twenty-eight, one of the youngest tenured professors in the university's history.
Nineteen eighty-two was a good year for Summers, and not just academically. He had fallen for a law school student named Victoria Perry, and she for him. A pretty brunette, Perry was smart and ambitious, although in some ways very different from Summers. She was born in Bangor, Maine, and looked like she was “straight out of an L.L.Bean catalogue,” according to one woman who knew her. While the Perrys kept a home in Maine, Vicki mostly grew up in Florida, where her father was an account executive with a securities firm and her mother a math professor. She was smartâshe'd graduated summa cum laude from Yaleâbut interested in becoming a lawyer, not an academic.
Larry impressed her with his mind, and she impressed him by being able to keep up with him; Summers had been raised by a strong woman, and he liked the same in a girlfriend. “Vicki Perry has been a wonderful friend during the late stages of this work,” Summers wrote in the acknowledgments of his dissertation. “Her companionship has made the last few months very happy ones.” After graduation Perry went to the law firm Hale & Dorr, one of Boston's most upper-crust law firms, and in September 1984 she and Summers were married. Held at the Harvard Club in Boston, the ceremony was conducted by a rabbi and a Congregational minister. Summers was twenty-nine, Perry twenty-seven.
The wedding came at a challenging time: Summers was sick. Eight months before, in January, he'd been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system that occurs most frequently in men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four. A year-long program of chemotherapy followed. It was hardâpeople who know Summers well say that he could very possibly have diedâbut he endured by focusing on his work. “I did some of my best research in the year after I was diagnosed,” he said. His doctor was a Harvard-affiliated specialist in blood cancers named David Scadden, and in typical fashion Summers turned the experience into a learning opportunity. When it became clear that he would survive, he asked Scadden how recent were the discoveries that led to the treatments that had saved him. The answerâabout fifteen yearsâmade a profound impression on him. Fifteen years was not a long time when it was your illness being treated.
In later years Summers rarely spoke of his cancer. He and Scadden lost touch for almost two decades. Many people who know Summers casually, and some who know him moderately well, aren't even aware that he has had cancer. But after being chosen president, Summers told
that the cancer helped him to appreciate family and those less fortunate than himself. According to people who have known him since that time, it did more than that; they say that its greater impact was to leave Summers with a newfound appreciation for the brevity of life. After his cancer, they suggest, Summers possessed an urgency to work as quickly as possible, because he never knew how longâor shortâhis life might be. And outside of his own field, the work that most interested him was the work that had saved his lifeâscience and medicine. After becoming president of Harvard, he would repay Scadden's aid with a favor of his own.