Summers' 'sexism' costs him top Treasury job

If a scintilla of disappointment was detectable in Lawrence Summers today as President-elect Barack Obama presented him as the next chief of the National Economic Council, everyone knew why. His big mouth was the reason he didn’t get that other job that used to be his, Treasury Secretary.

It is hardly the case that running the NEC will not put Mr Summers in a position of extraordinary influence. His office will be inside the White House within paper-aeroplane reach of the Oval Office. And it will act as a clearing house on economic policy matters for all the new administration’s departments.

But that said, it is no secret that when Al Gore was defeated in the 2000 presidential election, Mr Summers felt especially robbed because it had only been 18 months since he had succeeded his mentor, Robert Rubin, as US Treasury Secretary. His time at the pinnacle had been cruelly cut short.

Maybe Mr Obama genuinely thinks that the man he is nominating for Treasury Secretary instead, Timothy Geithner, currently head of the New York Federal Reserve, will simply do a better job. It is just as likely, however, that Mr Obama thought it wise to give Mr Summers a more behind-the-scenes role.

For Mr Summers, 53, may be famous for his brilliance but is equally so for saying things he politically ought not to. Most memorable was his remark in early 2005 while serving as President of Harvard University that women may somehow be innately less able in science and maths than men are.

At the time, Mr Summers apologised swiftly and indeed insisted that his comments had been misconstrued. The furore only grew, however, and eventually was enough to oblige him to resign his post. Some of his critics recalled an earlier gaffe when, as chief economist to the World Bank, Mr Summers mused in a memo about developed countries being allowed to export toxic waste to developing countries.

These are awkward old coals that need not be raked over too much, because as the man chosen to head the NEC, Mr Summers does not have to be confirmed by the US Senate, a scrutiny process that can sometimes go awry if too much embarrassing material is discovered.