Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from "car czar' Steven Rattner's new book Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry. The book excerpt attributes two remarks to President Obama's White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel: "Why even save GM?" and "F— the UAW." The Wall Street Journal followed that up with a sentence in brackets: "[A spokeswoman for Mr. Emanuel denied both remarks attributed to him.]"
It seems to me that while the Journal may have been trying to display responsibility by providing Mr. Emanuel a chance to respond, the paper's handling of the question amounts to a default. Consider the possible explanations for the situation.
One possibility is that Mr. Rattner, backed by a major publishing house, is making up sensational quotes and attributing them to Mr. Emanuel in an effort to sell books. This strikes me as a highly remote explanation. Mr. Rattner has a lot of money already and any earnings from his career as an author are likely to be small by comparison. If he really is making things up out of whole cloth, he'd be in violation of most standard non-fiction publishing contracts, and he'd be doing his own reputation for integrity, such as it is, some serious damage.
Another possibility is that Mr. Emanuel instructed his spokeswoman to deny the remarks even though he knows that they are true. If that is the case, it's outrageous. Mr. Emanuel may feel the lie is justified by his perception that Mr. Rattner violated his confidence by writing publicly about what Mr. Emanuel had thought was a confidential conversation. But even so, there's something deeply troubling about a high government official instructing a subordinate to lie on his behalf to the press. It's one thing when such a lie is claimed to be necessary on national security grounds, though even those cases are debatable. But in this case the lie, if that is what it is, seems designed merely to protect Mr. Emanuel's reputation in certain circles (though acknowledging the remarks are true might help Mr. Emanuel's reputation in certain other circles).
There may be more innocent explanations. The spokeswoman for Mr. Emanuel may have denied the remarks without checking with him, in a misguided effort to protect her boss. It's possible, too, that Mr. Emanuel has forgotten making the comments and genuinely believes that he never said them, while Mr. Rattner remembers them. It's possible that Mr. Emanuel thinks he made the comments but was just cracking jokes or playing devil's advocate and therefore thinks he can deny making them when what he really means is that he denies making them in a way that was meant seriously to express his opinion.
One way to get to the bottom of it would be to call some other people present at the meetings at which Mr. Emanuel said what he is supposed to have said and to ask them which is correct, Mr. Rattner's book or Mr. Emanuel's denial. If additional witnesses back up Mr. Rattner's account, the story then may become why is Mr. Emanuel trying, though his spokeswoman, to mislead the press and the public about what happened. If additional witnesses back up Mr. Emanuel's denial, the story then may become why is Mr. Rattner making stuff up.
Either way, leaving it as an unresolved "he said, she said" is unsatisfying to readers, or at least to this one.