Locked in the Cabinet, by Robert B. Reich, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $25.00.
This is an odd and irritating book. On the surface, it is a tale of an academic, author, and Friend of Bill of 25 years, reluctantly persuaded to become secretary of labor. His motives are pure: using power to help close the widening income gap between skilled and unskilled workers; to raise government investment in human capital by funding education and training; and, in general, to aid the people at the bottom of society.
As happens when the pure of heart meet the realities of power in D.C., the dream goes awry. Reich portrays himself as a naif about government who loses crucial battles to economic trolls worried about the budget deficit and inflation. He winds up so far out of the loop that he hangs out in the White House parking lot to beg scraps of information from passing officials. Final defeat comes at the hands of Dick Morris, who seduces a once-pure president into adopting the themes of the cold-hearted Republicans and focusing on the suburban vote while ignoring the economic anxieties of lower-class America. In the end, despite his love for the job, the protagonist is unwilling to sacrifice time with his family to carry the crushing workload of a cabinet officer and to engage in more losing battles, and he disembarks from the ship of state to return to academia.
The book is in the form of a journal, with entries for specific dates scattered throughout the four years of the first Clinton term. The entries grow steadily farther apart, and are pretty skimpy for 1995 and 1996. Many bear the mark of heavy reworking in hindsight, making the book a fragmentary memoir illuminated by notes made at the time rather than a real diary.
The book is also redolent of literary forms beyond the memoir. It is a bit of a Bildungsroman, a somewhat sappy coming-of-age novel wherein a naive youth grows into an adult. Or it can be read as a picaresque novel, recounting the tale of a young, slightly roguish hero who goes out into the world, meets wonders and adventures, and makes faux-naive but actually shrewd comments on his experience.
The roman à clef, that form in which real events and people are fictionalized à la Primary Colors, also comes to mind. Lots of scores are settled. Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO comes through as burnt-out and inept, and a social snob to boot. Newt Gingrich has "the meanness of a nasty little kid." In fact, all Republicans are pretty rotten. Bridgestone Tire, which out-PRed Reich over an OSHA rule, is strung up to twist in a wind of corporation baiting and Japan bashing. Alan Greenspan is a bloodless gnome. The National Association of Manufacturers is a cigar-smoking lynch mob. Even grandees of the Democratic Party, such as Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin, are spoofed for their hidalgo ways.
Clinton is treated with ambivalence, extending even to his name. He starts out as "Bill," but Reich soon describes a phone conversation in which he expresses discomfort over what to call his longtime friend. Instead of saying, "Call me Bill," Clinton says, "Yeah. It's strange, isn't it?" For the rest of the book, Reich refers to "B," since he lacks sanction to use "Bill" and somehow cannot make himself say "the president." (I have a hard time with this one myself, but my political situation is rather different.) The explanation for Clinton's failures to measure up to Reich's hopes is a standard one: The king has good instincts but is misled by his advisers.
Some come out all right. Ron Brown, it turns out, was really a champion of the nation's downtrodden all along. (So that's who went along on those foreign trips!) Hillary is treated with respectful sycophancy as she is persecuted unfairly for such things as her commodity trading. Reich, the corporate expert, seems unaware of something known to all financial experts, that her investment coup was simply not possible within the bounds of the trading rules.
There is another reason for likening the book to fictional forms: Much of it is not believable. I knew Reich 20 years ago in the Federal Trade Commission. He is an intelligent, able, sophisticated, and ambitious man. Exceedingly so, on all counts. He was politically active for the Democrats throughout the 1980s. Given this, the roster of improbable statements grows rapidly. His initial reluctance to come to Washington is dubious. The repeated claim of his own naiveté is laughable; Reich is about as naive as Machiavelli. Throughout the book, he puts little speeches explaining the realities of Washington and politics into the mouths of others while he sits and says, "Golly gee!" At one point he forgets, and within a few pages he puts identical words into the mouths of two different staffers, which gives you a pretty good fix on the name of the ventriloquist. He says, with no trace of a grin, that the AFL-CIO throws major resources into lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage because it is a big symbolic issue. Not a word about its effect in removing competition for union members from lower-skilled workers, while at the same time making the losers think you are helping them--a perfect two-fer of modern politics.
Nor do I believe that Reich was hu-miliated at a Washington dinner party by reaching for the mint jelly at the wrong time. He makes much of his own plebian origins and even plebian behavior, but in fact he is safely on the sunny side of that chasm between rich and poor, with assets that put him comfortably in the millionaire class. When the government shuts down in late 1995, he talks of his pain in laying off 17,000 people and wondering if the Department of Labor will ever reopen. He must have been the only person in D.C. who did not know that the government employees would wind up with pay for their time off and an extra vacation. A lot of people got hurt by the shutdown, but not one of them was actually on the federal payroll.
It goes on. Most of the book is taken up with this sort of thing, stories of dubious authenticity and mild interest portraying Reich at less than full worth, or misleading you about government realities. (Indeed, writing in Slate, journalist Jonathan Rauch documented numerous fabrications among Reich's allegedly true accounts.)
Occasionally the real Reich, insightful and subtle, breaks loose, but only for a page or two at a time. A paragraph on spin, and on the way in which an effort not to spin is treated as particularly subtle spin, is amusing, true, and a perfect potential lead-in to a discussion of the press. A couple of pages on the multiple levels of the 1996 Democratic Convention come close to art, and could have paved the way for extended insights into the party. A page of musing on the true masters of each Cabinet department is shrewd and useful, as are a few paragraphs on the social incestuousness of the capital. References to bipartisan support for corporate welfare could serve as the springboard for a probe of this phenomenon. Each time, Reich quickly reins himself in and returns to froth and propaganda.
In the end, it is not the froth that is the most irritating, but the propaganda. The issues that worry Reich are real: the gaps between rich and poor, between skilled and unskilled; the proper role of government in education and training; the impact of the global economy; the nature of community and the meaning of the concept of a nation.
These are worth serious attention, and Reich is superbly equipped to deal with them. And he cops out, treating everything at a stunning level of triviality. Democrats, insofar as they want to spend money on education and training, are good. Other Democrats need education. Republicans are evil, the tools of business, who enjoy grinding the workers and are blind or indifferent to the real forces at work. Reich's universe does not allow for the possibility that one could start with the same list of concerns and come to wildly different conclusions about the proper responses. He accepts as faith that federal "investment" in education and training will have a payoff. If you want to know whether past or current federal programs have been helpful or harmful, if you want to even think about the issue, do not look here. And do not look at other federal "investments," such as housing or business development.
Do you think there might be conflicts between the interests of unions and those of other workers, or that the growth of public-sector unionism is unsettling? Well, do not look here for illumination; these possibilities go unmentioned.