Selected Skirmishes: Planet Reich

Thanks for the memoirs


In former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's Locked in the Cabinet, self-interested bozos berate an intellectually honest cabinet member who is concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. Our hero, undaunted, zips through Washington championing the plight of the American worker. I walk with the power brokers, says Reich, but I really remain just one of the little people.

As keen scholars of public affairs are aware, Reich's acts of heroism exist mostly in his own head. Jonathan Rauch astounded readers of Slate with overwhelming evidence that Reich manufactured whole fantasy scenes. For instance, Reich has Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) bellowing over the administration's minimum wage proposal: "Where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?" and "Evidence! Evidence!" Rauch checked that version against a C-SPAN tape of the event and was "flabbergasted": "Saxton," notes Rauch, "was, in fact, decorous and polite. He did not jump up and down; he did not impugn Reich's education; he did not shout `Evidence! Evidence!'…Reich has replaced a dull, earnestly wonkish hearing with a Hollywood script in which a mean Republican hammers a decent Democrat."

Fair enough–for inside the Beltway. But the story gets so much better when we consider Reich's rejoinder to Rauch. Was Reich: a) embarrassed; b) apologetic; c) defensive; or d) all of the above? The answer: none of the above! To be sure, Reich allowed that he made his points by making up quotes. But that's not a problem, Reich suggested calmly.

"I felt [Saxton's] hostility," he told Slate. "Look, the book is a memoir. It's not investigative journalism." Regarding Reich's rendition of statements made at the minimum wage hearing, Rauch asked, "Did you just make them up?" Reich shot back: "They're in my journal."

Thus, the C-SPAN videotape is inferior to Reich's personal diary as a source. What Reich perceives to be happening is far more important than what actually does happen.

While Reich has been scolded and ridiculed by some in the press for his Walter Mitty tendencies, the brilliantly focused mental CAT scan which Reich's behavior illuminates has yet gone unexamined.

To wit: What is the appropriate response when a prominent member of our government perceives things that just don't happen? People said one thing to Secretary Reich, and he, by his own boastful admission, heard something quite different. When someone is haunted by strange voices and imagines elaborate scenarios that turn out to be dream sequences, is he really the right choice for a leadership role in the organization? When a person sneeringly refers to examination of the factual record of a congressional hearing as "investigative journalism," is he qualified for a cabinet post?

A second question arises from the high esteem yet attached to the daydreaming Reich. Once upon a time, he so impressed our president that his The Work of Nations was credited with forming the intellectual backbone of the 1992 Clinton campaign. A certified Friend of Bill, Reich went into Labor for four long years.

Before rising to cabinet rank, Reich was a guru of the highest standing. He taught at Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School of Government and generated $347,000 in lecture fees in 1992. The author of six well-received books of political economy, he was a regularly scheduled talking head and a frequent contributor to the nation's leading newspapers and magazines. He was a contributing editor of The New Republic.

On this last count, I was stunned to read what his fellow New Republic editor, Mickey Kaus, wrote in a TNR cover story back when Reich was nominated for the Clinton cabinet. Kaus exposed Reich as an intellectual poseur, an economist wannabe (he was a Yale lawyer who took a Rhodes trip to Oxford), a man who fabricated facts for his many tomes, and one who would–even after being informed that some piece of analysis was faulty, some bit of evidence untrue–continue to dispense policy nonsense so long as it could be slicked up with a new coat of spin.

I recall thinking then, "Wow, this will destroy Robert Reich." Well, not exactly. Indeed, its apparent impact was to convince our president that he had made the perfect pick to advance his administration's agenda.

Reich's cavalier disregard for the facts continues to find eager buyers. He returns to Boston, where a generous sinecure awaits him at Brandeis University. One can only imagine the lecture fee lucre his padded résumé will now produce. And the best-seller list awaits more of Reich's public policy wisdom.

Reich knows his market, and his market is not, as they say in TV, reality-based. As he says, he is not an "investigative journalist," and the true facts will not be expected. Indeed, until Jonathan Rauch came along, Reich's memoir was being reviewed with every presumption of truth afforded the writings of a gentleman and a scholar.

Consider the verdict of Newsweek's Evan Thomas, writing in The New York Times: "Locked in the Cabinet is delightful. Mr. Reich…is a clever and observant diarist….Despite his feistiness, Mr. Reich has a kind of enduring vulnerability….Mr. Reich is so genuine…that readers will be moved. In truth, Robert B. Reich never really belonged in the upper reaches of the Clinton Administration; he is too ingenuous."

In truth, Robert B. Reich is a relatively honest policy broker in Washington. Calibrate accordingly.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.