It Seems To Me

High Life on the Potomac

Mr. Reich comes to Washington.

I am not now–and never have been–a fan of Robert Reich’s economics or politics. Fourteen years ago, I said in a review of one of his books:

This book has three elements: a description of the terrible present state and future prospects of the American economy, a theory of the causes of that dreadful condition, and a prescription for rescuing us. The description of our condition is grossly exaggerated. The theory of the causes of the alleged condition is inadequately supported. The prescription is, with some exceptions, unpersuasive.

Reading his new book, Locked in the Cabinet (Alfred A. Knopf; 338 pages; $25), about his four years as secretary of labor from 1993 through 1996, I find that he has not changed his mind–or I mine–even though his new book gives us a closer look at Reich the person than the earlier ones did. He does not come through as particularly admirable. He is self-righteous and self-pitying. He is unfair, often in a petty way, to people with whom he disagrees–notably, for some reason, Alan Greenspan. And his treatment of Bill Clinton, his longtime friend who made Reich a national figure by appointing him to the Cabinet, is, if not exactly disloyal, surely unseemly. Clinton comes through, in Reich’s account, as an amiable man, a good politician, and a great preacher, who is nonetheless unprincipled, indecisive, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities that come with the presidency. He is the kind of person least qualified to be president and most likely to become one. There are plenty of people other than Reich who could have told us all that. The president’s pal didn’t have to do it–or he could at least have waited until Clinton was out of office. But, as the saying goes, they all do it.

Iput all these negatives up front so that my friends won’t think that I have gone off my rocker when I say I enjoyed much of Locked in the Cabinet and ended it feeling sorry for Reich. The book has two interwoven parts–a policy part and a life part. The policy part I find inadequate and unconvincing. The life part I find fascinating. The story in the policy part goes like this:

Reich came to Washington with a policy for relieving the suffering of the American worker. That policy included stronger unions, corporate responsibility, a higher minimum wage and, most important, more federal spending on–or, as he would say, federal investment in–job training and retraining. Reich’s four-year effort to get this policy adopted was largely defeated by the opposition of Wall Street, Big Business, rich people in general–and their hirelings or dupes in the government. The main instrument they used for defeating him was a call for obeisance to a false god, Balancing the Budget. So our hero leaves the battlefield with his head bloody but only slightly bowed.

What value you assign to this story depends on how valid you think Reich’s policy is. If his policy would have been the salvation of the American worker, the story of its defeat is a tragic drama. If the policy was mistaken and would have been ineffective anyway, there is no drama, no tragedy, no hero, and no villains. In that case, his endless kvetching about training and the rest of it is a bore to the reader, as I suspect it sometimes was to the president.

B ut aside from relating a few anecdotes, Reich makes no effort to demonstrate the validity of his prescription. He could hardly do so in a book like this one. The issues are complicated and difficult. Job training is an example. That the federal government should support job training is not a new idea. The Kennedy administration was taken by that idea 35 years ago. Since 1962 the federal government has spent $180 billion, in 1997 dollars, on job training and employment programs. Probably at least $1 billion has been spent on research to evaluate these programs, trying to measure their benefits and costs. My understanding of the conclusion of all this research is that for male workers, there was no net benefit and for female workers, very little. Reich may have reason to dispute that conclusion. But to explain that and convince the reader of it would require sophisticated analysis of a mass of data and would be an entirely different book from the collection of personal reminiscences he has produced.

If readers bypass all that, however, and remind themselves not to enter into policy debate with the author, they will find the other part of the book–the life part–interesting, enjoyable, and valuable. This part is about what it is like to be a Cabinet secretary. What does he do all day? What, if anything, goes on at a Cabinet meeting? How can the administration’s economic officials, all presumably on the same team, meet for hours to talk about the budget without getting one step forward? How does one prepare for and behave at a congressional hearing? What do people talk about, and eat, at Washington receptions and dinners? How does it feel to address a meeting of hostile lobbyists, or to meet the press, or to appear on television with Jay Leno? And so on.

Idid not share all Reich’s experiences when I was in the government. But I observed such life enough to say that his picture is realistic. (I was, however, shocked when he said that the cabins at Camp David were “mildewed.” Things must have gone down a lot after the Nixon administration.) He tells this story with a vividness that I did not expect of him, with insight, some irony, and touches of gallows humor. There are much better books by former members of the Cabinet–George Shultz’s, for example–but none that I know of that is so rich in personal detail.

This book is not a road map for improving the American economy. It will probably have no effect on future elections or public policy. But that is not the important test of a book. This one can give readers pleasure and amusement, and also help them understand a little better the world we live in. I have learned, mainly from talking with taxi drivers, that everyone’s life is interesting if you know enough about it. That is true of Cabinet secretaries as well as of taxi drivers.

So, why am I sorry for Robert Reich? It is certainly not because he failed to get most of his policy proposals adopted. It is because he did not enjoy his life in Washington. His four years here were the most exciting part of his whole life and could have been the happiest part of his professional one. But he got no pleasure from it. He was so determined to maintain his self-image of moral superiority that he could not relax to enjoy his Washington experience. I feel that after it was over, he realized he may have missed something. In the epilogue, on Page 334, he says, “[M]y job was the most fascinating and rewarding I could ever hope for.” But in the preceding 333 pages, derived from notes taken during his four years in office, we have the picture of an angry and unhappy man. That is why I am sorry for Robert Reich.