Robert Reich, Quote Doctor

A Washington memoirist puts words in people’s mouths.

Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich’s new memoir of his years as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, is an engaging policy memoir: insightful, often witty and, what’s most unusual for wonk kiss and tells, easy to read, partly because it’s told in long stretches of well-written dialogue that add up to scores of novelistic scenes of Washington at work. The book reads like good fiction. Unfortunately, some of it is.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that there is something special about quotation marks. Whatever is between them, in nonfiction, is supposed to reflect accurately words that some real person actually said. Now, “accurately” leaves room for quibbling, and a memoir will be understood by most readers to be offered on an “as remembered” basis. Reich says, in his prefatory note, that he jotted notes to himself, “usually late at night,” and then consolidated them to make the book. People know that Reich is not a reporter, and will adjust their expectations accordingly. Fair enough. Maybe he has a good memory.

Certainly from a former Cabinet officer, however, one would expect, if not word-for-word accuracy, at least some checking of his memory, especially when public documents are available. Suspicions mount as Reich spins out page after page of crisp conversation, especially when the same remark issues from two different mouths–as happens on pages 122 and 129.

Again and again, Reich offers zippy dramatic dialogues culminating in pithy and revealing quotes. For instance, he has Robert Michel, R-Ill., who was House minority leader at the time, telling him this about Newt Gingrich and friends: “They talk as if they’re interested in ideas, in what’s good for America. But don’t be fooled. They’re out to destroy. They’ll try to destroy anything that gets in their way, using whatever tactics are available.” Reich may believe Michel said this, but Michel says he knows otherwise. “That’s not my quote, no,” he says. Michel says he probably complained about the decline of comity and bipartisanship. But “I would never say that–that they’re out to destroy. I’d never say anything like it.”

Reich says that on March 18, 1993, Democratic Rep. Martin Olav Sabo of Minnesota, House Budget Committee chairman, told him this about congressional Democrats: “We’re owned by them. Business. That’s where the campaign money comes from now.” But Sabo says that he could not have spoken with Reich on March 18 (they did talk on March 2) and that, in any case, he neither said nor believes that Democrats are owned by business. Reich “certainly does not capture the substance of any conversation I ever had with him,” Sabo wrote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Reich also reports a conversation in which he tells Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., his theory about blue-collar hostility toward Clinton. The vignette ends with Obey saying: “You’re either a genius or you’re nuts. If I were you, I wouldn’t share that theory with anyone else.” Obey says, through an aide, that he’s sure he never said that, since he was talking up a similar theory himself–though he says the rest of the conversation seems accurate. Former head of the AFL-CIO Lane Kirkland, whom Reich portrays unsympathetically in several private dialogues, protested in a recent letter to Reich: “I did not, in fact, utter the words that you attribute to me in various places, in direct quotation marks, as though you were repeating my words verbatim.”

Asked about these denials, Reich said, “Our recollections differ.” And it’s certainly true that, in Washington, quote-denying is endemic. But some of Reich’s dialogues are checkable, and turn out, when checked, to be inaccurate in ways that serve Reich’s rhetorical ends.

At a 1995 press conference, just after President Clinton and Reich have failed to settle the baseball strike, Reich has reporters asking the following questions: “Mr. President, why did you invite the players and owners to the White House in the first place?” “If you can’t even get these parties to agree, what hope do you have in Bosnia?” “Does this mark the nadir of this administration’s influence?” “First it was the minimum wage and now it’s baseball. Why do you and your labor secretary think Washington should be involved in every employment issue in America?”

Those questions certainly help Reich paint a picture of piranha journalists intent on humiliating the administration. But none of the questions, nor any like them, was ever asked. The reporters’ focus was on major-league baseball, not on Reich and Clinton, and their tone was puzzled rather than angry.

Here are all the real questions that the reporters asked: “Mr. President, you’ve met now with the players and the owners. In your opinion, who is more to blame for this impasse? And why won’t they simply accept voluntarily binding arbitration?” “Mr. President, what gave rise to the optimism you felt during the course of the evening that a settlement might be possible?” “How do you compare this, Mr. President, to, say, President Kennedy acting on steel prices and former uses of the office and the Oval Office for labor disputes?” There was a question about legislation. And (most scathingly), “Mr. President, if the season begins with replacement players, would you throw out the first ball?”

Life, unlike Reich’s book, is not a series of morality fables. On Feb. 22, 1995, Reich testified on the minimum wage before the Joint Economic Committee. That much his memoir gets right. “The Republican attack machine is gearing up,” Reich writes, “and I’m one of the targets.” Then he paints a scene in which committee chairman Jim Saxton, R-N.J., interrupts Reich’s initial testimony and lights into him savagely, starting with, “Where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?” and then jumping up and down in his chair and crying, “Evidence! Evidence!” while pointing to a chart. “There was a time not long ago when congressional hearings were designed to elicit information for members in order to help them draft legislation,” recalls Reich ruefully. “Now they’re attack ads.”

When I checked the transcript, I was flabbergasted; so I checked the C-SPAN tapes, and they leave no doubt. Reich appears to have fabricated much of this episode for dramatic effect. Saxton 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!” The chart to which Reich refers was actually presented during Saxton’s opening statement, hours before Reich testified, and did not look as Reich claims it did. Worst of all, most of the lines that Reich attributes to Saxton–starting with “where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?”–appear never to have been said at all. Reich has replaced a dull, earnestly wonkish hearing with a Hollywood script in which a mean Republican hammers a decent Democrat. Don’t take my word for it. I invite you to compare Reich’s account with reality by clicking here.

Or, perhaps most striking of all, consider a set piece in which Reich speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers. He describes himself as being ambushed by cigar-chomping capitalists who hiss at him so loudly that he has to yell to be heard. “They plan to carve me up into small pieces,” he writes. “There isn’t a lady in the room. All men, in dark suits. They’ve finished lunch. Some are smoking cigars. Others are quietly smirking, ready for the kill.” His speech over, Reich is lambasted by a “John,” and Reich’s answer elicits an eruption of “Wrong!” “Bullshit!” and “Go back to Harvard!” As Reich speaks, the audience hisses so loudly “that I’m not sure anyone can hear me.” The cigar smoke, he says, “is making my eyes water. I feel dizzy.” He says, “We’re in a boxing arena, John’s the champ, and the crowd is loving every minute.” Finally, the meeting over, he races “out the back exit before they can pummel me.”

As it happens, the meeting was a breakfast, not a lunch. The NAM says the attendance list shows that a third or more of the people present were women (including the NAM representative with whom I spoke). If anyone actually was inclined to light up a cigar after breakfast, he would have been breaking the NAM’s no-smoking rule, according to an association representative (who, like another witness I talked to, saw no cigars). Most important, a transcript of the meeting shows a respectful Q and A session, in which none of the comments attributed to “John”–nor any like them–were actually made.

One would hardly expect a roomful of corporate reps to hiss, boo, and shout “bullshit” at a sitting U.S. labor secretary. Sure enough, the transcript shows nothing nastier than sprinkled applause and laughter. I asked Richard Boyd, the professional court reporter who transcribed the session, whether his transcript might have omitted hisses, boos, and imprecations. “I never witnessed anything like that with Robert Reich or anybody else at a NAM meeting,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain I would remember it.” Reich portrays himself as the little guy standing up to a roomful of abusive capitalists–pure Hollywood. Again, don’t take my word for it; click here.

I asked Reich what was going on in each of these cases. In reply, he pointed to his Note to the Reader: “I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it.” He said that his notes accurately reflected how he felt and what he perceived. In the three cases cited above, he felt varying degrees of hostility. “I am not representing the book to be anything other than it is, which is my account of my experiences, my perceptions, what I saw and heard around me,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

In effect, Reich is saying that he’s not writing journalism or history. He’s writing … well, what? He elides the very distinction between history and myth, memoir and novel, reality and perception. The problem is that those are real people he misquotes, real history he rewrites.

Steve Wasserman, a former Random House editor who now edits the Los Angeles Times Book Review, points out an irony: Books are often viewed as better sources for history than newspapers, but newspapers, which are generally much more careful than the average publishing house about such niceties as checking quotes, are often the more reliable source. Reich’s memoir, if that’s the proper word for it, is now ensconced between hard covers and will be read for years to come as part of the historical record. That is a shame. Quote me.