Reich Redux

Will the justices know it when they see it?

Granted, Robert Reich’s isn’t the very first name that comes to mind these days when you think about political figures in trouble over twisting the truth. But if there ever was a moment that showed the importance of finding the fine line between spinning the facts and dispensing with them, this is it. For an object lesson in the difference, consider Reich redux.

Last year, Slate reported that in parts of Locked in the Cabinet, his memoir of his term as labor secretary, Reich fabricated quotations and distorted events. Moreover, the changes appear to have been systematic rather than random, crafted to create Hollywood-style set pieces in which Reich was the embattled decent man who was savaged by ruthless journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and other Beltway vermin. (Click here to read the original story.) The real people for whom nasty lines had been constructed were not amused.

Reich replied that his book was faithful to his experience as he remembered it, that the media were unfairly attacking him yet again, that the discrepancies were minor, and that he would correct them in a future edition. Now the new edition is here, in the form of a paperback with revisions and a new introduction.

In this new introduction, Reich again portrays his variances with reality as mere memory slips. “Memory is fallible,” he writes. “Where I have subsequently learned of errors or misinterpretations I have made changes in this edition. In no instance, however, are the changes of material importance to the story I relate.”

The book’s disputed passages come in three broad types. First, denied quotations. In his new introduction, Reich says, “You are duly warned, had you not assumed it already, that most of the quotes in this book should be considered paraphrases rather than verbatim accounts, as is often true of memoirs.” But many of the people Reich quotes have denied the substance as well as the precise wording of the quotations ascribed them. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., denied that he had said the following of his fellow Democrats: “We’re owned by them. Business.” Former House Republican leader Robert Michel denied that he had told Reich that Newt Gingrich and friends were “out to destroy. They’ll try to destroy anything that gets in their way.” And so on.

In the new edition, Reich has not changed these disputed quotations. You just have to decide whom you believe.

The second sort of dispute involves Reich’s interpretations and characterizations of events and/or people. Lane Kirkland, the former president of the AFL-CIO, comes in for rough treatment in Reich’s book, and he wrote a bitter letter complaining about it. He especially objected to an account of a dinner party at his house, at which his wife Ilena (according to Reich) exclaims in horror, and the whole table falls silent, when Reich “puncture[s] the evening’s high-society ambiance” by mistaking mint jelly for sauce.

The new version makes some small but revealing changes in the party scene. Some characters who Lane Kirkland said had been fabricated have been removed. Ilena Kirkland still exclaims “No!” as Reich makes for the mint jelly. But she is now a solicitous hostess rather than a tactless snob: She is “apparently concerned that I will embarrass myself.” That’s nicer. The scene has been subjectified, too. In the original, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan was “appalled like the rest.” Now, “I imagine he is appalled like the rest.” Before, various people “stare at me silently.” Now, “I feel as if everyone is staring at me.” No one can dispute that Reich felt and imagined what he says he felt and imagined. But the moral is the same: “I might as well have farted ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’… Sam’s right: Washington sucks.” Again, readers need to decide for themselves how likely it is that a Cabinet officer would bring a Washington dinner party to a mortified standstill by mistaking jelly for sauce.

T he final, most striking category of discrepancy involves public events where official records exist and flatly contradict Reich. In one such case–a presidential press conference at which reporters supposedly bombard him and President Clinton with nasty questions, none of which appears in the White House transcript (the actual questions were quite pedestrian)–he makes no changes. Much more interesting, however, are two episodes that Reich has overhauled.

In one of them, a congressional hearing on the minimum wage becomes an “attack ad” as Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., jumps up and down in his chair “like a schoolboy” and crudely berates Reich while a bread-and-circuses audience laughs and applauds. In fact, most of the spoken lines attributed to Saxton were made up, the real hearing was dully decorous and, as far as I could tell from the videotapes, the audience was politely catatonic. In the new version, Reich sticks to the transcript and accurately quotes Saxton droning on at length about studies and Godfather’s Pizza. Saxton’s statement is partisan but monotonously real, and Reich’s complaint is not that he was attacked but that he had “no real chance of getting a hearing at this hearing.”

He still exaggerates the hostility displayed, and says that Saxton “won’t let me answer” when in fact Reich’s chief economist is later allowed to deliver a lecture-length reply. (To compare Reich’s new version with the original, click.) But this time he gets the Washington story basically right: The point of most Washington hearings–for all concerned, including Cabinet secretaries–is not to listen and learn but to talk and score points. In real hearings, adversaries brandish impressive-sounding studies and tell sob stories, rather than making buffoonish personal attacks.

In the original book, one of the most striking incidents involves Reich’s talk before a roomful of National Association of Manufacturers executives and lobbyists, allegedly all male and smoking cigars (straight from central casting). In the original, Reich is set up by his host and then ambushed by a hostile questioner named John, and when he tries to answer with an eloquent Mr. Smith speech (“My fist is clenched. ‘Sure, you and your shareholders have done fine. But what about your workers?’ “), he is drowned out with boos and hisses. At one point, the room erupts in cries of “Bullshit!” and “Go back to Harvard!”

For anyone who knows Washington, the idea that a roomful of slick corporate lobbyists would treat a sitting labor secretary this way is preposterous. And they didn’t, of course. In his revision, Reich gets rid of the cigar shtick and again substitutes actual words, while trying to preserve what he can of a sense of hostility. John’s pedantic speech is quoted accurately but characterized as a “tirade,” and Reich’s answer is given as the mumbling equivocation that it actually was (“John, I will get back to you with all the information on it. That was the information I have. You have different information”). Instead of boos and shouts, we have only “I hear hisses from several locations.” Well, we cannot dispute that he thought he heard hisses–though the transcript reports, and the transcriber remembers, only scattered applause and laughter.

H ere again, the new scene has been spun rather than fabricated. The level of hostility has been exaggerated, but through it the real Washington, rather than a screenwriter’s fantasy, is recognizable. (Click to compare the new and old versions.)

In both revised scenes, Washington is still a nasty place, and Reich still shines as a perennially beset paragon of decency. But the issues are of interpretation, not falsification. Locked in the Cabinet itself makes some shrewd and unflattering comments about the Washington games of spinning and posturing; Reich portrays himself as an innocent who knows little of such things. But in fact, both as labor secretary and as memoirist, he plays the game as well as the next fellow. The next fellow–his old boss–should read this new edition attentively. For the president, however, it may be too late to revise.

If you missed our link to Jonathan Rauch’s original story in Slate, click here. And compare the “old” and “new” versions of two incidents that Reich retools: the on the minimum wage and the with National Association of Manufacturers execs.