Whenever a once-famous person resurfaces in the news, reporters rely on a kind of journalistic shorthand to remind readers what made the person so notable in the first place. In the case of former Reagan budget director David A. Stockman, reporters always reach to the 1981 moment when he was taken to the “woodshed”—Stockman’s word—by President Ronald Reagan after his “careless rambling … poor judgment and loose talk” about fiscal policy to the Atlantic’s William Greider resulted in a cover story that embarrassed the administration.
Stockman-woodshed correlations have been seeping into the press in recent months as a criminal investigation of Stockman matured into a securities-fraud indictment last week. The New York Times was among the first to describe Stockman as the woodshed guy in a Dec. 17 item titled “Back to the Woodshed?” and it relied on the W-word again in a March 22 news story. After the indictment arrived, the March 27 Washington Postidentified Stockman as the budget director whose “falling out with Reagan” led to his trip to the “woodshed.” The same day’s Los Angeles Times used the story in its lede: “David Stockman was back in the woodshed Monday, this time for allegedly masterminding an investment fraud.”
It’s a wonderful story, but as anybody who has bothered to read Stockman’s memoir, 1986’s The Triumph of Politics, can tell you, he never voyaged to the Reagan woodshed.
In the opening pages of his book, Stockman tells the complete story. He meets Reagan for lunch shortly after the Atlantic story breaks, and Reagan says, “You have hurt me. Why?” Stockman delivers his 15-minute rambling apology for making the disparaging—but accurately quoted—remarks about the administration’s supply-side policies. When Stockman finishes apologizing, Reagan tells his budget director that he is “a victim of sabotage by the press. They’re trying to bring you down because of what you have helped us accomplish.”
Reagan asks Stockman to stay on as budget director but says the “fellas” want him to “write up a statement explaining all this and go before the press this afternoon.”
The “fellas” include Mike Deaver, Ed Meese, Jim Baker, and Lyn Nofziger. They find particularly offensive Stockman’s metaphoric description of the Kemp-Roth bill as a “Trojan horse,” so he agrees to give them what they want, which, as he writes was:
A countermetaphor. A woodshed story. A self-inflicted public humiliation. …So that afternoon I played out the script that the White House public relations men had designed.
Here’s the lie—I mean, the countermetaphor—Stockman feeds to the White House press corps on Nov. 12, 1981:
I hesitate to use metaphors after the bad luck I’ve had in recent days, but I grew up on a farm and I might say, therefore, that my visit to the Oval Office for lunch with the president was more in the nature of a visit to the woodshed after supper.
I can forgive the press for believing the woodshed story from November 1981, when Stockman constructed it, until 1986 when TheTriumph of Politics appeared. But after that, only the willfully ignorant can be pardoned. Newsweek revealed his lie by excerpting the relevant section of The Triumph of Politics under the headline “The Real Woodshed Story” (April 21, 1986). Michael Kinsley’s New York Times review (May 11, 1986) also threw a spotlight on the woodshed fib.
As Stockman readies himself for trial, the press will continue to recycle his woodshed trip as if it really happened. What accounts for the tale’s staying power?
For one thing, the phrasing was felicitous. William Safire, for one, was immediately drawn to it and traced the origin of woodshed in his New York Times Magazine language column. As I recall, “woodshed” became a bit of a catchphrase in Washington and wherever people followed politics, as in “The boss … the wife … the IRS is taking me to the woodshed.” Stockman and his word remained so twinned that when he resigned in 1985, it figured high in the news stories about his departure.
It also endured because it took advantage of the way memory works. We don’t deposit remembered items in an inert structure where they remain unchanged until we call them up again, as Garry Wills has noted. “In fact, what is being recalled is the experience that a person underwent in acquiring anything to be remembered,” he writes.
Every time a memory is withdrawn and deposited, its shell thickens and hardens. In the four short years between Stockman’s “countermetaphoric” press conference and the publication of his book, the woodshed lie became as tough as epoxy. Two decades later, it still holds tighter than any truth.
I refuse to quote that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Memory dumps accepted at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)