Robert Reich, Quote Doctor
Robert Reich, Quote Doctor
May 30 1997 3:30 AM

Robert Reich, Quote Doctor

A Washington memoirist puts words in people's mouths.

Illustration by William L. Brown

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.

Illustration by William L. Brown

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."