Slate.com | May 30, 1997
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. [I've included the contents of this link as Appendix 1, below.]
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. [Appendix 2, below]
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.
APPENDIX 1: The Saxton Hearing
On February 22, 1995, the congressional Joint Economic Committee held hearings on the minimum wage. What follows first is the version in Robert Reich's book, Locked in the Cabinet. Then come the words that were actually spoken. (Italics are in the original.)
The Republican attack machine is gearing up, and I'm one of the targets. A "paranoid" is someone who thinks right-wing politicians are after him and who isn't known as a combative liberal cabinet member.
Today's hearing of the Joint Economic Committee: cameras, reporters, packed audience, a parade of witnesses claiming that raising the minimum wage will cause widespread loss of jobs. I begin to make the contrary case, when the Republican House chairman, James Saxton, a fleshy-faced former real-estate broker from New Jersey, interrupts:
"Where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?" He sits up straight and his eyes gleam. He's finally launched on the TV performance he's been waiting for. "Can you explain to those of us who are not versed in this new economic law how it is that an employer will hire more workers when the government forces him to pay more for them?"
"In fact, Congressman, there's evidence that when New Jersey raised its minimum wage, more jobs were created, because people entered the labor force who otherwise wouldn't have bothered ... "
"Evidence! Evidence!" Saxton jumps up and down in his chair like a schoolboy too eager to answer his teacher's question, and points to a large chart that's been placed on an easel, facing the cameras. "Look at this! This is what you're trying to prove! It can't be proven, because it's wrong!"
Along the bottom of the chart, starting on the left, are the numbers $4.25, $5.25, $6.25, and so on, continuing to $20.25. Along the side of the chart, starting from the bottom, are the numbers 10 million, 20 million, 30 million, and so on, up to 300 million. A bright red line rises from bottom left to upper right. Across the top of the chart, in bold letters: THE REICH CURVE.
Saxton looks toward the TV cameras. "I have a very difficult time understanding how an accepted law of economics doesn't apply! This man actually believes that the higher you raise the cost of labor, the more jobs you'll create! So why not raise the minimum wage to twenty dollars an hour? Look at all the new jobs that'll be created! Three hundred million! Why stop there? Why not raise it to a hundred dollars an hour? We'd find jobs for everyone in the world! Think of it! What a deal!"
The audience applauds. Saxton can't hide his delight.
There was a time not long ago when congressional hearings were designed to elicit information for members in order to help them draft legislation. Now they're attack ads.
That was Reich. Here's reality. Reich has already delivered his lengthy prepared testimony, and Saxton--who did not interrupt, and who was decorous throughout--is asking his first question. The transcript picks up from the one quotation that both Reich and reality have in common:
Jim Saxton: Can you explain to those of us who are not versed in this what, to me, is a new concept of a law that is a law sometimes but not all the time, how this precisely works, and take me through an example at the level of job opportunities, at the firm level, and explain how an employer has the ability to hire more workers when government forces them to pay more for that commodity, in this case, labor?
Robert Reich: Mr. Chairman, let me repeat what I said before lest it be misunderstood, and I want to make sure that I was understood clearly. Obviously there is a price at which if the minimum wage were increased the cost of labor would be too much and therefore you would suffer job loss. As I said in my example ... (His longish answer continues.)
Saxton: I apologize, but I just have a very difficult time understanding how a generally accepted law of economics, or principle of economics, applies on some occasions and doesn't on others. Let me go back.
Reich: Mr. Chairman, I was about to answer your question.
Saxton: Well, I know you were going to give me an answer. I have no doubt about that. Even when you compared a few minutes ago a one-cent increase in the minimum wage to a $10 increase in the minimum wage, even a one-cent increase in the minimum wage would certainly have some minimal, microscopic perhaps, effect, and if a law is a law and if it works, it works most of the time or all the time.
Let me hearken back to an old-fashioned economic theory, but most economists I have talked to believe that the market sets wage rates on the basis of what a worker can produce. I have somebody who lives in the Philadelphia area who recently brought that very clearly to my attention in describing his scheme for providing incentives for people to work and earn more, and minimum-wage workers, through productive activity, in a very short period of time can actually earn as much in this scheme as $11.50 an hour, but employers will not pay an individual $5.15 an hour if what he produces is only worth $4.50. That is a pretty--that is so clear to me in terms of what I understand and what I have learned about economics and how it really works that I have a very difficult time accepting the proposition that a 21 percent increase in the minimum wage will have--I was going to say no effect but, in your words, a positive effect on job growth.
Reich: Well, if you would let me respond to your question, Mr. Chairman, I would love to try to explain. There are two issues here. One has to do with a firm and what happens inside the firm. The other has to do with the labor market as a whole. Let me first of all look at the firm
(His answer continues.)
Reich: Why is that?
Saxton: Can't employers figure that out for themselves? Can't they choose to raise, as my friend in Philadelphia does, Ed Satell—can't they choose to make those adjustments in their minimum wage rather than to have the federal government mandate a minimum wage which Mr. Krueger says is not meaningful in New Jersey because it doesn't hurt the employment picture? As a matter of fact, I think the reason it didn't hurt the employment picture in New Jersey is because those firms that you studied, the McDonald's and the Burger Chefs, were already paying $7.25 an hour.
Alan Krueger (Labor Department chief economist): Excuse me, if I may answer that ...
(Krueger discusses a chart with Saxton. Saxton recesses the committee. Later, Saxton and Reich have a few brief exchanges, none resembling the account in Reich's book.)
APPENDIX 2: The NAM Meeting
On March 19, 1993, Robert Reich gave a talk at a National Association of Manufacturers "issue breakfast." Here is Reich's account of the episode, followed by the transcript of the meeting (prepared for the association by a professional court reporter). We pick up Reich's account starting with a question asked by "John" (all italics and ellipses are in the original):
Rising from the shadows is an ample belly with wide shoulders, arms crossed, head topped with thin strands of white hair. "Mis-ter Secretary"--he spits out each syllable--"is the administration planning to introduce legislation that would prevent us from replacing striking workers?"
The tension that I had carefully swept out of the room is instantly sucked back in. I hesitate. "Your answer, Mr. Secretary?" Jasonowski [sic--Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the NAM] turns to me, all smiles. It's clear that he and John have planned this.
"Yes." My mind tells me to end it there, but my mouth keeps going. "No one wants to strike, but it's often the only way to get employers to the bargaining table. If employers are free to permanently replace striking workers, then strikes are worthless."
The room erupts. "Wrong!" "Bullshit!" "Go back to Harvard!" So much for step one of the Grand Bargain.
"Please, please, everyone ..." Jasonowski motions for quiet, a seemingly magnanimous gesture, placing him above the fray. A regular statesman, this Jasonowski.
I have taken the bait. John now begins to reel me in. "But Mister Secretary, surely you are aware that in 1938 the Supreme Court said it was perfectly legal to replace striking workers?"
"Yes, technically legal, but rarely done—at least until the nineteen-eighties." I can't win this argument in this room. I want to get out of here. The cigar smoke is making my eyes water. I feel dizzy.
"You've got your facts wrong, Mister Secretary." John won't let go, and Jasonowski is absolutely de-light-ed. He promised his members a good show today, and he's delivering.
I try to remember my coaching for the confirmation: Avoid public confrontations. Tell them what they want to hear without committing yourself. Tell them you look forward to working with them. But I'm hooked.
"As a matter of fact, I'm right. Here are the facts. ..." I'm sliding into professor mode, patronizing, pompous. The audience begins to hiss. "Between 1938 and 1981 there are only five cases on record of companies that permanently replaced striking workers. But since 1980, there have been almost a dozen, including notorious ones like Eastern Airlines and Greyhound. And hundreds more have publicly threatened to do so in order to deter strikes." The hissing is becoming so loud that I'm not sure anyone can hear me. I yell, "and that's just plain wrong."
John shouts his response: "In the nineteen-eighties American manufacturing made a comeback!" He's delivering a prepared speech now. "They said we were dead, we couldn't compete. But we're the best in the world. Government should stay the hell out of our business!" Cheers. We're in a boxing arena, John's the champ, and the crowd is loving every minute.
Now here is the real "John," from the transcript. Reich has finished his formal remarks and is taking the first question:
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary--
REICH: Could you introduce yourself?
QUESTION: Yes. My name is John Irving.
REICH: Hi, John.
QUESTION: And I am a management attorney, and I was the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board from 1975 to 1979. And I think you would agree with me that one way to promote better understanding between labor and management, and between management and government, is accuracy in information that we exchange, and I would like to know--I was hopeful that your quote that was reported in the Post yesterday was a misquote, but you've repeated it here, again, today. And it's very, very fundamental.
It is this idea that, somehow, before 1981, no employer would have considered hiring permanent replacements for economic strikers. I'd like to know what your basis is for that, because I know for a fact that a management study was done that shows that 230 times, before 1981, in NLRB cases, that the hiring of permanent replacements was involved. And, indeed, after 1981, there were only 20 cases. And I know, from my personal experience, that the hiring of permanent replacements, or the threat of hiring permanent replacements, is a key element in our economic system of collective bargaining, where there are risks for both sides, and so on.
But, for somebody to say that, "No employer would have considered hiring permanent replacements before 1981," in my own experience, is simply not the case. If there is some study that shows that, if you're privy to some information that the rest of us don't have, we'd certainly like to see that.
1981 tends to be a watershed year that people point to, because it's the time when Ronald Reagan replaced--they like to say "replaced"--air traffic controllers which, again, is really not the case. Those are people who were violating federal law by striking. They were not "permanently replaced"; they were fired for violating federal law. There really is no parallel between the hiring of economic replacements, and what Ronald Reagan did, back in the early eighties.
QUESTION: But there is no study, that I know of, that says that employers, before 1981, did not consider the hiring of permanent replacements.
REICH: John, I will get back to you with all the information on it. That was the information I have. You have different information. The point I was trying to make, and we will compare empirical information, but I can tell you that was the information I have. But also, in addition to, maybe, the empirical information I have--and I'm interested in your information--I have talked to many employers who say to me that they would never hire replacement workers, and that the culture did change, after 1981.
(Reich's answer continues. Then he takes a few other questions, all the questioners polite and respectful, and the meeting ends. The transcript indicates a sprinkling throughout of laughter and applause.)