Sentimental Education

The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans

by William Greider
Dutton, 159 pp., $9.25; $5.95 (paper)
David Stockman
David Stockman; drawing by David Levine

Almost anything other than maybe an indiscreet quotation or expression or metaphor that was contained in that article basically reflects things that I had been saying in our private deliberations as well as in public comments over the last nine months.

—David Stockman at a press conference after William Greider’s article
on him in the Atlantic was first released to the press last autumn

William Greider starts his book by echoing Stockman’s surprise that their famous Atlantic article—reprinted here in full, and taking nearly one half the book—caused the furor it did. After all Stockman was not saying anything that was not common knowledge around Washington—or anything about Reaganomics that had not been said by others. Nearly a year later what he was saying clearly became true. The deficits have been getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

True enough. But language and source make a difference. Suppose I had condensed the Greider-Stockman article, using Stockman quotations in the following ways: “Supply-side [economics] is ‘trickle down’ theory.” “Kemp-Roth was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top [income tax] rate.” Because there were “no real conservatives” among the Republican members of Congress but only “piranha,” the “hogs were really feeding. The greed level…just got out of control.” They turned the president’s tax cut into “a Christmas tree bill” of benefits for the powerful. But “no one of us really understood what’s going on with all of these numbers” anyway. “Hell, I think there’s a kind of a swamp of $10 to $20 to $30 billion worth of waste that can be ferreted out” of the president’s favorite programs at the Defense Department.

Can anyone really believe that the press wouldn’t reduce the article to that paragraph or that the paragraph wouldn’t cause a furor? Strip the article of those colorful quotations and it would have lost, say, 70 percent of its impact.

But there is something else besides language. In the story where the little boy mentions that the emperor is wearing no clothes, everyone, including the emperor, instantly knows that the little boy is speaking the truth. In real life it would have happened very differently. The little boy’s observations would have gone unnoticed, he would have been hushed, or he would have been “taken to the woodshed,” in the words of David Stockman, to correct his behavior in front of his betters. It is news, however, when a member of the emperor’s cabinet says that the emperor is wearing no clothes. It is shocking in the same sense that someone collapsing drunk into their food at a fancy dinner party is shocking. But in both cases, after the initial furor, everyone goes on as if nothing had happened.

In the end the article made no real difference. Reaganomics proceeded as it had been proceeding. Greider’s book follows the inexorable steps by which taxes were cut, deficits…

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