Robert Reich
Robert Reich; drawing by David Levine

In a speech in San Francisco last month, President Clinton announced three new urban initiatives. First, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will offer a 50 percent discount to police officers who buy homes owned by the department in neighborhoods they patrol. The program is designed to reach one thousand police officers. It will last one year. The second is a reduction in the points on Federal Housing Administration mortgages, from 1.75 percent to 1.5 percent, for first-time home buyers in inner cities. This program is expected to save twenty thousand eligible buyers about $200 each in closing costs. The third initiative is a demonstration program that will allow up to two thousand families to use federal rent subsidy money to buy their own homes.

This is the style of governance that has been adopted by a country that has the strongest economy in the world, has enjoyed five years of sustained growth, confronts no immediate threat to its security, and has almost completely lost its faith in public works. This style is not neoliberalism or neoconservatism, whatever those terms mean. It is something different, a kind of Government Lite. We want to improve conditions in depressed urban areas, so we show our good intentions by sprinkling a handful of federal fairy dust over them.

It is a style that enjoys strong bipartisan support. We think people should feel patriotic, so we pass a constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn the flag. We want to encourage the arts, so we give $99 million to the National Endowment for the Arts as a token of our esteem. (It is often pointed out that, at $99 million per year, each American is contributing only the cost of a postage stamp annually to the arts. It is less often pointed out that each American is therefore receiving a postage stamp’s worth of arts programming in return.) Our children are our future! We award a $500 tax credit for each child. Slavery was wrong! We pass a resolution apologizing for it. The appointment of a presidential commission certifies our acknowledgment that racism continues to be a problem of serious concern. School uniforms, tobacco-free All-Star games, television ratings: the country is in love with gestures. The only person who can’t seem to get his sins washed clean by a public apology is Mike Tyson.

The demise of the idea that the federal government ought to exercise its formidable power to amass and direct large amounts of resources to improve the quality of American life has many causes. Some Americans have become persuaded, by Ronald Reagan and his political epigoni, that they are overtaxed, and that public programs are a wasteful and even a counterproductive means of addressing social problems. Some Americans feel that reducing the budget deficit—which, in the absence of a willingness to raise taxes, means cutting spending—must be an economic priority. Some of the anti-government sentiment may be fueled by an unstated belief on the part of some white Americans that many public programs (for example, anything presented as an “urban initiative”) are essentially handouts to black Americans. The population is growing increasingly middle-aged, and consequently more conservative and self-satisfied. And many people, regardless of their age or their politics, do, in fact, think that symbols are important, that gestures are worth something. A culture, after all, is made up of symbols, and Americans tend to regard them very reverently. This is a country that has devoted a good deal of its creative energy to producing innovations in the art of the handshake.

Because he faced a relatively weak field in the presidential primaries in 1992, when a number of the better-known Democrats stayed out of the race after judging George Bush to be unbeatable, and because he won the presidency with only a plurality of the popular vote in both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton is sometimes discounted as a kind of default president, a president who won his first election because of a badly sagging economy and his second because of a badly sagging opponent. The assumption seems to be that, under the circumstances, any Democrat, or any reasonably centrist Democrat (or, had he chosen to run, Colin Powell), could be president.

This seems a misestimation of Clinton’s significance. John McEnroe was said to have developed his tennis game specifically in order to beat Bjorn Borg, who was then the reigning champion in the sport, on the theory that the only way to become champion was to beat Borg. There was no need, in other words, for McEnroe to develop an all-powerful tennis game. He just needed a tennis game powerful enough to beat Borg. Clinton succeeded in 1992 and 1996 by blunting the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of the people he had to beat and, more importantly, by responding to the diffuse, almost subpolitical mood that was out there in the country. He defeated Bush not because the economy was sagging, but because he made a sagging economy the issue, and he defeated Dole by the same strategy—by making Dole seem fuddled and inept. Clinton ran a stupefyingly empty campaign against Dole, because the more vacuous he sounded, the more Dole looked like a man swinging wildly at the moon. Dole ended up, in effect, knocking himself out. It was not a campaign that could have beaten Colin Powell, but Powell was not the opponent.


Successful politicians know how to play the cards they are dealt, and Clinton is the most successful Democratic politician of the postwar period. As a national candidate, he has no one in his own party to touch him; and although they may seem like the political equivalent of tomato cans now, the two Republicans he defeated (and defeated handily) were the most prominent and least ideologically compromised figures in their party. Clinton’s style, a weird combination of compassion, self-centeredness, uplift, and indecisiveness, is a style that seems to suit a politically fractured, intellectually uninspired time. If he completes his second term, he will be only the third president since 1945 to have done it, and the 1990s will become known as the Clinton era.

The Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives after the 1996 elections, and this, too, has contributed to the sense of Clinton as a minority and reactive president, a man at odds with the political mood of the country. But the vote in House races in 1996 was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats: 48.8 percent of the electorate voted for Republican House candidates and 48.5 voted for Democrats. The political mood in the country is schizophrenic, a fickle combination of me-ism and do-goodism, and Clinton is its representative.

From the beginning the question about Clinton was what kind of liberal he really was, whether his obvious pragmatism and opportunism were or were not in the service of a liberal core of principles. This question is the heart of Robert B. Reich’s book about his four years in the Clinton administration. Locked in the Cabinet is a smoothly written, self-serving, and (to put it mildly) somewhat embellished account, but it does provide a few artfully framed and telling glimpses of Clinton at work.

Reich was one of the oldest of the Friends of Bill. He had met Clinton on the boat to Oxford when they were both Rhodes Scholars. He had met Hillary Clinton even earlier, when she was an undergraduate at Wellesley. All three attended Yale Law School. Reich ended up teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was one of Clinton’s key advisers on economic policy during the 1992 presidential campaign, and after the election Clinton named him Secretary of Labor.

Reich’s politics were unmistakably liberal. His chief concern was the income gap that has been steadily widening between the richest and the poorest Americans since the early 1970s. To narrow this gap, Reich supported increased spending on social welfare programs, particularly job training. He proposed using the tax code to encourage corporations to behave more responsibly toward their employees—by letting workers share in the profits when times are flush, for example, and by helping them find new jobs when downsizing is inevitable. And he was a deficit heretic. He regarded the obsession with balancing the budget as a Republican plot, designed to make it impossible to fund the kind of programs he supported and to drive down interest rates for the benefit, principally, of Wall Street.

Once inside the Billway, Reich was not shy about pushing his views on job training and corporate responsibility—often to the exasperation of some of the administration’s more centrist members, particularly Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, and Leon Panetta. Reich had hoped to continue as Labor Secretary after the election, and evidently had Clinton’s support (at least there is nothing in his book that suggests otherwise); but his wife and children (he has two young sons) persuaded him to return to Cambridge. He now teaches at Brandeis.

Locked in the Cabinet has the form of a diary, but it does not quite pretend to be a diary. Reich explains that he sometimes jotted notes late at night and then, after leaving the government, “began to review and consolidate” what he had written. “Consolidate” apparently means “expand.” For the entries don’t read like jottings at all. They read like a series of carefully shaped vignettes whose details are all too clearly designed to point a moral or adorn a tale.

There is, for example, a great deal of direct quotation. Reich has pointed exchanges with other members of the administration; he interviews workers on the factory floor; he negotiates with the leaders of organized labor, schmoozes with congressmen, and commiserates with his unhappy wife, who is eternally complaining that Washington is a one-company town where everyone talks and thinks just like everyone else (as opposed to Cambridge?).


But almost none of the dialogue is believable. Everyone sounds like a character in a very conventional Washington novel—or a sermon. Workers explain how if there were only a real job training program in this country they could turn their lives around. Black teenagers looking for summer employment point out that a whole summer jobs program could be funded from the money saved by canceling the contract for one B-1 bomber. Democratic congressmen drone on self-importantly while inner cities burn and Republican congressmen rant shamelessly against the minimum wage. And our diarist manages, in almost every conversation, to comment thoughtfully and articulately on the growing gap between rich and poor and the need for public investment in job training, education, and the environment.

It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the people who appear in his pages have complained about finding Reich’s words in their mouths. One journalist, Jonathan Rauch, in Slate, went to the trouble of checking the book’s version of two events—a congressional hearing and a speech Reich made to a meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers—and found a number of discrepancies between Reich’s account and the official record, discrepancies mostly designed to make Reich more articulate and his opponents more pigheaded than the transcripts suggest they really were.

The book features a particularly damaging caricature of Lane Kirkland, who was president of the AFL-CIO during Reich’s tenure. Kirkland is made an overbearing and pathetic figure, and his wife, Irena (who is, as it happens, a concentration camp survivor), is cruelly satirized as a snooty Washington hostess. Kirkland has written an aggrieved reply to Reich, disputing his account of events and disavowing some of the views Reich imputes to him—including a contempt for Harvard professors and an opposition to job training programs—which he has circulated to magazines where the book might be reviewed.

Reich’s response to all this is that recollections tend to differ, and these, for better or worse, are his. The explanation falls short. For these are not merely recollections; they are potted political parables, founded, no doubt, on real events, but polished up to reflect a particular message. The message is that Washington is a place where principles are less important than status and where every utterance gets treated as spin. This political culture, combined with the new religion of deficit reduction, has made liberal social policies almost impossible to enact. Voters want those policies, though, and they will rally around a leader who is bold enough to stand up to the political establishment and champion them.

Reich went to Washington with the idea that Clinton might be such a leader. Their friendship was based, he says, on a shared idealism, a belief that government can be a force for good in people’s lives. Still, Reich lets us know early on, there was always something about Bill and Hillary he didn’t get. “I never fully understood how they did it—how they balanced means and ends, how they led political lives yet kept the ideals intact…. I never fully comprehended the exact relation between their ideals and their ambitions. I suppose that’s why I didn’t choose politics for myself. It seemed too hard to keep ideals and ambitions in the proper perspective.”

Locked in the Cabinet is filled with self-deprecating anecdotes, humorous stories in which Reich commits one social or political faux pas after another. The self-deprecation is not unappealing, but its chief purpose is to enhance the image of Reich as the single non-political man in a city of power junkies and spin doctors. Everyone else wants to grab some turf, get into the loop, be a player. Reich just wants to narrow the income gap between the rich and the poor. He doesn’t (in his account) have a clue about how to play the political game, and despite the exertions of his seasoned senior staff, he just can’t seem to acquire the knack. He’s here to do the right thing. What does politics have to do with it?

One of the reasons figures like Kirkland are so cartoonish in Locked in the Cabinet is that they are just foils to the relationship Reich really cares about, which is his relationship to Clinton. That story is not about politics. It’s about a certain kind of friendship—the story of the intelligent, capable person who becomes friends with someone who is no more intelligent or capable, but who is blessed with a power of charm and social facility that cannot be learned or imitated. When the charm is turned on you, you are certain that a special understanding exists—that you are, in the end, the one person your friend truly admires and respects. Then some mediocrity walks by, some vaguely antipathetic character you have never bothered to have a real conversation with, and the friend suddenly turns to him or her. Hey, look who’s here! The mediocrity lights up, no longer looking quite so mediocre or antipathetic. Little jokes are told, personal anecdotes exchanged. It is all so plausibly intimate that this person cannot possibly know that he or she actually means nothing to the friend, that you are the person the friend really cares about. Then you look at the mediocrity’s face, and suddenly you realize that this is exactly what the mediocrity is thinking about you. It is a glimpse into the abyss.

Many stories told about Clinton by people who have been close to him have this form, and Reich’s book contains a few scenes that convey quite artfully this sense of Clinton as a man whose sincerity is so widely distributed that it is indistinguishable from insincerity. One of the choicest involves a meeting at the White House with a group of union presidents—people Reich has found it almost impossible to ingratiate himself with—who are upset by the administration’s failure to support a law banning striker replacement. Clinton is furious about having to address this group, since he has decided not to push for the striker replacement law in order to get more votes for his health care reform bill, and he chews out some of his staff for arranging the meeting. Then he and Reich walk in grim silence over to the East Room, where the union presidents are waiting.

As we enter, fifty union presidents stand and applaud coolly. B puts his arm around Lane [Kirkland], who grins uncontrollably. He then shakes every hand, flattering every union president he meets with a moment of undivided attention….

By the time the union presidents take their seats they’re in a far better mood than when we entered the room….

B begins speaking. His voice is soft, soothing, reassuring. He talks about the fight over health care and why it’s so important to working people. He says big business is resisting, but he’s going to continue to fight for it. The union presidents applaud. Then he mentions the Family and Medical Leave Act, and shares a touching letter he received from a worker who thanked him for making it possible for him to get off work to spend time with his child who was dying from leukemia, the three last weeks of the child’s life. B commends the unions for leading this fight for years, undaunted by the vetoes of Reagan and Bush. He is proud that this was the first bill he signed into law. The union presidents applaud once again, even more vigorously.

…He says he is aware that many of them disagree with his decision on NAFTA, but he’s determined that no working person will be hurt by it. The union presidents are silent. He quickly shifts to the economy as a whole, and speaks passionately…of his commitment to ensuring that every hard-working person in America has better pay, better benefits, more security. This brings the union presidents to their feet, the biggest applause yet.

As they settle in their seats again, B’s voice becomes softer. “I want to talk with you about one last thing,” he says….

“I know how important it is to you to have a law stopping companies from bringing in scabs when your members have to go on strike to get companies to sit down and bargain with you. I know.” Heads nod in agreement. B’s voice grows even softer, his expression more intense…. “Well, I want you to know that it’s important to me too. And I promise you I’m gonna work on this. I’m gonna try to make this happen.” The union presidents are out of their seats again, the loudest applause of all.

B stands motionless for several seconds as the applause continues, his face still serious, almost grave. Then…he moves toward Lane, shakes his hand and puts his other hand on Lane’s shoulder. Lane beams. The union presidents are still clapping, smiling, now cheering. B walks slowly among them, shaking their hands once again. Those whose hands aren’t in the presidential clasp continue to applaud and cheer…. When B has shaken every hand, he waves to the group and then quickly departs the East Room.

I remain there with the union presidents. They are elated, touched. I approach Lane, who is still beaming. “Excellent,” he says. “Simply excellent.”

Fairy dust, but of the finest quality.

The philosophical crisis of the first Clinton administration was the passage of the welfare reform bill in the summer of 1996, and this is, in effect, the climax of Reich’s book. The bill was contrived by the Republican leadership to back Clinton into a political corner: if he signed it, he would alienate his liberal base by abandoning the principle of the permanent safety net; if he vetoed it, Bob Dole would have a potentially winning issue to run against him with. Clinton had promised to end welfare “as we know it” during his first term. But he had taken on health care reform first instead, a decision whose catastrophic results included, eventually, the election of the fanatically anti-government Congress of 1995-1997. That Clinton was being encouraged to sign the bill by Dick Morris was known to all his advisers, and the decision turned into a showdown between the liberal Clintonites, including George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes, Donna Shalala, and Reich, and the centrists, including Bruce Reed, Rahm Emanuel, and Al Gore. (Robert Rubin, the Treasury Secretary, whose views, as Reich reports them, seem generally skewed to the interests of Wall Street, thought Clinton should veto the bill.)

The Cabinet met on July 31, and Clinton polled his advisers on the decision. “Most of the Cabinet is firmly against signing,” reports Reich’s “diary.” “Most of the political advisers are in favor…. It’s my turn, and I can’t think of anything to say except that the whole purpose of coming to Washington four years ago was to reverse the trend toward widening inequality in wealth and opportunity, and that signing this bill would violate everything we stood for. I don’t know if B is listening.” Although he was com-fortably ahead of Dole in the polls, Clinton did sign the bill, of course, thereby consigning (according to his own administration’s estimates) a million children to poverty, and he subsequently cruised to victory in November. Reich went back to the academy. The episode seems to have answered Reich’s question about what sort of liberal Clinton was. It represented, for Reich, the abandonment of ideals in the interests of ambition.

But Reich’s account of the Cabinet meeting is rather coy. He doesn’t say he told Clinton that “signing this bill would violate everything we stood for.” He says he couldn’t “think of anything to say except” those words. And that is because, according to Elizabeth Drew, that was not in fact what he did say. This is her version, from her much fuller account of the meeting in her book on the 1996 elections, Whatever It Takes:

Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued to Clinton, his old friend since Oxford, that it would be better politics for him to veto the bill. Reich opposed the bill on its merits, but knew which argument might be more persuasive. He told Clinton that every time he had stood up for principle (as he appeared to do in the budget fight) he had gained.

This advice is perfectly consistent with the advice Reich didn’t give (but implies he did) about vetoing the bill on the merits. But it is tactical and political advice, and therefore inconsistent with something else, which is Reich’s desire to present himself as the nonpolitical man. He can’t tell us what he really told Clinton, because what he really told him was how the veto could be sold to voters as a courageous stand on principle. This is spin, and Reich does not believe in spin. He believes in governing by principle. So he had to spin his story of what he told Clinton in the Cabinet meeting in order to get the spin out. The funniest part of it is that the source for Drew’s account of what Reich thought and said at the meeting was almost certainly Reich himself. He comes across as a much savvier political player in her book than he does in his own. And no doubt he is.

Drew’s book is an interesting journalistic example of picking the wrong horse. She set out to cover the 1996 campaigns by focusing on the activities of several high-powered conservative organizations: the Americans for Tax Reform, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the National Rifle Association, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. She suspected (correctly, as her reporting reveals) that these groups, with the collusion of the Republican Party, were engaged in an unholy and not-so-secretive effort to coordinate support for and funnel money into the campaigns of specific Republican candidates—an effort that represented, at a legal minimum, an end-run around federal campaign finance laws.

What happened, of course, was that while Drew was busy tracking these conservative groups, the real campaign finance story was taking place at the other end of town. The Christian Coalition may have engineered an end-run around federal campaign finance laws. The Clinton White House seems to have driven a truck right through them. It was partly bad luck that Drew chose to get inside the wrong clubhouse, though it has been clear for some time that one should never underestimate the capacity of the Clinton White House for ethical bungee-jumping. The Huang story turned out to be the big story of the campaign, and the Senate hearings on campaign finance that began this month are principally addressed to it. They will, though, eventually get around to the story Drew did cover, and look into the relationship between the Americans for Tax Reform and the Republican National Committee.

Drew thinks that one of the reasons for Dole’s poor showing against Clinton was that conservative groups decided early on that it was more important to retain Republican control of the House of Representatives than it was to win the presidency, since they calculated that continued control of the House would go farther toward changing the fundamental political culture of Washington from welfare liberalism to pro-business, family-values conservatism. Drew seems to think this was a plausible strategy, though it is surely the case that the weaker the candidate at the top of the ticket, the more difficult and expensive it is to help elect the candidates lower down.

And as it happened, two weeks before the election, the polls indicated that despite the exertions of the Christian Coalition and the other conservative groups, the Republicans would lose the House. Then came the Huang revelations. They were not enough to salvage Dole, but they increased what Drew calls “the yecch factor about Clinton” just sufficiently to depress turnout and disillusion the fence-sitters. The result was that a likely Democratic takeover of the House fell ten seats short, and Clinton, although he won the electoral vote handily, did not quite reach 50 percent in the popular vote, which he had made his goal toward the end of the campaign. “It is a virtual certainty,” Drew believes, “that Clinton’s stall, over the campaign financing scandal, at the end of the campaign cost the Democrats the House.”

She suggests that this outcome was not entirely displeasing to Al Gore, since it prevented Dick Gephardt, currently Gore’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, from becoming Speaker. Gore encouraged Clinton, she says, to continue to try to roll up his own numbers in the final weeks rather than stump for Democratic congressional candidates in states in which he was already comfortably ahead. She also reports that Gore’s advice to Clinton to sign the welfare reform bill was motivated by the fact that Gephardt had voted against it. This is interesting because it suggests that Gore’s strategy for the nomination will be to run to Gephardt’s right. That is not where the party’s base is, and the usual rule is to appeal to the base in the primaries and then move toward the center in the general election. But possibly one of the lessons of Clinton’s success (or one of the consequences of Clintonism) is that something like a base—some core constituency unshakably united on ideals and principles—no longer exists in the Democratic Party.

Even if you take the money out of politics you still have to confront the reason money is so important in the first place: the terror of honest political speech,” says Michael Lewis in his very funny, very smart, and somewhat lamely titled book on the 1996 presidential race. Trail Fever, which has been neatly pieced together from the dispatches Lewis wrote during the campaign for The New Republic, is a book about the psychology of contemporary political life. Lewis’s journalistic persona is the persona of a hip, flip outsider who nevertheless manages to charm his way inside most of the campaigns he covers. This persona can become, in the Hunter S. Thompson mode, a little self-regarding, and by the end of his book, as Lewis flies around the country searching for the most offbeat event to cover, the usual signal that the journalistic fuel gauge is on empty appears: the story starts to be about the adventures of the reporter. But for most of the way, the strategy works.

Lewis’s method was to hang out with the losers, on the theory that they were losing because they actually believed in something and dared to say what it was. (They also, of course, provided virtually unlimited access.) His pet candidate was Morry Taylor—the Grizz, as he prefers to be known—a self-made tire tycoon who ran in the Republican primaries in several states, and whose businessman’s views on how to run the government (mostly variations on “Kill all the lawyers”) proved appealing to Perot voters but not many others. Not every reader will share Lewis’s affection for the Grizz; but Lewis’s point isn’t that Taylor’s ideas aren’t screwy (for they are). It’s that unlike the better-equipped candidates, such as Dole and Clinton and Lamar Alexander, he does not wait upon the results of focus groups before he opens his mouth in public.

In his search for the candidate who dares to say what he thinks, Lewis becomes briefly interested in Steve Forbes, until it is made clear to him that Forbes, politically, is just a robot programmed with a single message: no problem exists that cannot be solved by the flat tax. He spends a good deal of time with Patrick Buchanan, with mixed emotions, and with Alan Keyes, the black former UN Ambassador who ran as a moralist, and who went on a hunger strike after being excluded from one of the primary debates. Lewis has no interest in Keyes’s religious politics, but he is enthralled by his gift for spellbinding public speaking. Bob Dornan compels a similar, though more limited, fascination, as does the candidate Lewis ends up voting for, Ralph Nader.

Lewis’s particular admiration is for Arizona Senator John McCain, the former prisoner of war, who campaigned for Dole. He respects McCain as a politician who does not pause to calculate the political consequences of what he does or says; he dwells particularly on McCain’s ability to become friends with a man named David Ifshin who, in 1970, had gone to Hanoi when McCain was undergoing torture in a North Vietnamese prison and delivered antiwar speeches which were piped into McCain’s cell. McCain has also been an outspoken bipartisan advocate of campaign finance reform. McCain was, Lewis notes, the only major political figure to show up in Russell, Kansas, to stand by Dole’s side as he went down to what was by then a foregone and embarrassing defeat. Alexander and Forbes, both of whom had, of course, also endorsed Dole, were elsewhere, getting ready to show up the following morning in Des Moines to get a head start on the race for 2000.

Presidential politics, Lewis thinks, is now mainly the art of risk avoidance, and this is why the 1996 campaign was so devoid of ideas and debate. “Democratic politics depends on direct confrontation and commitment to ideas,” he says. “It is admirable only when it requires nerve.” But apart from McCain and mavericks like Keyes and Taylor, he cannot seem to find a courageous politician. He can scarcely find a courageous voter. One day he goes to observe a youth voter registration drive sponsored by MTV under the slogan “Choose or Lose.” During the campaign season, MTV sent buses out to college campuses, set up loudspeakers, posters, and tables, and registered students to vote, and Lewis goes along on one of these trips, to the University of Washington. The students turn up, attracted by the music and the commotion, but they give few signs of having political interests of any kind. They seem simply to be responding to the suggestion that registering to vote is the cool thing to do, the right gesture to make.

But as he’s sitting in the MTV bus watching students listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg over the loudspeakers explaining that “If Snoop Doggy Dogg can take the time out to go deal with the pressure, you can too” (noting that when Snoop Doggy Dogg taped this announcement, he was on trial for attempted murder), Lewis hears a kid start to shout, “Choose or lose what? Choose or lose what?” Who is this guy? All the other kids are looking at him like he’s some kind of freak. Not Lewis. He’s excited. Here, at last, is someone who suspects that what sounds like empty rhetoric might actually be empty rhetoric. He rushes off to interview him.

—July 17, 1997

This Issue

August 14, 1997