Robert Reich- My life as an underdog

The former Labor secretary was appalled by Dick Morris, disappointed in Bill Clinton and amazed that Alan Greenspan could have the president's "balls in the palm of his hand."

Published April 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it's Aug. 1, 1995. For Robert Reich, it's been a tough summer in a city famous for tough summers. Reich's wife and two young sons have just fled back to the family home in Cambridge, Mass., after two years in the nasty, brutish capital. To make matters worse, Reich is locked out of his Washington, D.C., house; his wife accidentally took the house key when she left for Cambridge. Utilizing one of the few virtues of his diminutive 4-foot-11 frame, the Labor secretary starts climbing head-first through the tiny door beneath the deck he built for his dog. He gets stuck. He wriggles and twists but cannot free himself.

It was, quite clearly, a symbolic moment. As the one cabinet member consistently willing to speak up for the underdog -- to actually utter the words "the poor" in public -- Reich spent much of his time in Washington feeling stuck, not to mention alone, abandoned and powerless. From the very beginning of the Clinton presidency, the administration's budget hawks dominated the internal White House debates. Although the hawks were too timid to touch big-ticket items like defense and Medicare, they were intent on convincing Wall Street bond traders and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that a Democratic administration was capable of bringing the deficit under control. As Reich bluntly puts it, Greenspan had "Bill's balls in the palm of his hand."

In "Locked in the Cabinet" (Knopf), the just-published memoir of his Washington years, Reich does not mince words, giving pieces of his mind he perhaps wisely refrained from offering in person. To Alan Greenspan: "You can take your crummy lunch and cram it, you robber-baron pimp." Clinton's Svengali, Dick Morris, represents "all I detest in American politics." He busts the young "twerps" in the White House and their snot-nosed attitudes toward cabinet officials. And he expresses plenty of disappointment in his long-time friend Bill Clinton, recalling how he felt "sick to my stomach," the day he realized Clinton was going to sign the welfare bill. Reportedly, some of the harder-hitting passages of Reich's book made the president sick to his stomach.

Entertainingly, Reich gives us plenty of dish on himself as well. We see the secretary, desperate to be "in the loop," standing in the executive parking lot next to the West Wing in hopes of catching snippets of valuable information as staffers walk by. We see him getting a tongue-lashing from his own chief of staff for moping within view of the troops. We see him nearly excommunicated at an A-list dinner party for committing a faux pas -- reaching for the wrong condiment to go with the foie gras. "I might as well have farted 'The Star Spangled Banner,'" he writes.

Reich resigned from the administration shortly after the 1996 election, rejoining his wife, Clare Dalton, and their sons in Cambridge. In addition to promoting his book, he is now teaching graduate students and establishing a nonprofit research center at Brandeis University, hosting a weekly public television program with former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, and writing regular commentaries for American Public Radio's "Marketplace."

Salon interviewed Reich at his comfortable clapboard home located just blocks from Harvard Square. With workmen banging away at leaky drainpipes outside the window of his second-floor study, the former Labor secretary talked about his life in and out of power.

Former Rep. Bill Ford warned you that it would be surprisingly hard to leave power behind. Was he correct?

The only real shock is what I'd call staff deprivation. One gets used to delegating everything -- in fact, relinquishing many personal responsibilities. Someone asked me the other day if I could fax them something and I said sure. Then I realized I hadn't actually operated a fax machine in years. I had to relearn even to get in the front seat of a car and drive myself around. I've got to get used to the fact that I'm just one person now, and not the head of a department of government. I'm back to being just me.

A major theme of the book involves your inability to balance the incredible time demands of your official duties with family life. How did you ever find the time to write this?

I had no choice. The only way I could make sense of what I was experiencing was to find time to make notes to myself, usually very late at night, starting about midnight. I guess I'm a writer at heart. And writers can't think very straight unless they write.

Many parts of the book are not flattering to the president. What parts do you think the president will be most upset about?

It's impossible for me to tell. Some people have read in the book a devastating critique of Bill Clinton. Others see the book as much more personal odyssey. Some people tell me it's the funniest thing they've ever read. I can't summarize it. It's just there. It's what I saw, it's what I experienced. I don't even know where it came from exactly. It sort of welled up.

Was Dick Morris a major reason it welled up? If Dick Morris -- a guy you say is "utterly without principle" -- hadn't published his book, would you have felt as impassioned about getting your journal into public view?

I haven't thought about that until now. I certainly would have written it with or without Morris having shared his thoughts in book form. Was I more eager to get out my side of the story because of Dick Morris? I don't really think so. I don't have anything against Dick Morris personally, but as I say in the book, he does represent much of what I detest about politics. And I relate our conversations. I found them appalling.

Now that you've gone, is there anyone who's whispering in the president's ear on behalf of the underdog?

I don't know. (Treasury Secretary) Bob Rubin expresses concern about the very poor. Frankly, I don't know how that concern is being translated into specific initiatives. I don't know whether anyone is developing an agenda for the working poor or the working class -- people who are really struggling. I think it's very doubtful now that these arguments or these positions are being pushed very hard.

Even if they were, it's questionable from your book how much difference a president could make -- that he has precious little control over the course of our economy. You make it clear that Alan Greenspan had much more power than President Clinton to call the shots. Was that a shock to you?

Intellectually, I knew it, of course. But to see it in day-to-day operation was a different matter. The confidence of Wall Street became a talisman by which almost everything else was judged. That radically constrains what we can do as a society. If we are spending all our time placating a pavement called Wall Street, then we can't re-knit the social fabric of the nation. The same dilemma is facing many other nations right now. In Europe, they talk about the social charter -- which is part of the European Community -- and whether integration of the world capital markets will still enable them to offer their people some degree of security. Far more security, by the way, than has ever been offered in this country.

Perhaps it would be healthier if the public had a slightly better sense as to what a president really can do, rather than hold on to the myth that the American president is all-powerful.

Every four years, we go through a ritual of forgetfulness. We forget that just four years earlier we elected someone who we assumed would radically transform the nation and deliver us to the Promised Land. Then we go through a cycle of anger.

We have to be realistic about what Washington can accomplish on its own. Without the people mobilized behind Washington, very little can be accomplished. The framers of the Constitution designed government that way. It was an ingenious design. It was intended to make it difficult to do much of anything. Social change has to come from the bottom up. Washington can legitimize it, take it across the finish line, but it has to well up.

In your book, you say that Washington is meaner and nastier than ever.

People get ground up. Some people, like (former Assistant Treasury Secretary) Roger Altman (who was caught up in the Whitewater investigation), are treated despicably; their reputations are ruined. It's scary. There are very mean-spirited folks. And the press is constantly out to get you.

Why does it keep getting worse?

Partly because there are few issues to pull us together any longer. The Cold War is over. We don't even have a clear commercial competitor, like Japan. Beginning in 1932, with the election of FDR in the depths of the Depression, there was a certain commonality to our experience. Even though politics was often very rough and tumble, everyone understood that in the end we had to accomplish a few major things together. That's no longer the case. Indeed, the question continuously arises, are we still in this together?

You were the far right's favorite ideological target. Did it worry you what people like Rush Limbaugh were saying about you?

I didn't worry at all about Rush. What worried me was the criminalization of policy difference, which increasingly characterized relationships between the Republican-controlled Congress and the executive branch. I escaped unscathed, but there were several attempts to launch investigations over how I had, in their term, "politicized" the Labor Department. They couldn't find anything, but they sure tried.

Is it frustrating for you that many of the lower-income people you were constantly speaking up for in White House policy debates have turned to false prophets like Rush Limbaugh?

The anxious class -- that is, people who are working hard and struggling to make ends meet but barely getting ahead -- are very susceptible to the politics of resentment. Somebody who comes along and tells them that their problem is attributable to welfare mothers or immigrants or the federal government or multinational corporations -- or whatever demon you want to create -- can be very persuasive.

And that's the danger in a democratic society. Many of these people have stopped voting. In 1996, we had the lowest percentage of eligible voters (going to the polls) since 1924. They stopped voting not because they're so satisfied with the status quo, but because they didn't see any choice between the parties. They didn't think it mattered. The game seemed rigged.

By money?

We have to take a fresh look at the corrosive affects of money on politics and the way in which campaigns are financed.

How did the Democrats -- your party, the party of the average working American -- get into such a fund-raising mess?

In the 1980s, Democrats shifted their sources of campaign funding from small contributors to big business -- essentially drinking at the same trough as Republicans. It was a conscious strategy, which I document in the book. It was very dangerous, and ultimately counterproductive. So the Democratic Party has a lot of rethinking to do about rebuilding.

What was the most demoralizing thing you experienced in Washington?

I wasn't demoralized. I was frustrated sometimes. But I loved the job. It's the best job I ever had or ever will have. And I hope I accomplished some good. It would be very bad for this nation if people gave up on what we as a society can do.

If not demoralized, then very frustrated.

There's a scene in my book in which my chief of staff, Kitty Higgins, takes me aside and says, "Look, you're just being too damn impatient. Did you think you could come in here and change everything overnight? This is about pushing on icebergs. This isn't about sudden change. You can't just wave a wand and expect to get new legislation and to get business to suddenly mend their ways." Young people should go into public service, whether it's government or any other form of public service. Go there, get knocked around a little bit. Be frustrated, keep your sense of humor, avoid grandiosity, be patient and maintain enough idealism to keep going.

When you were preparing to leave Washington, you told President Clinton that you are going to continue to stir up trouble. How so?

I will continually stir up trouble, in the sense of trying to move this country toward a place that is no longer a land of widening inequality. We can't allow America to become even more of a two-tiered society than we have right now. We must make sure that everyone has an opportunity to get ahead and feels that they themselves have a stake in the vitality and prosperity of our economy and our democracy. When the largest party in America is the party of nonvoters, then we have to figure out the means by which to re-engage them in the process.

How hopeful are you that this can be achieved?

The worst enemy we face in this country with regard to progressive change is resignation -- the assumption about the economy that the forces of global capitalism are simply too great. Government still matters. Social organization still matters. Labor unions can make a comeback. Communities can rebuild from the bottom up, as long as the most successful don't secede and create their own communities and have nothing to do with communities of working-class people. We mustn't become resigned.

Would you go back into government, if asked?

I doubt that I'll ever go into government again. The experience I had was once in a lifetime. It was plenty for a lifetime. So I have to figure out precisely what I can do and how I can make the best contribution.

One final question: How come you decided to shave the beard?

I turned 50. I couldn't afford a Jaguar. I didn't want to leave my wife. And yet I wanted something that was very different. The nice thing about shaving the beard is it's not an irrevocable decision.

By Lowell Weiss

Lowell Weiss is a Boston writer. He was formerly a speech writer for Vice President Al Gore and a staff editor at the Atlantic.

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