LOCKED IN THE CABINET
By Robert B. Reich
Knopf 338pp $25
This diary of Robert B. Reich's four years as U.S. Labor Secretary might someday inspire an episode of Star Trek: Destination Earth. After all, Reich says he sometimes found aides, members of Congress, and fellow Cabinet members looking at him with incredulous expressions that seemed to ask: "What planet are you from, anyway?"
No wonder. Reich found himself the sole "progressive liberal" among a cautious, deficit-hating, bond-market-worshiping cadre of Presidential economic advisers who couldn't wait to rescind Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign promises. Reich, 50, who went to Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, quickly established a special role for himself--a voice of conscience reminding the Clintons of their youthful idealism. As all of official Washington took a giant step to the right during Clinton's first term, Reich was left standing nearly alone, friendless except for his two chums at the White House. What other Cabinet member in Washington was vilified simultaneously by both the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers? On the other hand, how many other Cabinet members got to hug the President during Oval Office visits? And who else but Reich could have his memos to the President secretly delivered by Hillary?
Now, Reich has his say in Locked in the Cabinet. The book benefits from the author's high-level access, and it offers insight into the warfare within the Administration. But Locked in the Cabinet surpasses most recent tell-alls. It is better-written, and it considers serious intellectual questions--such as the role of the worker in the global economy and the morality of replacing striking employees.
At first, Reich, a Harvard University lecturer on public policy who had no practical experience in politics, was simply an annoyance to his Administration foes. They got Clinton to focus on spending cuts rather than on increases in funding for education and job training, which were Reich's priorities. That left Reich to speak out ineffectually about "corporate welfare" and middle-class anxiety and to suggest hiking taxes on profitable companies that lay off workers.
But after two years, Clinton started to adopt some of Reich's ideas, including such things as college-tuition tax credits, worker retraining programs, a minimum-wage hike, and a ban preventing federal contractors from replacing striking workers. (The ban has since been overturned by the courts.) White House staffers eventually enlisted Reich in the epic battle against their Antichrist: Clinton image doctor Dick Morris, a "packager and promoter" who represents "all I detest in American politics," writes Reich.
Reich admits to defeats and miscalculations. He describes staging a media event at a Bridgestone Tire Co. plant in Oklahoma City to highlight his effort to require improvements in worker safety. Management promptly closed the plant and laid off all employees, forcing Reich to back down. Reich relates that he could not persuade the President to cut defense spending to fund more worker training. Nor could he persuade Clinton not to sign the 1996 welfare reform bill.
Reich's book is often quite amusing. The author of six previous books, Reich is a good storyteller with an appreciation of Washington's many absurdities--and he is willing to laugh at himself. At one point, Reich tells us, he believed he was on his way to a briefing involving sensitive state secrets--only to find himself led by armed guards into a basement room, where he had to produce a urine sample for a drug test. On another occasion, he got lost in the corridors of the Labor Dept. He was unrecognized by White House guards. Arriving home one night without his key, the 4-ft.-10-in. Reich tried to wiggle through the dog door and got stuck.
Only when dealing with Congress and insensitive chief executives does Reich's temper flare. Representatives such as Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) and Ernest J. Istook (R-Okla.) are "fools" and "buffoons," while William D. Ford (D-Mich.) is a "stubborn ass." Congressional hearings, Reich discovers, aren't about imparting information, but about showing respect to petty tyrants who chair congressional committees. And he calls former Scott Paper Co. CEO Albert J. Dunlap "the poster boy of corporate irresponsibility" for laying off 11,000 workers. Another pet peeve was young White House political aides. After a period of being dispatched about the country by twentysomethings, Reich instructed his staff not to accept marching orders from anyone under 30.
The book's main shortcoming is its lack of perspective on the Clintons. Reich does manage to criticize Clinton for "caving" on the deficit. He is particularly critical of the President's decision in 1995 to agree to the GOP plan to balance the budget by 2002--and to accomplish that by cutting social spending. Reich says it was "probably a mistake" for Hillary to be put in charge of health-care reform. But he provides little more in the way of perspective.
And last, there's no index. People in Washington always read books index
first, so they can see if they are mentioned. Otherwise, why buy them? If Reich was trying to emphasize that he is from another planet, he couldn't have provided Washington with a better demonstration.