By David S. Broder
Thursday, March 29, 2007
In the midst of the travails of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's former budget director, burst into the news as the defendant in a big corporate fraud prosecution in New York. It got me thinking, not just about those two men but about the two presidents who had to wrestle with whether to keep or fire them.
Is there something about tough-guy conservative chief executives that turns them squeamish when it comes to firing people? Reagan, who had no hesitation about building up America's store of arms and telling the communists to "tear down this wall," couldn't bring himself to let Stockman go -- after the young budgeteer had committed an egregious breach of loyalty. Now, Bush is hanging on to Gonzales to the detriment of the Justice Department and the political embarrassment of congressional Republicans.
The parallels are striking.
For those who have forgotten -- or are too young to know -- the Stockman saga offers a cautionary lesson on the dangers of brilliant egotism. When I first met him in 1969, Stockman was a student at Harvard Divinity School, hiding out from the draft like many others and living as a babysitter with Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his wife, Liz.
I was on sabbatical at the Institute of Politics, teaching a noncredit seminar for undergrads, and Moynihan phoned me to say that he had this graduate student-roomer who was passionately interested in politics and wanted to be in the class. Of course, I made room for him.
One of my guests during the seminar was Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois, and when he became chairman of the House Republican Conference later that year, he asked if I could recommend one of my students to be his staff director. Stockman had become a friend, and I knew how eager he was to get to Washington. His braininess made him a good fit with Anderson.
It took Stockman only five years to move from the staff job to election as a member of the House from his home district in Michigan -- and only four years in the House to develop a reputation strong enough for Reagan to make him, at 34, the youngest Cabinet-level official in a century.
Stockman devised the first Reagan budget, with its broad tax cuts and big boosts in military spending, and helped move it through Congress over the objections of skeptical Democrats. At the same time, he secretly began giving weekly interviews to Bill Greider, a Post editor and an old friend of his. When Greider published an article based on the interviews, called "The Education of David Stockman," in the Atlantic magazine, all hell broke loose.
Stockman told Greider that the Reagan budget was built on false premises, that it employed a "magic asterisk" to conceal the size of its inevitable deficits and that the tax cuts he had championed were really designed to benefit the wealthy. The detailed accounting of the internal battles that produced a budget that would saddle the country with years of debt was a stunning indictment of the very administration in which Stockman was serving.
Democrats pounced -- just as eagerly as they are now pummeling Gonzales -- and Reagan summoned his young aide to the White House for what Stockman called "woodshed" treatment. But Reagan didn't fire him. Instead, Stockman issued a contrite apology and remained in office until 1985.
Now he is accused of breaking the rules again, not by fudging budget numbers or leaking copiously to a reporter but, allegedly, by concealing from investors and bankers the dire condition of a Michigan auto parts company he was running. He has pleaded not guilty.
In terms of biography, Gonzales is totally unlike Stockman. His rise from poverty to become the first Hispanic attorney general is a great chapter in the American tradition. He owes his position not to brilliance but to his proven loyalty to Bush, the man he has served as a counselor for more than a decade.
But, like Stockman, he has given his president plenty of reasons to fire him. The Justice Department, a vital part of the federal government, has been reduced in stature and has lost the trust of both the public and its career employees under Gonzales.
Bush has modeled himself on Reagan in many ways. One of the worst traits they share is their reluctance to dismiss people for cause. It took more than three years of the mismanaged Iraq war for Bush to get rid of Don Rumsfeld.
The Republican White House is too often a no-fire zone.