Most government employes wait several decades before offering their memoirs to the nation. Brett Fromson, now in his mid-twenties, has obliged us somewhat early -- about 40 years, to judge from this account.
Fromson's thin volume might be subtitled "How I Nearly Saved the Republic, But Nobody Would Listen." He spent a few months with the President's Council on International Economic Policy and a few more on the staff of the Joint Economic Committee. As his views demonstrably failed to prevail, Fromson harvested a remarkably ample stock of sour grapes and the sweeping conviction that "The nation of a 'coherent system of government' that works to 'represent the people' is malarkey." And so he left, "angry at the government for having no place for people like me." The considerable irony is that, of course, it did. Otherwise, Fromson would have no book.
That would have been wiser. From the outset, Fromson forfeits any credibility by blatantly fictionalizing. Although the book's events cover the period from June of 1976 to May of 1978, Fromson inexplicably presents them as a single year, in sheer disregard of history and his own story. He mentions both the Ford-Carter debates and the death of Sen. Hubert Humphrey, yet says that only "nine months" had passed between them, thus becoming the first reporter in modern memory to create a "composite" year. And he is as maddeningly coy with names -- "Politicians excepted, all names have been changed in the text" -- as he is with dates.
Worse yet, the book fails as both a cautionary tale for young aides and an "insider" account in the tradition of Eric Redman's "The Dance of Legislation." Fromson's juvenile intransigence and unrelenting self-aggrandizement prevent his story from becoming either prototypical or sympathetic. And his consistent refusal to portray any viewpoint but his own compromises the book's informational value -- a commodity already in short supply.
Fresh out of Stanford with an economics degree, Fromson was hired by President Ford's CIEP as a junior factotum, compiling background data on various issues in the Old Executive Office Building. But soon, he says, "This elite subculture of which I was now a part led me deeper into Washington," by which he means co-hosting a political fund-raiser with a number of young aides, some of whom lived with Fromson and "my girl friend Joni" in a group house. (Their social escapades are interlarded into the narrative.) After the fund-raiser, Fromson ran into a drunken columnist and concluded that "all Washington seemed accessible."
But his disenchantment was already beginning. The CIEP staff just wouldn't accept his criticism of U.S. arms sales, which after a few weeks' work he had found wanting in "good judgment." Later, when Fromson disagreed with his boss on the efficacy of a youth "self-employment incentive program," he decided that "I had compromised myself," and wanted to leave.
He found an opening at the JEC, where he researched legislation for Sen. William Proxmire and arranged hearings for Humphrey and Sen. George McGovern. Here Fromson's account comes closest to being useful. In the long course of setting up a hearing on federal assistance to railroads, Fromson and a McGovern aide face a nasty array of technical and political problems, turn up evidence of payroll irregularities, bump into a grand jury investigation, and still manage to hand McGovern a potentially headline-making forum. Yet at the crucial moment, McGovern lets the railroad witnesses "off the hook. He asked none of the questions I would have been happy to give him." Fromson leaves us frustrated and wondering why. A simple phone call to the articulate and obliging McGovern would have provided at least one answer. But it would have violated Fromson's impregnable egocentrism, a condition seen in its purest form in his swan song at the JEC.
Congress was about to increase the payroll tax for the embattled Social Security fund. "No one on Capitol Hill or anywhere in the government had studied the likely ramifications . . . I decided I would," says Fromson, with characteristic humility. He concluded that the increase would put 130,000 people out of work. But by then it was too late: The bill was already in conference, so Fromson decided to leak his report to the newspaper. "I had finally made the splash I had wanted," he says.
But a man who hasn't mastered the Gregorian calendar can hardly be trusted with macroeconomics, and Fromson's splash, like his book, is a bellyflop.