The image, in freeze frame: a 34-year-old zealot on the attack, the youngest budget director in history -- intimidating through knowledge, mesmerizing official Washington with his never-ending numerical juggling act. He always seemed right, even when no one knew what he was talking about.
But for the past two weeks, ever since Newsweek published juicy excerpts from his new book, "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed," David Stockman has been a virtual pariah in these parts.
Now, back in town for a 48-hour media blitz to promote the book, he seems a bit uneasy about returning to his old stamping ground. Ronald Reagan has called his book "fiction," and that's about the kindest on-the-record remark so far from his former colleagues in the White House. Settling in at the Mayflower Hotel Tuesday night, Stockman looks the picture of prosperity in his Wall Street pin stripes, yet there is a certain tentativeness in his expression -- he's not the arrogant whiz kid of old.
Remorse perhaps? Friends say there is some, but despite his highly publicized session in the president's woodshed, that's never been one of Stockman's strong suits. "Obviously you don't like to see yourself called names," he says. "But on the other hand, I have a very decided viewpoint in this book . . . I don't want anyone to think I have an objective view. I was a combatant -- bruised, battered and bled."
Asked if he has any friends left in Washington, he says wryly, "Yeah . . . and I've heard from both of them."
Yesterday, Stockman blanketed Washington with his version of the "Reagan revolution." He called a press conference to denounce the whole effort as a "gigantic mishap of governance," saying he had been a "damn fool" to have defended the administration's economic policies for so long. He granted no fewer than 10 print and television interviews, and announced to the country via NBC's "Today Show" that his negative view of Don Regan was perhaps "understandable," because the White House chief of staff had tried to have him fired several times.
In his hotel suite, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Salems, he dismisses charges that writing the book was an act of disloyalty, claiming that it only expands on what he's been saying for 4 1/2 years. He says Reagan's "fiction" comment is "exactly what you might expect . . . because rather than get into a long argument you have a phrase, you have a slogan.
"This disloyalty argument," he says, "is kind of Monday morning quarterbacking . . . It was pretty evident after the first six months -- when this thing got way off course and we enacted a giant tax cut and only a tiny spending cut and the original fiscal blueprint went up in smoke -- that I had some pretty strong disagreements with the White House and the president. None of it was secret.
"I haven't come out of the closet all of a sudden saying, 'Hey, in case you didn't know, I spent the last four years trying to raise taxes.' The idea that I concluded this hadn't been a success, is that news?"
Stockman also says he doesn't understand why the focus has been on his descriptions of personalities, rather than on his criticism of policies. (The Democrats, of course, are paying attention to both.)
Still, he knows, it's hard to ignore some of the descriptive snapshots he provides: Tip O'Neill, with his "massive corpulence and scarlet, varicose nose"; Mike Deaver as Mr. PR, interested only in "hiring elephants and Frank Sinatra" for the inaugural; Don Regan as a dangerous hothead, more interested in pleasing the president than in the national well-being; and top White House staffers in general as "illiterate," concerned only with images on the 7 o'clock news.
If Washington has unwritten rules of political discretion -- rules that caution against criticizing in print an administration one has just left -- Stockman clearly never read them. Has he written himself right out of government service for good?
"Maybe I have," he says, "but I don't have any great ambition to get back into it."
And might he need any help from Don Regan -- a former Wall Street heavy -- in his new job as a managing partner of Salomon Brothers? His answer, succinct and well thought out: "Not particularly."
Indeed, his Washington life seems comfortably behind him. He now lives in a $2 million home in Greenwich, Conn., with his wife Jennifer and his daughter. A chauffeured Lincoln picks him up every morning at 6 and whooshes him down to Wall Street. He says he's not planning a book on the Street.
Despite Stockman's affinity for meticulous note-taking, publishing sources say that he had some initial trouble getting his thoughts for "The Triumph of Politics" down on paper. Later, it became a question of paring down the hundreds of pages he submitted after working 16 hours a day for four months in the family room of his former Potomac home.
The book, for which Harper & Row paid $2.3 million, was closely guarded for months, with Stockman showing drafts to only a few Washington friends. Among those believed to have read it were: Deputy Treasury Secretary Richard Darman, OMB spokesman Ed Dale and former OMB officials Michael Horowitz, Don Moran and David Gerson.
One source familiar with the project says these readers were shocked by the harshness of the prose in the initial draft. Another uses the word "promiscuous" to describe the early version.
"It went through five, six or seven drafts," Stockman concedes. "Some parts of it were toned down, some parts might have been strengthened . . . "
According to an associate of Stockman's, there may have been some pressure from the publisher to jazz up what could have turned into a $2 million economic history book. But Dan Harvey, Harper & Row's director of publicity, says that "when it came in, we knew it was what we had hoped."
Stockman insists that money had nothing to do with his motivations for writing the book. "The first offer I got was for $50,000 . . . I would have written it for $50,000," he claims.
"I announced I was writing the book and the thing went out on the market and four or five publishers bid for it and the only thing they got from me was a three-page outline. It was all dry sort of economics, the history of the last five years, the history of the political obstacles . . . That's all I had." It proved to be quite enough.
Among the further thoughts of ex-director Dave:
On whether Reagan is good for the country, despite Stockman's characterization of him as a leader who can deal only in anecdotes, not concepts: "He's a lot better than what we had before in the sense that some basic principles have been revived even if they haven't been translated into policies. There's a better attitude towards free markets, better attitude towards the idea that capitalism requires capitalists, a better attitude towards the danger of inflation, and it's down . . . In a way I think the president did grasp the big picture . . . But the problem in government is that the big picture is fine for campaign oratory, but the decisions you make are down in the details, and that's where the problems arose."
On Jack Kemp as the "Republican version of Hubert Humphrey": "Yeah, because Humphrey had something to offer to everybody . . . the politics of joy. He'd make everyone happy by giving them what they wanted. Economic governing I am now convinced requires making a lot of people unhappy . . . Jack wants to pretend we can keep these low taxes and also keep the old people happy with Social Security, farmers happy with their programs . . . You know, there is a bottom line in the economic governance of democracy." (He says he feels bad that Kemp has expressed disappointment in the book, but adds that "it's not like this was a great shock. Over four years there were some pretty nasty things said about me by him . It wasn't simply a debating society exercise.")
sk,3 On why Attorney General Edwin Meese never became the powerful White House player he was expected to be: "He wanted it both ways. He wanted to wear his Adam Smith tie and deliver all his hard-line conservative slogans on the one hand, and on the other, when it came down to the crunch, like are we going to veto this dairy bill . . . or most of the other items, he was all full of caution and prudence. Either of those attitudes is fully defensible, but both of those attitudes at the same time aren't . . . You can't have a radical doctrine and base taxes on that, and base spending on political pragmatism. It doesn't add up."
On politics versus ideology: "I took the blueprint, the paper plan, the doctrine too seriously and didn't give sufficient regard to the fact that there are all kinds of different interests and constituencies in the political system . . . I used the term 'ideological hubris' because what we put together in February of 1981 had about 99 percent of the weight on what we ought to do, and about 1 percent of the weight on the possible. As a result, we didn't put enough weight on the politics. I knew the politics were there. But the mistake was not to factor into the plan an allowance for compromise."
On how he wants the book to be perceived: "I want people to see it as an honest effort to explain a rather giant paradox: how the conservative party, the Republican Party, spent 40 years warning of the evils of spending and ended up producing such an outcome. How an administration set out to shrink the size of government and ended up presiding over the largest budget in history relative to GNP."
As the interview winds down, so does the man who once pursued budget-cutting with messianic fervor. His crusading days, he says, are now behind him.
"I was a crusader," he says, "but I'm disillusioned enough on the one hand -- and confident enough on the other that public policy will end up some kind of muddled mixture -- that I don't feel strongly motivated to go down and spend my life reinventing the wheel, thinking of all these problems and coming up with new solutions."
Is he still "an ideologue," as he describes his old self repeatedly in the book?
"No, I'm pretty well persuaded that isn't very practical view of things. There's no ideology on Wall Street.
"But on the other hand, there are a lot of numbers -- and I like numbers."