Shortly after 11:00 o'clock that morning I had been abruptly summoned to[Jim] Baker's office.
He was all business, and his eyes were steely cold.
"My friend," he started, "I want you to listen up good. Your ass is in a sling. All of the rest of them want you [expletive]-canned right now. Immediately. This afternoon.
"If it weren't for me," he continued, "you'd be a goner already. But I got you one last chance to save yourself. So you're going to do it precisely and exactly like I tell you. Otherwise you're finished around here."
Baker continued his verbal thrashing without blinking an eye. "You're going to have lunch with the President. The menu is humble pie. You're going to eat every last mother- expletive spoonful of it. You're going to be the most contrite sonofabitch this world has ever seen."
Baker then asked me if I understood the script. I mumbled that I did and got up to leave. As I walked across the room and reached for the door to his office, Baker turned and said, "Let me repeat something, just in case you didn't get the point. When you go through the Oval Office door, I want to see that sorry ass of yours dragging on the carpet."
The hangmen -- especially [Mike] Deaver -- had gone into another one of their overnight panics. Jim had just been trying to shock me into a realization that the shark feed was on.
That was how they operated. Reality happened once a day on the evening news. They were now going to kill last night's "bad story." The decks would be cleared for something more favorable.
Baker knew I needed warning. The White House temperature had gone into sudden and feverish convulsions in the seventeen hours since CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl had gone with the Atlantic story "two nights in a row."
Only a day earlier it had been different. I had attended an LSG (Legislative Strategy Group) meeting in Baker's office and the Atlantic article had been the object of considerable merriment. The group had even presented me with a framed plaque for the "best cover story in the December 1981 issue of the Atlantic Magazine." They had all signed the framed cover -- Ed Meese, Jim Baker, Don Regan, Dick Darman, Craig Fuller.
I had been furious at (Bill) Greider for using the quotes so carelessly, especially the one describing the Kemp-Roth as a Trojan horse. I hadn't worked around the clock for seven months to enact the Reagan Revolution because I thought the supply-side tax cut was a scam.
Now the White House press room was littered with copies of a one-page "quote sheet." The loose quotations were turning the fifty pages of heavy intellectual lifting encompassed in Greider's article into a cynically manufactured scam. The press was twisting these half dozen quotes into an entire thesis, utterly unsupported by even the text of the Atlantic article.
The President's eyes were moist. It was unmistakable -- they glistened. But while he made no effort to hide it, I had barely even noticed. My own eyes had hardly wavered from the center of the plate. I had been trying to explain my involvement in the article in The Atlantic Monthly, and had rambled on nonstop for fifteen minutes. It seemed like forever.
The press had made it into a roaring overnight scandal. The story line made for a red-hot melodrama: The President had been cynically betrayed. I was the Judas who had disavowed the President's economic program and undercut his presidency . . . His mettle was being tested . . . I was hanging by a thread . . . He was angry. That's what the news hounds in the White House press room were braying. And they were building it up by the hour.
The reality inside the Oval Office was quite different. We were sitting at a small luncheon table in front of a crackling fire. Aside from the popping sound of the wood sap, it was quiet and serene. It was the only time I had ever been alone with him.
I told him his unexpected call to serve in the administration would always rank as the greatest privilege of my life. It showed that the promise of America was real. Only in America could a farm boy from Scottdale, Michigan, be called upon by a President to help him rescue the nation's failed economy.
We were engaged in a battle of ideas. The Reagan Revolution could never be won unless the establishment politicians and opinion makers gave lower tax rates, and a vast curtailment of federal spending, welfare, and subsidies was the only recipe for sustained economic growth and social progress.
Which was why I had been talking to Bill Greider, the Atlantic article's author. He was a friend and a committed liberal, but he had an open mind. Since January 1981, I had used him as a sounding board week in and week out in order to test "our" arguments and learn "their" objections.
But we had gotten so absorbed in the argument between our side and theirs that we hadn't clarified the ground rules about quotations. That's how the "Trojan horse" slipped out . . .
So I'd rambled on -- turning the Atlantic crisis into my story.
Then I looked up and saw the President's eyes. I realized it was time to stop. I had been speaking from the heart, but I had said enough.
So I concluded with, "Sir, none of that matters now. One slip and I've ruined it all."
The President responded by putting his hand on mine. He said, "No, Dave, that isn't what I want. I read the whole article. It's not what they are saying. I know, the quotes and all make it look different. I wish you hadn't said them. But you're a victim of sabotage by the press. They're trying to bring you down because of what you have helped us accomplish."
After a moment the President said, "Dave, I want you to stay on. I need your help."
He turned and began walking toward his desk, then stopped suddenly as if he had just remembered something. "Oh," he continued, "the fellas think this is getting out of control. They want you to write up a statement explaining all this and go before the press this afternoon. Would you do that?"
I agreed. My only lunch with the President was over.
I seriously doubted the Deaver crowd had read the Atlantic article. They never read anything. They lived off the tube. They understood nothing about the serious ideas underlying the Reagan Revolution. They were above the rough, exhausting, demanding business of the daily struggle down in the machinery of government against the overwhelming forces of the status quo.
I had a clear-eyed grasp of their power. I therefore thought I knew what I had to do. If they didn't know the difference between reality and a metaphor, I would have to give them what they wanted. A counter-metaphor. A woodshed story. A self-inflicted public humiliation.
If I didn't decisively shut down the Atlantic story with a new one, the White House shark feed would continue.
So that afternoon I played out the script that the White House public relations men had designed. And the Atlantic scandal soon faded away.
But the real Atlantic story was just getting started. Much later on I would realize that the Atlantic affair's hours of white heat on November 12, 1981, had brought into bold relief the ultimate flaw of the Reagan presidency.
Revolutions have to do with drastic, wrenching changes in an established regime. Causing such changes to happen was not Ronald Reagan's real agenda in the first place. It was mine, and that of a small cadre of supply-side intellectuals.
The Reagan Revolution, as I had defined it, required a frontal assault on the American welfare state. That was the only way to pay for the massive Kemp-Roth tax cut.
The fact was, due to the efforts of myself and my supply-side compatriots, Ronald Reagan had been made to stumble into the wrong camp on the eve of his final, successful quest for the presidency. He was a consensus politician, not an ideologue. He had no business trying to make a revolution because it wasn't in his bones.
Even my private exoneration at lunch in the Oval Office by a fatherly Ronald Reagan showed why a Reagan Revolution couldn't happen. He should have been roaring mad like the others -- about either the bad publicity or my admission of a flawed economic plan.
But Ronald Reagan proved to be too kind, gentle, and sentimental for that. He always went for hard-luck stories. He sees the plight of real people before anything else. Despite his right-wing image, his ideology and philosophy always take a back seat when he learns that some individual human being might be hurt.
That's also why he couldn't lead a real revolution in American economic policy.
The President's non- revolutionary instincts and sentimentality were vastly compounded by the inveterate tube watching of the "fellas." That was apparent in the Atlantic episode, too.
The problem was they knew nothing about the true substance of domestic governance. The California crowd -- Mike Deaver, Ed Meese, Lyn Nofziger -- consisted of personal retainers and electioneering hands. They were competent enough at their trades. But they were illiterate when it came to the essential equation of policy.
What the group didn't understand was that in opting for a giant tax cut, we had made our own bed of political misery. We were obligated to lie in the latter or let go of the former.
That's why the public relations men missed the target when they went for my scalp during the Atlantic affair. They meant well enough. They thought loyalty to Ronald Reagan required drastic action to nip a bad story in the bud. But it was petty loyalty that amounted to profound disloyalty in the larger scheme of things.
c1986 by David A. Stockman. From the book "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed" by David A. Stockman. Published by Harper & Row, Publishers Inc. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate