David Stockman, the retiring budget director, leaves government to a chorus of praise unrivaled by that for any Cabinet-level official of any administration since Henry Kissinger. The parallels are deeper -- and more disturbing -- than you might think.
Stockman, like Kissinger, is a favorite of the Washington establishment, honored for his brilliance, admired for his technique and spared from accountability for the policy disasters in his area of responsibility.
In the case of David Stockman, I write those words with great sadness, for I had a personal affection for and relationship with him, which I certainly did not have with Kissinger. I met Stockman when he was a student at Harvard, played a minor middle-man role in his getting his first Washington job as a congressional staff aide, and watched admiringly the flowering of his career as a member of the House and the Reagan administration.
In a book published five years ago, I focused on Stockman as an exemplar of the "best and brightest" of the younger-generation conservatives. He became the most powerful and influential member of that generation in government -- which makes his fate all the more important to understand and lament.
Stockman was corrupted by a particularly insidious part of the Washington power game, a game that only Kissinger in my memory has played with comparable skill. He portrayed himself to the key figures in Congress, the press and the other parts of the permanent Washington power structure as the "reasonable man," striving to advance intelligent policy against the "crazies," those he characterized as ideologues and ignoramuses who were his colleagues in the administration.
At the same time, he portrayed himself to those colleagues as an invaluable asset to them, because of his influence and credibility with the Washington power structure. It was the classic Kissinger double-agent game, rationalized, in both cases, on the quite reasonable assumption that the end product would be better with the participation of a Stockman or a Kissinger than without.
Stockman went a step beyond Kissinger in collaborating willingly and knowingly in journalist William Greider's 1981 Atlantic Monthly magazine description of his role. The story made him a national figure and took him in for a "woodshed" treatment from President Reagan.
In that article, he revealed in his own indelible phrases his deep-seated doubts about both the numbers and the policy rationale he supplied Congress and the public during the historic budget and tax debates in the first eight months of the Reagan administration.
Only the brilliance of his performance spared him from the accusation of complete cynicism from the critics of that program. Only the value of his intellect let him survive the desire for retribution from its genuine advocates. That was the time for a resignation on principle, but Stockman let it pass. He offered the president his resignation but did not press it when Reagan demurred. It was another proof of Lord Acton's aphorism, with a Washington variant: Power corrupts, and the prospect of losing power corrupts absolutely.
Restored to the bosom of the president and of the Washington power structure, Stockman saw no need to change his method of operations. During the last 3 1/2 years, he has continued to operate on the back- channel of "guidance" to the insiders, while molding his public statements to the prevailing political winds. During the 1984 campaign season, when Reagan was peddling blue-sky reassurances that America had found the key to perpetual economic growth that would shrink the budget deficits, Stockman was silent. Once the election was past, he quickly resumed issuing dire predictions of runaway deficits.
As his own resignation time approached, he became more and more publicly outspoken about the Draconian spending cuts that would be needed -- along with probable tax increases -- to stop the hemorrhage in the budget. For this belated candor, he has been praised.
The Kissinger parallels continue. Just as the great foreign policy maestro accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Vietnam, a tragedy of historic scale, so Stockman is graciously accepting praise from the politicians and the editorialists for presiding over an unparalleled disaster in U.S. fiscal policy.
Both men are smart enough to believe that if they just had their way, they could fix the problem they were supposed to fix. Both are arrogant enough to operate on the belief that deceiving the American people and their elected representatives is perfectly justifiable on many occasions.
Like Kissinger, Stockman will now take up the role of a wealthy entrepreneur and, assuredly, a frequent commentator in the press, on television and the lecture circuit, discussing the failings of his successors.
I am too old to worry about my own disappointment at the way this turned out. My concern is that Stockman's contemporaries will see him as the example they should emulate. As the first of his generation to achieve real power, it is a troubling legacy he leaves.