The latest and most ominous innovation in the Reagan-era art of cashing in on power is hatching in the laboratory of Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. The Post reports that Perle's lawyer is circulating a proposal for an "epistolary novel" about Perle's experiences at the Pentagon. Bidding by publishers had hit $300,000 when the auction was suspended because Perle had to go abroad on the people's business.
Perle has never before published any fiction, at least so-labeled by him. But, according to The Post, "Perle's proposal is said to make a point of assuring prospective publishers that Perle would alter real events only as much as necessary to earn the label of novel." Attached to the proposal is another Post article describing Perle as "the chief architect of the Reagan administration's policy toward the Soviet Union."
The plot of the "novel" reportedly involves the dramatic clash between an assistant seretary of defense, much like Perle, and an assistant secretary of state, much like his bureaucratic rival, Richard Burt, now the insufferably smug and self- promoting U.S. ambassador to West Germany.
By now we are used to the spectacle of former high officials capitalizing on their friendships with those in power. What's alarming about Perle's high-priced book proposal is that he seems to have figured out a way to capitalize on his enemies. This raises all sorts of unusual conflicts of interest. The ambitious younger members of the Reagan administration are already afflicted with a penchant for self-dramatization. One thinks of Richard Darman at the Treasury Department and, of course, David Stockman, along with a whole aviary of defense hawklets. Do we really want to add a financial edge to this ego hunger?
Obviously, the more exciting Richard Perle can make his tenure at the Defense Department, the more money publishers will be willing to pay for his "novel." But if Perle really is the chief architect of our side of the superpower rivalry, as he seems to think, it surely is in the nation's interest that his official career be as unexciting as possible. Theatrical confrontations and high-wire diplomatic maneuvering may make for good reading, but they don't make for a very comforting foreign policy. If Perle's petty spat with Richard Burt is worth more than $300,000, think how much he could get for an actual war.
It might be thought that the promise of a large pile of cash from a book publisher is less corrupting of an official in Perle's position than a similar pile from a defense contractor. There have been no allegations that even Cap Weinberger's Pentagon is squandering too much money on books. But at least a defense contractor has no special interest in seeing the weapons it has sold actually put to the test. Quite the reverse, in fact. A book publisher, by contrast, once it has signed up a prospect -- especially for something billed as a true-life "novel" rather than a stately memoir -- has a financial stake in the maximum possible fireworks. This could be dangerous. Too many of these Reaganites seem to think they're living in a pulp novel anyway.
The tendency of high government officials toward unhealthy self-dramatization often gets fed by journalists. There's a symbiotic relationship between the subject of a story and the reporter, both of whom have an interest in painting with bright primary colors. These semiconscious conspiracies develop even when the subject knows or suspects that the basic slant of the story will be hostile. The bigger an ogre Richard Perle is perceived to be, the more boldly he can swagger down the corridors of the Pentagon and the more money Extravagant Press will pay him for his story.
The emotional and financial incentives for high drama among high officials can explain the otherwise inexplicable growth of federal deficits during the administration of a president well known to abominate them. Reagan cut taxes, on the advice of his supply-side economist friends that this was the best way to increase government revenues. But meanwhile, over at the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman was secretly sabotaging this effort, knowing that a dramatic failure would increase the advance for his new tome, "Budget Daze" (Squander Books, $34.95), or whatever it's called. If you need further evidence, just observe the way the deficits immediately started coming down when Stockman signed his book contract, pocketed his cash and resigned. I'll breathe a lot easier when Richard Perle does the same.