Let it be said that in the moment of his personal crisis, David A. Stockman acquitted himself remarkably well. In a city where the cover-up and the stonewall are part of the staples of political life, he employed neither in his defense. He struck no false notes of self-pity or self-justification. He made no attempts to shift the responsibility for his actions. He was forthright and rigorously honest in most difficult circumstances.
These traits are as admirable as they are unusual in Washington. Other aspects of the Stockman affair are not so positive. No matter what the Reagan administration thinks, they will not go away.
By his own words Stockman hangs himself, and considerable parts of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the "Reagan revolution" are left dangling with him.
The resulting damage is immense. Not only Stockman's credibility as the president's budget director has been grievously affected, so has the administration's. And this comes at a particularly delicate moment for the Reagan team. With the country now in a recession and unemployment rising, the Reagan people face increasingly difficult political maneuvering in Congress over their economic proposals. The Stockman revelations are certain to make their job even harder.
These are reasons enough to lift the Stockman story out of the ordinary. Perhaps more important are other insights that flow out of William Greider's extraordinary account of Washington policy-making in his Atlantic Monthly article, "The Education of David Stockman."
To this reader, most disturbing is the sense of cynicism that emerges.
"In economic principle, it's kind of a rotten idea," Greider quotes Stockman as saying of his promise that the Reagan administration would not oppose revival of sugar supports, a notorious price program killed in the last Congress. But did the White House object? "They don't care, over in the White House. They want to win."
So much for the new morality (equity for all) supposedly come to Washington.
"It's kind of hard to sell 'trickle down,' " Stockman explains, referring to the old help-the-rich-first theory, "so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really 'trickle down.' Supply side is 'trickle down' theory."
So much for the brave new world of Reaganomics.
It's "a Trojan horse filled full of all kinds of budget-busting measures and secondary agendas," Stockman says of the final budget proposals that went before the Congress.
So much for the heralded example of frugality in government the new team would set in Washington.
"I still think we'll recover a good deal of ground from this," he says after retreating on plans to cut Social Security benefits deeply. "It will permit the politicians to make it look like they're doing something for the beneficiary population when they are doing something to it which they normally wouldn't have the courage to undertake."
So much for candor in public.
Taken together, these paint a devastating portrait. But something even more troubling is exposed.
In his absolute assurance of how the world works, Stockman let nothing deter his unbounded faith in his own judgment.
If the computer projections didn't jibe with his own forecasts, he simply entered new figures to make them conform with his vision of reality. If others may have trembled at the prospect of dramatically changing the nature of the sprawling federal government overnight, he plunged forward furiously, certain he was on the right course.
It was all going to be so easy. Inflation, the scourge of the age, would melt away "like the morning mist," he predicted early on. After April, he believed, after only three months in office, there would be a bull market "of historic proportions." When that forecast came a cropper, he quickly revised his estimate but characteristically kept his optimism. The big bull market, he told Greider, would arrive by late summer or early fall.
And all the while, like the classic young man in a hurry to realize his ambitions, he raced ahead, ramming through changes in programs, cutting here, slashing there, working, as he put it, "in a 20- or 25-day time frame."
He became afflicted, like so many bright young operatives before him, with tunnel vision. Everything was immediate. The short term prevailed over the long. "I'm just not going to spend a lot of political capital solving some other guy's problem in 2010," Greider quotes him, in an especially revealing remark.
Later, Stockman would concede that speed worked against him, and: " . . . we didn't think it all the way through. We didn't add up all the numbers. We didn't make all the thorough, comprehensive calculations about where we really needed to come out and how much to put on the plate the first time, and so forth."
A valid, if belated, self-critique, to be sure. Still something remains missing from this portrait.
Throughout, Stockman treats the economic problems of the nation like some intricate puzzle--a fascinating but distant difficulty that will be solved by tinkering with the government's computers. It is all bloodless, a study in numbers, and Stockman himself comes over as coldly calculating as one of those computers. Search his words for any recognition that behind his numbers are human problems of immense complexities and difficulties. That recognition is absent.
He was fascinated, Greider says, with how the real world works. Therein lies the saddest aspect of this episode.
David Stockman, the bright boy, the superb political operative, seems not to have understood that the numbers he dealt with translate into something else. They represent real people with real problems and do not fit neatly into some new economic theory calculated by a computer. That is the real world Stockman seems never to have discovered.
Even now, he says, after all the furor, he has no doubts the economic program will work. But, he confesses, "I guess what has happened is I've also become more realistic." Let us hope so, for himself and the country.