Much has been said about the effects of David A. Stockman's extraordinary interviews in The Atlantic Monthly on Stockman himself and on the Reagan administration. Something needs to be said about the consequences for people of Stockman's own generation who were caught up in last week's absorbing spectacle.
"The Education of David Stockman," as William Greider called his article, was not part of the planned reading list for the Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program that drew 25 collegians and graduate students from seven campuses to Oklahoma University here last weekend for three days of intensive discussions.
But since our topic was the leadership challenge facing the younger generation in American politics and since Stockman and other young conservative economists figured prominently in the books we were discussing, copies of the Atlantic article were quickly obtained and eagerly read.
You should know that this was not a naive group. Most of them had worked in campaigns, several had interned in congressional offices and others were part-time employees of the Oklahoma legislature, where hardball politics is not unknown. Many have political ambitions of their own.
Nor were they, as a group, unsympathetic to the mission that Stockman and his administration colleagues had set for themselves: to curb the runaway growth of the federal government and make room for expansive private enterprise. Equity issues and social justice were important to them, but they, too, shared Stockman's skepticism about many governmental programs.
But they were really disturbed by Stockman's comments in the Atlantic interviews and in his televised press conference. Time and again, they asked their visitor from Washington what manner of man this was.
Computer-trained themselves, they asked how Stockman could possibly have justified reprogramming the Office of Management and Budget computers to conceal the deficits he knew were there. Why conceal those facts from Congress and the country just to pass a program he knew was flawed?
Having worked around legislators themselves, they could not see how Stockman had deluded himself into thinking his credibility could survive if he negotiated budget compromises with congressmen, while telling Greider privately those compromises would have to be repudiated in the next month's new budget cuts.
Knowing something of the relationship between politicians and the press, they wondered how Stockman could have thought his comments would be anything but destructive of the administration, whenever they were published. They argued that Stockman must have been seeking to promote his own reputation at the expense of everyone else's.
They said they could understand Stockman's saying that deadline pressures forced him to make "snap judgments" and wild guesses instead of carefully checking his numbers. They had done midnight term papers themselves. But, they said, they thought there were higher standards of professionalism and of principle that guided the actions of those whose decisions determined, not just a grade in class, but the lives of millions and the spending of billions.
"I tell you what that article did for me," one woman said. "It destroyed my faith in anything these people try to persuade Congress to do. He as much as admits that the administration wanted to win so much, they just let the business interest groups come in and pick that tax bill apart."
One of the men said: "When Reagan came in, I felt just like I was watching the end of Superman II, when he puts the flag back in place and says, 'The country's together again.' And now I'm really depressed. It just looks to me like he (Stockman) is saying the problems are too complex, the Congress just won't respond, you can't even trust them with the truth . . . . It's the same thing all over again, president after president."
As a visitor, I was unable to rationalize Stockman's actions for them. Still less did I persuade them that this kind of manipulation or equivocation is--in Stockman's economic phrase--"the way the world works."
What I heard from them was the same hard judgment I had heard from other young people --including Stockman himself--in the '60s and '70s: that without trust, government becomes impossible.
"The whole thing is premised on faith," Stockman told Greider. He was talking about the economic theory he was then defending. It is too bad that he didn't apply that same insight more broadly to government itself and to his own role as a public official. He would have left these students in Oklahoma--and I expect, many others--feeling a lot better about the first of their generation to "make it."