Nothing since the death of Napoleon has been so pleasing in so many ways as the fact that an informal auction among publishers has produced the hilarious result of a $2.5 million contract from Harper & Row for David Stockman's memoirs. He deserves the money as deferred compensation. Government service has been costing him $1 million a year in salary forgone. And he needs it. His current occupation -- househusband -- pays poorly.
When I called to congratulate him, he had just finished the morning feeding of Rachel, age three months. Rachel's mother, Jennifer, is carrying the family until dad goes back to work for Salomon Brothers. That investment-banking firm will pay him handsomely, but in just 12 years Rachel will need an orthodontist. In 18 years she will need college tuition, which may then be $250,000 a year, if the monster deficits stretching "as far as the eye can see" (Rachel's father's words) produce proportionate inflation.
Stockman once was, like some other Reaganite intellectuals, a keeper of Karl Marx's flame, in this sense: he subscribed to an Economic Interpretation of History. He believed that economic calculation -- rationality -- rules the world. Reasonable measurements of marginal utility make the world go 'round. So, clever policies should cause economic variables to vary in ways certain to alter mass behavior in predictable ways and enhance the wealth of nations.
Now Stockman is the beneficiary of an outbreak of economic irrationality among publishers. Their animal spirits -- the heat of the chase, the lust to win -- resembled the bidding for free-agent athletes that has afflicted baseball.
The publishers' behavior reveals something of the social soil in which the publishing houses are rooted, something of the provincialism of midtown Manhattan. The publishers probably assume his book will be a vinegary exercise in settling scores and spilling beans, brimful of bitterness and "inside" stories.
Manhattan's intelligentsia, marinating in its animosities, takes all disagreements passionately and personally. Washington is different, and the difference is not the lassitude of cynicism. The difference is, in part, a reflection of this axiom about academic politics: Bitterness is inversely proportional to the stakes. Also, an attractive aspect of professional politicians is their emotional equilibrium.
Arthur Balfour wrote to a friend: "I dined last night with the Asquiths, and Asquith and I had a rather sharp passage in the House (of Commons) after dinner. I felt a mild awkwardness in replying to a man in the strength of his own champagne! I did it all the same, and with considerable vigor." Stockman's readers will find a similar goodwill, which reflects his understanding that in contemporary government honest mistakes are more important than dishonorable motives.
His book will be valuable as a study of intellectual chemistry -- what happens to ideas in the heat and pressure of the political crucible. But it will not be a page-turner full of steamy "inside" stories. In Washington, the "inside" story is often less interesting and usually less important than what is done in full view. Besides, prudential and ethical considerations will combine to produce in Stockman a seemly reticence.
He is 38 and may be -- I hope he will be -- in the Cabinet in the year 2015. He will not now want to betray confidences by revealing conversations that occurred when the participants were assuming that there was no memoirist on duty in the room.
What about "the public's right to know"? More often than not, that incantation is less a thought than a substitute for thinking. It gives writers an easy conscience about behavior that is, for them, fun and profitable. A right to know should be related in some way to a need to know, and an appetite is not necessarily a need. The public does need good government, which depends on candor in private councils. Such candor will be a casualty if frenzied competition among publishers for Washington memoirs produces an Economic Law of History Writing: As contracts become astronomic, discretion becomes a drug on the market.
It used to be said that best-sellers were about animals or medicine or the Civil War -- ideally, "I Was Lincoln's Vet." Today Stockman's $2.5 million title should be, "The OMB Diet for Thin Thighs." A long title, summing up four long years, might be: "How Rosie Scenario Fell Off Her Trojan Horse When It, Too, Stopped to Feed at the Public Trough." A short title, telling the full story of the meeting between budget-balancing theory and political practice would be: "Oops!"