Down South, where I have been reporting, they like to say: "There's no education in the second kick of a mule." Washington has lost so much of its southernness that it no longer knows that to be true. Hence, the hullabaloo about David Stockman's new book.
In the excerpts from "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed," published in the current Newsweek, Stockman argues that the budget and tax scheme he helped push through Congress in 1981 was a fraud. It was bound to produce the devastating deficits we now have.
He knew it early, he says, and if President Reagan and the others high in the administration did not, it was simply because they were so economically illiterate or politically fixated that they overlooked the obvious. Stockman's view is news only to those who have just learned to read or who spent the last four years with the "Freedom Fighters" in Nicaragua. He said the same thing at the end of 1981 in his celebrated Atlantic magazine interviews with William Greider.
His first confession of duplicity was forgiven by the president and was so charming to virtually all of establishment Washington that he was encouraged to stick around and con us through another four budgets. When he finally quit in 1985, the editorials and the speeches on Capitol Hill hailed him as the greatest public servant since Henry Kissinger.
I was an almost lone dissenter at the time, arguing that Stockman was fundamentally dishonorable in staying on, in continuing to express private doubts about administration policy while engaging in the conspiracy of public silence that helped prevent serious debate about the budget in the 1984 campaign.
Now he has published a memoir that says much the same thing. Judging by the magazine excerpts, it is more self- accusatory than self-serving. Once again, Washington is titillated. And once again, Washington is missing the point.
The point is not his confession. There is, I am sorry to say, nothing new to be learned about the character of David Stockman. He is an extremely bright and facile young man. But he has advanced to the heights without grasping anything but manipulative skills. He is loyal to no one, cheerfully insulting the talents and judgments of the president who elevated him and pardoned his first breach of trust, and demeaning almost all the others he was pleased to call his colleagues.
It is not yet clear that Stockman has grasped the obligation anyone in public life has to provide his best judgment to the people he serves -- the president, Congress and, ultimately, the public. On the fundamental imbalance in the Reagan program of cutting taxes and accelerating defense, he says: "History cannot blame the president for not considering this question: I never provided him with a single briefing on this."
In his short but variegated public life, Stockman has been consistent in only one respect: he has always been ready to denounce his previous associates in terms that will please his new ones. He recanted his student radicalism when he joined the House Republicans. He trashed Congress to please the administration. And now he feeds the anti-politics bias of his new associates on Wall Street by writing a book that reduces government policy-making to the level of a shell game run by crooked carnival con men. I can hardly wait for the next installment, when Stockman decides to reenter politics and exposes the hanky-panky in the world of high finance.
No, there is nothing left to learn about David Stockman. And Washington will probably do its best to learn nothing from him.
The problem he helped create -- the staggering deficit -- is still here. This week, because of the continued intransigence of both Reagan and the House Democratic leadership, the deadline for action on the first budget resolution was, once again, missed. The serious bipartisan effort by Senate Republicans and Democrats to address this problem is still stalemated. Washington would rather talk about the Stockman book than deal with the Stockman legacy.
The second lesson Washington wishes to ignore is the confirmation Stockman offers of the biggest official "secret" of the last five years: Ronald Reagan governs day by day with only the feeblest grasp of the complex realities of public issues. The question Stockman asks is one that requires us to keep fingers crossed for the next 33 months: "What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable relevant facts and wanders in circles?"
The final lesson is the most uncomfortable of all for the Washington establishment: David Stockman is a product of this city's culture; he was esteemed and honored by this city's leaders. The implications of that fact are more staggering than any of his "revelations."
The administration will surely survive the Stockman book. Washington has survived his tenure in Congress and in the budget office. But this government and this country are in trouble if we don't find leaders of Stockman's generation who have a clearer grasp than he has displayed of the fundamental standards of personal and political integrity. "It is not yet clear that Stockman has grasped the obligation anyone in public life has to provide his best judgment to the people he serves."