Judging by the excerpts from his new book in this week's Newsweek, former budget director David Stockman once again has misassessed the likely impact of his revelations about the Reagan administration.
But this time, Stockman may have inflicted lasting damage to his own reputation, much worse than the humiliation of his trip to the Reagan "woodshed" after publication of an Atlantic magazine article in 1981. In it, he said that supply-side economics was merely the old Republican "trickle-down" theory.
Psychoanalysts should have a field day with this book: Stockman comes off not as a frustrated 34-year-old whiz-kid who couldn't resist telling the truth about Reaganomics to an inquiring reporter, but as a self-described, possibly paranoid, ideologue willing to deceive anyone to achieve his central goal: "minimalist government -- a spare and stingy creature." The game plan failed, and Stockman now distributes the blame to all others. Only he had any brains: everyone else was an idiot or charlatan.
Now 39 and a managing director of the Wall Street house of Salomon Brothers, Stockman persuaded Harper & Row to pay him $2.3 million for a book that not only elaborates on the bitter critique of Reaganomics contained in William Greider's Atlantic article, but rips apart the character of nearly every one of his former colleagues, as well as some in the Democratic opposition.
In the article, Stockman confessed that he had intentionally been deceiving the American people about the prospects for Reagan's new program. Many of us had already argued, in print, that it was foolhardy to believe anyone could push through the huge Kemp-Roth tax cut, pump up military spending and still balance the budget in 1984 -- with 4 percent real growth in the economy to boot.
But Greider, one of the country's top journalists, got it from Stockman in his own biting words, with an admission, moreover, that as budget director he had cooked the books to fool Congress and the American people. Somehow, Stockman deluded himself into thinking he would get no more than a mild rap on the knuckles from the White House for saying that the underpinning of Reaganomics was just so much baloney. But Stockman was publicly chastised and forced to sit in the back of the bus for the ensuing four years.
The humiliation he suffered now shows through in the book. His colleagues -- who no longer trusted him -- become "hangmen" at worst and "fiscal and economic illitera(tes)" at best. He assails James A. Baker III, then chief of staff at the White House, as not "very versed on matters of policy, nor intensely interested in them." Baker, along with other top aides, "never read anything. They lived off the (TV) tube." Donald Regan is a yes man, toadying to Reagan. Caspar Weinberger, Alexander Haig and Rep. Jack Kemp all take their lumps.
Stockman descends into such petty and vindictive stuff as a reference to House Speaker Tip O'Neill's "massive corpulence and scarlet, varicose nose" and to House Majority Leader James Wright as "a snake-oil vendor par excellence, a demagogue of frightening rhetorical powers."
Yet, the self-portrait reveals Stockman had no real rivals in dispensing snake oil.
"I soon became a veritable incubator of shortcuts, schemes and devices to overcome the truth now upon us -- that the budget gap couldn't be closed except by a dictator," Stockman writes. "The more I flopped and staggered around, however, the more they went along. I could have been wearing a sandwich board sign saying: Stop me! I'm dangerous! Even then they might not have done so."
At another point in the narrative: "Only later would I appreciate the vast web of confusion and self-delusion I was creating. I instilled so much confidence by appearing to know all the answers, but I was just beginning to understand the true complexities of the federal budget."
One has to ask, after the Greider article and now the Stockman book, how any set of Stockman's colleagues can deal with him in confidence in the future. In an interview accompanying the Newsweek excerpts, he says that in the Wall Street game, "You can cover up errors for (only) about five minutes."
He may have already made one that he can't cover up: Wall Street investors no less than Washington politicians may feel vulnerable dealing with a man, who -- in former Economic Council Chairman Murray L. Weidenbaum's phrase -- is prone to publish "kick-and-tell" memoirs.