Even a dump site sometimes yields up something of value among the broken china, dirty linen and used razor blades. So it is with David Stockman's memoirs of his singlehanded efforts to save us from fiscal perdition.
One passage having to do with Stockman's true confessions to William Greider in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981 strikes me as especially illuminating.
When proper discount is made for the grating self-service, Stockman's account of the Atlantic episode has a certain relevance to some rather more cosmic chapter in the Reagan presidency. By indirection, it relates to arms control and the intervention in Lebanon, the Reagan peace initiative for the Middle East, the Reagan doctrine for anticommunist insurgencies, the mood swings on East-West relations and the global strategy to counter terrorism.
We go now to the Oval Office. It's Stockman and Reagan, lunching one-on-one with a fire crackling in the fireplace. Stockman has just had a bruising encounter with Jim Baker, then the White House chief of staff. Baker and the other presidential managers in the White House had taken the Atlantic article lightly until it became in their eyes, according to Stockman, "a roaring overnight scandal" in the only world these men cared about: television-land.
Their wrath was anonymously conveyed to the "news hounds" as presidential wrath. Baker had coldly ordered Stockman to present himself to the president as "the most contrite sonofabitch this world has ever seen." It was Stockman's "one last chance to save himself." He was understandably braced for a monumental chewing out.
Instead, "the president's eyes were moist," as Stockman did his mea culpa. At the end, the president put his hand on Stockman's, said gently that he wished Stockman hadn't said some of the things attributed to him, but commiserated: "You are a victim of sabotage by the press." After a pause, Reagan added, "Dave, I want you to stay on. I need your help."
Only much later, Stockman recounts, did he realize that the "hours of white heat" over the Atlantic article had "brought into bold relief the ultimate flaw of the Reagan presidency." Stockman saw himself as point man of an economic revolution by "a cadre of supply-side intellectuals" of which Ronald Reagan was clearly not a member. Rather, Reagan had been "made to stumble into the wrong camp" -- he had, in effect, been used by the right-wing ideologues in the 1980 campaign. Reagan "was a consensus politician, not an ideologue. He had no business trying to make a revolution because it wasn't in his bones," Stockman writes.
The president, he goes on, should have been "roaring mad" at Stockman, but he "proved to be too kind, gentle and sentimental for that. He always went for hard-luck stories. He sees the plight of real people before anything else."
"Real people" like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos? One can't be too literal, but it is not too much to suppose that Reagan sees a hard-luck story in the plight of his old friends now exiled in Honolulu; hence the Honolulu phone call. The ideologue in Reagan also sees a faithful anticommunist ally, and you don't let go of these kinds of people. But the consensus politician in Reagan goes along with his administration's calculated efforts not only to let Marcos go, but to give him a firm push aside in favor of Corazon Aquino.
The ideologue promises in his first week in office "swift and effective" retaliation against international terrorism. But for five years the Ronald Reagan who is concerned with the "plight of real people" repeatedly rules against retaliation that risks innocent lives, until the Libyan air strike.
The ideologue fills the air with talk about the Soviet "evil empire" until the consensus politician starts talks about peace and arms control and getting along with the Soviets, in the 1984 campaign and on into his second term. The ideologue speaks of communist lying and cheating, but the consensus politician sticks grudgingly to SALT II's terms.
Pressure from ideologues accounts for such things as the early dismissal of the Palestinians as "refugees," the first term preoccupation with military buildup, the hard line on arms control. Ronald Reagan, consensus politician, offers a comprehensive and conciliatory Middle East initiative, a zero option for arms control and a dream of a world made wonderfully free of nuclear weapons by the development of a missile-proof shield. Ideological considerations demand the removal of the Sandinista regime from Nicaragua. The consensus politician aims to do it in 18 months for $100 million.
I think Stockman may be on to something. The Reagan Revolution, which Stockman once thought was Ronald Reagan's grand domestic design, has helped bring us to the gridlock of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.
Without seeking too close a parallel to the fortunes of Ronald Reagan's grand designs for foreign policy, what Stockman has to tell us cannot be too quickly discounted. For now, he is the only Boswell we have for Ronald Reagan. His journals, accordingly, are the only available insider's account of the cross-currents of ideology and consensus politics at work on the Reagan conduct of public policy.