Robert Reich, Quote Doctor

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May 30 1997 3:30 AM

Robert Reich, Quote Doctor

A Washington memoirist puts words in people's mouths.

(Continued from Page 1)

When I checked the transcript, I was flabbergasted; so I checked the C-SPAN tapes, and they leave no doubt. Reich appears to have fabricated much of this episode for dramatic effect. Saxton was, in fact, decorous and polite. He did not jump up and down; he did not impugn Reich's education; he did not shout "Evidence! Evidence!" The chart to which Reich refers was actually presented during Saxton's opening statement, hours before Reich testified, and did not look as Reich claims it did. Worst of all, most of the lines that Reich attributes to Saxton--starting with "where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?"--appear never to have been said at all. Reich has replaced a dull, earnestly wonkish hearing with a Hollywood script in which a mean Republican hammers a decent Democrat. Don't take my word for it. I invite you to compare Reich's account with reality by clicking here.

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Or, perhaps most striking of all, consider a set piece in which Reich speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers. He describes himself as being ambushed by cigar-chomping capitalists who hiss at him so loudly that he has to yell to be heard. "They plan to carve me up into small pieces," he writes. "There isn't a lady in the room. All men, in dark suits. They've finished lunch. Some are smoking cigars. Others are quietly smirking, ready for the kill." His speech over, Reich is lambasted by a "John," and Reich's answer elicits an eruption of "Wrong!" "Bullshit!" and "Go back to Harvard!" As Reich speaks, the audience hisses so loudly "that I'm not sure anyone can hear me." The cigar smoke, he says, "is making my eyes water. I feel dizzy." He says, "We're in a boxing arena, John's the champ, and the crowd is loving every minute." Finally, the meeting over, he races "out the back exit before they can pummel me."

As it happens, the meeting was a breakfast, not a lunch. The NAM says the attendance list shows that a third or more of the people present were women (including the NAM representative with whom I spoke). If anyone actually was inclined to light up a cigar after breakfast, he would have been breaking the NAM's no-smoking rule, according to an association representative (who, like another witness I talked to, saw no cigars). Most important, a transcript of the meeting shows a respectful Q and A session, in which none of the comments attributed to "John"--nor any like them--were actually made.

One would hardly expect a roomful of corporate reps to hiss, boo, and shout "bullshit" at a sitting U.S. labor secretary. Sure enough, the transcript shows nothing nastier than sprinkled applause and laughter. I asked Richard Boyd, the professional court reporter who transcribed the session, whether his transcript might have omitted hisses, boos, and imprecations. "I never witnessed anything like that with Robert Reich or anybody else at a NAM meeting," he said. "I'm absolutely certain I would remember it." Reich portrays himself as the little guy standing up to a roomful of abusive capitalists--pure Hollywood. Again, don't take my word for it; click here.

I asked Reich what was going on in each of these cases. In reply, he pointed to his Note to the Reader: "I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it." He said that his notes accurately reflected how he felt and what he perceived. In the three cases cited above, he felt varying degrees of hostility. "I am not representing the book to be anything other than it is, which is my account of my experiences, my perceptions, what I saw and heard around me," he said. "That's all I can say."

In effect, Reich is saying that he's not writing journalism or history. He's writing ... well, what? He elides the very distinction between history and myth, memoir and novel, reality and perception. The problem is that those are real people he misquotes, real history he rewrites.

Steve Wasserman, a former Random House editor who now edits the Los Angeles Times Book Review, points out an irony: Books are often viewed as better sources for history than newspapers, but newspapers, which are generally much more careful than the average publishing house about such niceties as checking quotes, are often the more reliable source. Reich's memoir, if that's the proper word for it, is now ensconced between hard covers and will be read for years to come as part of the historical record. That is a shame. Quote me.

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of National Journal in Washington.

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