Reich Redux

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Feb. 11 1998 3:30 AM

Reich Redux

The revised edition of the former labor secretary's memoir is an object lesson in the difference between spinning and lying.

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Granted, Robert Reich's isn't the very first name that comes to mind these days when you think about political figures in trouble over twisting the truth. But if there ever was a moment that showed the importance of finding the fine line between spinning the facts and dispensing with them, this is it. For an object lesson in the difference, consider Reich redux.

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Last year, Slate reported that in parts of Locked in the Cabinet, his memoir of his term as labor secretary, Reich fabricated quotations and distorted events. Moreover, the changes appear to have been systematic rather than random, crafted to create Hollywood-style set pieces in which Reich was the embattled decent man who was savaged by ruthless journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and other Beltway vermin. (Click here to read the original story.) The real people for whom nasty lines had been constructed were not amused.

Reich replied that his book was faithful to his experience as he remembered it, that the media were unfairly attacking him yet again, that the discrepancies were minor, and that he would correct them in a future edition. Now the new edition is here, in the form of a paperback with revisions and a new introduction.

In this new introduction, Reich again portrays his variances with reality as mere memory slips. "Memory is fallible," he writes. "Where I have subsequently learned of errors or misinterpretations I have made changes in this edition. In no instance, however, are the changes of material importance to the story I relate."

The book's disputed passages come in three broad types. First, denied quotations. In his new introduction, Reich says, "You are duly warned, had you not assumed it already, that most of the quotes in this book should be considered paraphrases rather than verbatim accounts, as is often true of memoirs." But many of the people Reich quotes have denied the substance as well as the precise wording of the quotations ascribed them. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., denied that he had said the following of his fellow Democrats: "We're owned by them. Business." Former House Republican leader Robert Michel denied that he had told Reich that Newt Gingrich and friends were "out to destroy. They'll try to destroy anything that gets in their way." And so on.

In the new edition, Reich has not changed these disputed quotations. You just have to decide whom you believe.

The second sort of dispute involves Reich's interpretations and characterizations of events and/or people. Lane Kirkland, the former president of the AFL-CIO, comes in for rough treatment in Reich's book, and he wrote a bitter letter complaining about it. He especially objected to an account of a dinner party at his house, at which his wife Ilena (according to Reich) exclaims in horror, and the whole table falls silent, when Reich "puncture[s] the evening's high-society ambiance" by mistaking mint jelly for sauce.

The new version makes some small but revealing changes in the party scene. Some characters who Lane Kirkland said had been fabricated have been removed. Ilena Kirkland still exclaims "No!" as Reich makes for the mint jelly. But she is now a solicitous hostess rather than a tactless snob: She is "apparently concerned that I will embarrass myself." That's nicer. The scene has been subjectified, too. In the original, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan was "appalled like the rest." Now, "I imagine he is appalled like the rest." Before, various people "stare at me silently." Now, "I feel as if everyone is staring at me." No one can dispute that Reich felt and imagined what he says he felt and imagined. But the moral is the same: "I might as well have farted 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'... Sam's right: Washington sucks." Again, readers need to decide for themselves how likely it is that a Cabinet officer would bring a Washington dinner party to a mortified standstill by mistaking jelly for sauce.

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T he final, most striking category of discrepancy involves public events where official records exist and flatly contradict Reich. In one such case--a presidential press conference at which reporters supposedly bombard him and President Clinton with nasty questions, none of which appears in the White House transcript (the actual questions were quite pedestrian)--he makes no changes. Much more interesting, however, are two episodes that Reich has overhauled.

In one of them, a congressional hearing on the minimum wage becomes an "attack ad" as Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., jumps up and down in his chair "like a schoolboy" and crudely berates Reich while a bread-and-circuses audience laughs and applauds. In fact, most of the spoken lines attributed to Saxton were made up, the real hearing was dully decorous and, as far as I could tell from the videotapes, the audience was politely catatonic. In the new version, Reich sticks to the transcript and accurately quotes Saxton droning on at length about studies and Godfather's Pizza. Saxton's statement is partisan but monotonously real, and Reich's complaint is not that he was attacked but that he had "no real chance of getting a hearing at this hearing."

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