As Stockman readies himself for trial, the press will continue to recycle his woodshed trip as if it really happened. What accounts for the tale's staying power?
For one thing, the phrasing was felicitous. William Safire, for one, was immediately drawn to it and traced the origin of woodshed in his New York Times Magazine language column. As I recall, "woodshed" became a bit of a catchphrase in Washington and wherever people followed politics, as in "The boss … the wife … the IRS is taking me to the woodshed." Stockman and his word remained so twinned that when he resigned in 1985, it figured high in the news stories about his departure.
It also endured because it took advantage of the way memory works. We don't deposit remembered items in an inert structure where they remain unchanged until we call them up again, as Garry Wills has noted. "In fact, what is being recalled is the experience that a person underwent in acquiring anything to be remembered," he writes.
Every time a memory is withdrawn and deposited, its shell thickens and hardens. In the four short years between Stockman's "countermetaphoric" press conference and the publication of his book, the woodshed lie became as tough as epoxy. Two decades later, it still holds tighter than any truth.
I refuse to quote that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Memory dumps accepted at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)