Today’s Brew 1-26-10

Nota bene on David Stockman

By Brian Domitrovic
January 26, 2010

Should a book on the financial crisis by David A. Stockman be welcome? Word is he is preparing one. In a sense, the answer must be yes, given that there can be no question that Stockman has a meticulous and active intelligence and that he’s had a front-row seat in policy and the economy since his days in Congress in the 1970s – as OMB director in the 1980s, in a high Wall Street position after that, and then in business. Surely he has something to say about our crisis that we should hear.

But will he tell us what he has to say? The major examples of Stockman’s expressing his views for public consumption suggest that he will not. Robert Novak said that Stockman was the most informative source he ever had. Mind you, the greatest shoe-leather man in the history of Washington journalism said this. Novak even confided, in his memoir, that in the early Reagan years, he got too close to Stockman, meaning that Novak’s own columns were not as critical and accurate as they should have been. The question arises: do Novak’s columns from the period correctly portray what was going on the Reagan White House, much less what Stockman indeed believed about the issues of the day – or were the columns fronts for some ideological message that Novak and Stockman were striving to get across so as to influence events? This is not an idle question, in that Novak himself raised it, after the passage of decades.

Then there’s William Greider. This Washington Post reporter hung with Stockman throughout 1981 and wrote up the experience in his “Education of David Stockman” article in the December Atlantic. The article is famous for its quotation of Stockman calling the Reagan tax cut (ERTA) which had just passed a “Trojan horse” to bring down the top rate of the income tax. The idea was that ERTA’s reducing of all rates – even those on the little guy – was a populist ruse to ensure that the rich got theirs.

There can’t be any mistake that Greider felt he hit the jackpot in getting the line. He spent the next several years trading on it, publishing the article as a book and generally advertizing himself as the pressman who got Stockman to say “Trojan horse.” Surely this came into play as Greider arranged for his pay package for his book Secrets of the Temple.

But Greider must have also known that Stockman had not been involved in the preparation of ERTA. Today, the archival record makes plain that Stockman devoted all of his attention in spring and summer 1981 (ERTA became law in August) to the spending bills going through Congress. He was the OMB director after all. Stockman had next to nothing to do with the preparation of the tax bill. Surely Post insider Greider knew that Stockman was a poor source on the tax bill – that he wasn’t even a real witness to it. But Greider asked Stockman about it anyway, got a great line, and then trumpeted and traded on the line. If Greider ever is visited by the confessional mood that got Novak near the end of his life, we may yet hear about all this.

As for The Triumph of Politics, Stockman’s memoir of his Reagan years that came out in early 1986 (only five months after he departed OMB), its bona fides as a source stink. It botched the history of the formulation of the Reagan economic plan (which Econoclasts readers know so well) — no mention of John Rutledge! And it is anchored by the Atlantic nonsense. Of course it is – by that point, given the huge reception of the Atlantic article of five years before, this was Stockman’s brand. What if Stockman had told his publisher Harper & Row, “Look I’m really not going to go with that Trojan horse stuff. I knew next to nothing about the tax bill. Let me make the book all about the fight over pork.” They would have said – as they may indeed have said – “Sonny, when you have a brand, you trade on it.”

Then there’s the question of authorship. Stockman was a workaholic, but the 400-page book came out in five months? There’s no convention against ghostwriting for trade books, and Stockman says in the preface that much of his manuscript met a “deserved demise on the cutting-room floor,” as Econoclasts readers recall. There’s a nagging rumor that Christopher Buckley wrote the book. The rumor is consonant with the tone of the book. It has literary panache, and so does Buckley. “Thank you for trashing,” as I always say to my little babies when they strew things across the floor.

The NYT piece from a few days ago? It has the hallmarks of over-editing. The “supply-side catechism” phrase in the opening line is the giveaway. A warhorse in the cheap criticism of supply-side economics is that its proponents treated it as “theology.” Catechisms, after all, are explanations of unerring, unchanging divine science. If something has a catechism, it is theological.

The NYT has long played ball with the cheap criticism of supply-side economics, so I’m ready to say that the Gray Lady imposed that line on Stockman. Battle-axes usually get what they want from their men. But Stockman in fact knew Norman Ture, Jude Wanniski, et al. Ture must be in heaven right now laughing parts of his glorified body off on being the first accountant in history confused for a theologian. The Wanniski-Stockman correspondence is thick at the Hoover Institution, and it’s hard to walk away from it saying Wanniski was not an empiricist. And it is not clear that Robert Mundell is deeply concerned about the affairs of the here and now?

So the record is highly suggestive that Stockman gets manipulated and used by his editors and publishers (not to say interviewers). That’s why I’m worried about this forthcoming book. Don’t tell me that some lowlife critic of supply-side economics is going to put out a book on the crisis and slap Stockman’s name on the cover. That’s why I’m suggesting Stockman drop it and play to his strengths. These strengths only include making money hand over fist, humiliating federal prosecutors, and dominating New York philanthropy. And boy did he get the girl. Robert Mosbacher/Michael Huffington wish they could have married so right. As lives that “hang patchy and scrappy” go, his is better than anything Browning had in mind – where unusual boy and neat girl certainly do not tie the knot. Stockman married better than F. Scott Fitzgerald did, that’s for sure.

I go into all this because professional historians have shown themselves complicit. Princeton lion Sean Wilentz gave “The Education of David Stockman” and The Triumph of Politics primacy of place as he wrote up The Age of Reagan. That’s simply not what historiography needed at this late date. Where I went to graduate school, full professors got hot at colleagues – with their fancy titles, prestige, and dollars – who were fine with putting their name on superficial research. Use your titles, prestige, and dollars to do the hard labor of getting the right sources. That’s why you’re paid the big bucks.

Kevin Hassett has written that supply-siders must take care not to silence apostates like Bruce Bartlett, and he’s right. Bartlett gives every impression that he says what he believes, and that what’s said with his name on the cover is indeed what he said. Sing from the mountains. We need good information. For Stockman’s new book to qualify as good information, a precedent has to be broken.

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