Robert Reich, Quote DoctorA Washington
memoirist puts words in people's mouths.
By Jonathan RauchPosted Friday, May 30, 1997, at 3:30 AM ET
Locked in the Cabinet
, Robert Reich's new memoir of his years as
labor secretary in the Clinton administration, is an engaging policy memoir: insightful, often
witty and, what's most unusual for wonk kiss and tells, easy to read, partly because it's told in
long stretches of well-written dialogue that add up to scores of novelistic scenes of Washington
at work. The book reads like good fiction. Unfortunately, some of it is.
Call me old-fashioned, but I've always believed that there is something special about quotation
marks. Whatever is between them, in nonfiction, is supposed to reflect accurately words that
some real person actually said. Now, "accurately" leaves room for quibbling, and a memoir will
be understood by most readers to be offered on an "as remembered" basis. Reich says, in his
prefatory note, that he jotted notes to himself, "usually late at night," and then consolidated them
to make the book. People know that Reich is not a reporter, and will adjust their expectations
accordingly. Fair enough. Maybe he has a good memory.
Certainly from a former Cabinet officer, however, one would expect, if not word-for-word
accuracy, at least some checking of his memory, especially when public documents are available.
Suspicions mount as Reich spins out page after page of crisp conversation, especially when the
same remark issues from two different mouths--as happens on pages 122 and 129.
Again and again, Reich offers zippy dramatic dialogues culminating in pithy and revealing
quotes. For instance, he has Robert Michel, R-Ill., who was House minority leader at the time,
telling him this about Newt Gingrich and friends: "They talk as if they're interested in ideas, in
what's good for America. But don't be fooled. They're out to destroy. They'll try to destroy
anything that gets in their way, using whatever tactics are available." Reich may believe Michel
said this, but Michel says he knows otherwise. "That's not my quote, no," he says. Michel says he
probably complained about the decline of comity and bipartisanship. But "I would never say
that--that they're out to destroy. I'd never say anything like it."