These are the apex and the nadir of the Reagan administration.
David Stockman was Director of the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) for four and a half years—as long as he wished. During his tenure at this agency, which checks the whole federal bureaucracy, he was recognized in the mass media and in Congress as the most brilliant and powerful Reaganite. Even before Stockman took office, he began to betray the Reagan administration by leaking systematically to an editor of the Washington Post. Yet, when his leaks were published in an infamous Atlantic Monthly article in November 1981 that discredited the administration’s first year in office, the President kept him on, reportedly because his expertise at OMB was indispensable. Upon retiring from public service, he wrote a best seller on a million-dollar advance and took a high paying job with the top trader on Wall Street.
At the other pole is Anne Burford. For twenty-two months, she was Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a meddlesome bureaucracy of obscure organization which is best known for its alliances with the environmentalist faction. Burford’s tenure was marked by charges of maladministration and political corruption: packs of reporters coursed her through the streets, airports, and hotels of America: Congress found her in contempt. After being forced to resign under humiliating conditions, she spent three years suing the Reagan Administration for the hundreds of thousands in legal fees that she incurred as EPA’s Administrator.
Despite these differences in honors, offices, and emoluments, the two are equals. To be sure, at the time of their appointments, Stockman’s private accomplishments were superior. Of course, both were good-looking and relatively young when they were appointed, but Stockman was younger and the most eligible bachelor in Washington. Anne Burford was Anne Gorsuch, a separated but not yet divorced mother of three who was “‘seeing'” Robert Burford, Director of the Bureau of Land Management (p. 35). These personal details must be mentioned in case anyone supposes that they are unimportant politically. Some of the most influential people in the White House concern themselves full time with these matters, which are the stuff of daily life in Washington (See Burford, pp. 34-5, and Stockman, p. 321).
In public accomplishments, Burford was superior. Although Stockman has a reputation for being unusually intelligent—”I have enormous respect for David’s intellect” says Burford—his educational attainments are clearly inferior. Burford ranked high when she graduated from the University of Colorado’s law school and she was a Fulbright Scholar, whereas Stockman was admitted to Harvard Divinity School to avoid the Vietnam draft. Stockman is, however, more of an intellectual than Burford, having read all of the writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, some of Walter Lippmann, Theodore Lowi and Reinhold Niebuhr, and five years worth of Congressional Quarterly; and he is impressed by people, like then-White House aide Richard Daman, who read “serious books” (see p. 245). An expert on the federal budget once remarked to me that Stockman was appointed, not only because he was the only person in Washington who had read the Federal Budget but also because he had read it cover-to-cover. On the evidence of The Triumph of Politics (see p. 91), this is only half true. And Burford’s quick mastery of the details of environmental regulation—a scientifically, legally, and politically complex matter—is no less impressive than Stockman’s command of the budget’s numbers (see Burford, pp. 47-59).
Stockman, to be sure, had held a higher elective office than Burford, having been a Republican congressman from a safe Michigan district. But Burford, for her part, had been elected and reelected to her state legislature from a heavily Democratic (and Jewish) district, had participated in a conservative rebellion in the Colorado legislature, had assumed the leadership of two important committees in her first term, had written pieces of criminal and environmental law, and had been voted “Outstanding Freshman” by her colleagues. Furthermore, she could beat Stockman at his own game. In a showdown early in Burford’s tenure, she got the budget she wanted because her staff leaked a story of Stockman’s insensitivity to environmental issues to the New York Times. She was then able to reprimand her staff for pulling such a stunt all the while wondering why Stockman “was personally angry that I had won.” Thus did she top Stockman at his leaky best.
Although she was clever and experienced, Burford was known by all parties in Washington for her loyalty to the Reagan administration. Stockman—as everyone knows and as this book evinces—is remarkable for his disloyalty.
Given this moral calculus, one cannot help but wonder why one rose high and the other fell. So here are the materials for considering the things for which citizens, and especially appointed officials, are praised and blamed these days.
Stockman’s narrative covers only the first year of his tenure and treats only economic policy. In fact it considers only a part of Reagan’s economic policy—Congress’s passage of a Budget Resolution on June 26, 1981 and of the Kemp-Roth “Supply-Side” Tax Cut on July 29, 1981. All else—defense and foreign policy, regulatory policy, environmental issues, and so on—is presented in the light of these two legislative actions. And stripped of its stupid gossip about the foibles of congressmen, of the intellectual clap-trap about supply-side and structural effects, and of the snide remarks about the intellect of the President and his advisors, Stockman’s claim about these two events is simple: in 1981, the American government wrongly decided to spend more than it took in.
This might not seem like news to anyone familiar with the last fifty years of American political history. So Stockman elaborates. Government spent a lot more and decided to keep on doing so in the future. The consequence will be bad times: inflation to repudiate the resultant massive public (and private) debt. This is not news either, unless one supposes, as Stockman does, that the Reagan administration ought to have put an end to all this.
Stockman’s “Reagan Revolution” has nothing to do with moral, social, or religious issues. He has as much contempt for the New Right and the Moral Majority as Norman Lear or the libertarians. Nor does his “Reagan Revolution” have anything to do, except accidentally, with countering the Soviet threat to which Stockman is as blind as the libertarians and the left wing of the Democratic Party. Rather, President Reagan was elected to achieve “the social goals of the liberal establishment . . . through a revival of non-inflationary economic growth.” That is “the basic objective of the Reagan Revolution.” To the extent that this required some dismantling of the welfare state, Stockman was willing. That is the “whole thesis,” and what he repeatedly calls, not without some of the self-mockery born of maturity, the “Grand Doctrine” upon which he operated at OMB in his first year. So Stockman agrees with those conservative critics who claim that he was the tool (and Ronald Reagan the dupe) of the liberal establishment.
Why could not Stockman see that the liberal establishment is not politically respectable, if indeed it needs conservative tools and dupes to accomplish its “social goals?” In the late 1970s, the Supply Siders—Jack Kemp, Irving Kristol, Art Laffer, and Jude Wanniski—convinced Stockman that the liberal establishment was incapable of that impartial administration of the economy which its social goals required. Stockman’s experience at OMB taught him that conservatives could not do it either. Sensible people might have concluded that it could not be done. However, being an intellectual (i.e., someone who believes that his ideas are what really matter), Stockman could not conclude that the social goals of the liberal establishment were ruinous of American wealth and power. Instead, he concluded that the truth, his Grand Doctrine, had been mugged by “politics.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, Tocqueville pointed out that above all, democrats must fear the excesses of intellectuals. Disgusted with democracy’s propensity to reward commercial, not intellectual talents, intellectuals of the right and the left prefer the following proposal:
. . . concentrate all wealth in the hands of a central power whose function it should be to parcel it out to individuals according to their merits. That would . . . [be] a way of escaping from the complete and eternal equality which seems to threaten democratic societies.1
Bureaucratic redistributionism is the effectual truth of the social goal of the liberal establishment, which Stockman so admires. In practice, bureaucratic redistributionism has proven to be both socialistic, e.g., when aiming to raise the least advantaged classes to the socio-economic status they are thought to deserve, and capitalistic, e.g., when seeking to encourage those who produce what is to be redistributed to produce more so that more can be redistributed. Indeed, as Stockman illustrates, bureaucratic redistributionism can be capitalistic and socialistic simultaneously. It is only essential that every redistribution of wealth be administered centrally.
By The Triumph of Politics Stockman means the defeat of “ideas” by “power” (see p. 80). That is his whole dismal story: how this or that private interest prevented the impartial administration of the economy which his ideas dictated. Accordingly, he urges his readers to believe that we might have had capitalism’s fabled “level playing field,” if only the politicians, seeking reelection, had not tampered with his budgetary proposals. If only the liberal welfare state had not engendered private interest groups which favor its massive spending. Stockman (following Theodore Lowi) complains, for page upon tedious page, we might have had that wealth which the liberal establishment requires for the achievement of social justice. Unfortunately, Stockman could not point out, as Martin Diamond did so often for his Political Science 1 classes, that, if only Grandma had wheels, she would be a trolley car.
In other words, Stockman’s pet ideas—his revolution, not the Reagan Revolution—could be defeated by the power of others, because they were wrong and everyone believed they were wrong.
What defines the “Reagan Revolution,” if anything, is the national recognition that the reigning left-liberal establishment had become ruinous of American life. Ronald Reagan expressed this with admirable clarity and precision throughout his 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter and Stockman’s political mentor, John Anderson. By declaring that “Government is not the solution: government is the problem,” Reagan gave voice to an opinion which could have been heard in a thousand bowling alleys, supermarket check-outs, and churches across the nation, but which had rarely, if ever, been articulated nationally in this century.2 Intellectuals of the left and the right interpret Reagan’s memorable aphorism as “populistic” and “anti-government” but clearly Reagan meant that government need not be a problem to the American people and that if he were in office, it would cease being a further problem and in that way start being a solution. This really was revolutionary, because the conventional wisdom of the second generation of the New Deal was that wherever there was a problem there was a bureaucratically administered program to solve it.
Stockman knows that the Reagan Revolution, in the sense just indicated, did not fail:
We had tightened the money supply, sharply reduced inflation, and were making some progress on deregulation. For the first time in American politics, we had actually put the spending constituencies on the defensive. That was no mean feat. (p. 348)
Further, he knows that the Reagan administration reversed the liberal establishment’s presumption against American military might just as surely as its presumption against American wealth (see p. 392). Furthermore, who but Stockman can fail to notice that during the Reagan Administration economic growth and low inflation have been restored, while spending for liberal social programs has been increased to record levels. However, to Stockman these are not really important accomplishments, because they are not “revolutionary” in the sense that they advanced his precious “social goals of the liberal establishment.”
Stockman was theoretically and practically mistaken in believing that the goals of the American left today are “social,” not political. Thus, of William Greider, Stockman mistakenly says, “Like me, he was anti-political. He felt that policy ought to be built on ideas, not power.” Greider was the editor at the Washington Post whose Atlantic article so discredited Stockman that his history ends with its publication; apparently, after Greider exposed him, Stockman did not do anything worth narrating. Indeed, in form, Triumph of Politics is a kind of commentary on Greider’s article: almost every incident in the book ends with Stockman’s description of what he leaked to Greider about the event in question. Stockman might believe that “We were engaged in a battle of ideas” (p. 3). Manifestly, Greider (“He was a friend . . .” whines Stockman) and the Washington Post (which “had given us a fair shake—at least sometimes,” he says, grateful for any crumb) were willing to use weapons other than ideas.
Stockman makes the same error when he confuses the objectives of the liberal establishment with the goals of the various social and regulatory programs established by the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the New Frontier/Great Society. Today, as for the past decade, the liberal establishment is devoted to the central administration of the United States, i.e., to bureaucracy. The Democrats’ social and regulatory programs of the previous generation are the superstructures of bureaucracy, but the foundation is minute, day-to-day, congressional control of agency spending (and personnel). Because he believes in the moral worth of the liberal establishment’s professed social goals, Stockman is blind to the effects of bureaucratization on public finance. Bureaucratization means that congressional budget resolutions, budgets, continuing resolutions, authorizations, and appropriations bills, even if they are passed, have little to do with what is actually spent. Control of spending depends very little upon ideas and debates and resolutions, and very much upon the virtues and vices—the pusillanimity, the civic courage, the moderation-of elected and appointed officials.
Consider: Throughout the spring and summer of 1981, all Washington, and especially Republicans and conservative Democrats, could happily debate the wisdom of this or that program with David Stockman. However, when Stockman actually stopped some spending in the fall of 1981, Senator Mark Hatfield had a temper tantrum: “The White House is threatening to tear up the Constitution,’ he exploded….” Upon hearing of OMB’s perfectly legal “deferral” of spending, “the unflappable [then-Senate Majority Leader] Howard Baker exploded in red-hot anger” so personal and so violent that his words “stung as much as [Stockman’s] father’s leather strap.” Stockman lit a cigarette to steady his shaking hand. Having a narrow political education, Stockman admired Baker with foolish extravagance: “That guy is better than anybody else who’s ever been on the track.” So this attack broke his self-confidence once and for all (see pp. 336-7). Things got rough for Davy Stockman on the battlefield of ideas.
Now imagine how “stung” Stockman might have felt if he knew Congressmen were plotting, in cold fury, to ruin him and send him to jail before his approaching wedding day. That is what Anne Burford faced.
During the past decade, the first decade of America’s fully bureaucratized regime, politics in Washington became unusually mean-spirited. For example, days before Burford was confirmed, James J. Howard (D-NJ), the Chairman of the House’s Public Works and Transportation Committee, viciously berated Burford for allowing his political opponent, whom he had defeated months before Burford was even considered for the position at EPA to take credit for an EPA construction grant in his district (pp. 40-41). Perhaps Howard was merely trying to impress upon her what he thought was really important, but less than a week after she arrived at EPA a federal judge tried to make a similar impression:
‘I don’t care if that lady just walked in there,’ thundered the judge when he heard the request [that EPA issue the standards governing effluents in water which a law had required of the agency five years before]. If this order isn’t followed she’s going to jail’ (p. 69)
So as Burford’s book documents, the criminal law, together with temper tantrums, has become a chief instrument of government—that is, of administration—in Washington during the past decade.
Burford actually can sympathize with these poor Congressmen, driven to the extreme of jailing their fellow citizens so they can get reelected. So she pleaded with Rep. John Dingle (D-Mich.) not to press the issue of her criminal contempt of Congress for refusing, on the orders of the Chief Executive, to honor his committee’s subpoena. She had “actually been to see the President himself, and had come that close to getting him to agree that we should give Congress whatever [information] it wanted.” Dingle replied:
‘You know I’m not after you. You’re Just in the way. What you need to do is to figure out who your friends are—whether they’re up here [in Congress], or at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.'(p. 159)
It is beyond me why Burford remembers Dingle “with respect and admiration,” for, make no mistake about it, he and his colleagues intended to send her to jail. Then-Rep. Levitas (D-Ga.)—who should be remembered for his wonderful aphorism, “You can’t take the politics out of politics”—was plain about it:
I remember before we made that decision of what to do, not only checking out the precedents on the inherent power of Congress to hold a person in contempt, but what would be done if that occurred. Who would go out and arrest Mrs. Burford? And where would she be incarcerated? I checked out the location of the old jail in the Capitol Building. I actually went and met with the Architect of the Capitol, and he took me around and showed me where they [sc. the Capitol police] use to hold prisoners.’ (p. 262)
Indeed, Burford’s immediate inferior, Rita Lavelle did go to jail over the very issue on which the Congressmen plotted to jail Burford.
That issue was, of course, being able to take political credit for governmental spending. In particular, the Democratic Congressmen claimed that EPA delayed the announcement of a Superfund grant to clean up Stringfellow toxic dump in California and thus prevented Governor Jerry Brown from taking credit for it in his campaign for the Senate against Pete Wilson. This grant was relatively small—$6 million out of a multi-billion-dollar fund—but the anger of the Democrats was so great that they baited Lavelle into perjuring herself in her congressional testimony about her activities in “election tracking” Superfund grants for someone in the Reagan administration. They tried, but failed to set Burford up for a perjury charge in July 1982; Burford probably knew nothing about the details of Lavelle’s partisan activities. The record of the committee testimony on this failed plot to induce Burford to perjure herself was altered by the Democrats. Committee staff were fired, Republican members of the committee held the moral high ground for a few days, but Burford has never been able to get a transcript of the original testimony (p. 235). For whatever reasons, the Democrats regarded those six million Superfund dollars as their own, and were willing to falsify the public record and send Burford to jail to hold on to them.
Burford was not entirely innocent in this matter. In the first place, she hired Rita Lavelle for a position that Lavelle’s subordinates knew she was unqualified for; even worse, they knew because Burford told them. “Rita Lavelle was not my choice,” Burford insists. Burford turned her down for the position twice, before Joe Ryan of “the White House personnel office” offered this “clincher” argument
‘Anne, you know how it is for women; they frequently are not given opportunities to grow, and so it becomes one of those Catch-22 situations: you don’t have the management experience because you’ve never been given the opportunity for management experience, so therefore you’re in this ever downward cycle, and you as a woman should be sympathetic to that, and certainly you have been before . . . (p. 112)
Shortly thereafter, Burford was dismayed to discover that “Rita was reporting, frequently, to the powers that be in the White House about internal EPA matters.” Nevertheless, Burford cannot be excused for her failure—it is a moral weakness-to understand the fundamental premise of Affirmative Action: if you want someone to be beholden to you, give her something she does not deserve. Clearly, “the White House” understood this, and assumed that the EPA Administrator did too.
In the second place, Burford was not entirely innocent, because she is blind to the reality of bureaucratic government. She, like Stockman, believes that impartial, scientific administration is the solution. She is offended when she learns that there are people at OMB who wish to “bring EPA to its knees.” “Had I known [that],” she says, apparently with genuine indignation, “I would have gone to the President and demanded Stockman’s resignation.” She believes that, with the election of Ronald Reagan, “we were finally going to start paying more attention to the scientific, as opposed to the political, direction. No longer would the scientific area be politicized” (p. 124). And Burford’s record at EPA shows that, more than anyone before or since, she was an advocate of scientifically and economically sound environmental policies and regulations. Such a morally and politically obtuse view is wholly alien to the centralized administration of this country, which—to repeat—requires minute, day-to-day control of federal spending and personnel.
The net effect of Burford’s tenure has been the control of EPA by the congressmen who conspired to jail her. Lee Thomas, a registered independent and a professional bureaucrat, became EPA’s Administrator, but “Congress had usurped the prerogative of the Executive Branch, and is in effect running EPA by virtue of legislative deadlines on a myriad of regulatory programs. . . . And now, with [Burford] gone, no one seems to be paying any attention” (p. 276). No one, that is, except those who are on the receiving end of the enormous Superfund, “the only game in town, the only new source of money” (p. 106).
Why did Stockman rise and Burford fall? Not because Burford was a conservative and Stockman a liberal. Both believe in the liberal establishment’s dream of an impartially and efficiently administered welfare state. The difference is clear: one stood up to the congressional commissars in order to remain loyal to the President as the chief administrator of the United States; the other betrayed the President and caved in at the first angry words from Congress.
By keeping Stockman in honor and dumping Burford ingloriously, the Reagan administration did not treat them as they deserved. However, the personal injustices are minor, compared with the political injustice that was their consequence. By keeping Stockman and dumping Burford, the Reaganites helped the legislature perfect its
central administration of the nation. To the carrot-spending unlimited by law-the legislature has added the stick-the penalties of the criminal law.
1Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Ch. 9. The proposal is characteristic of positivism.
2 By the mid-1970s, three different pollsters had reported this distrust of the central government to persons with national authority, but only Reagan made a political issue of the authority of the central government. See Confidence and Concern: Citizens [sic] View of American Government; Hearing before the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, U.S. Senate, 93rd Congress, 1st sess. (December 3, 1973), pp. 4-5; Nie, Verba, et al., The Changing American Voter (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1976), p. 129; and Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Improving Urban America (Washington, D.C., September 1976), p. 12.