Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Professor Robert Reich, quote doctor

Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, is currently a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Blogger Michelle Malkin says he should be embarrassed at the shoddy quality of his intellectual engagement.

Yesterday she posted examples of it in "A reply to Robert Reich’s open letter."

Today Malkin posts "Robert Reich, quote doctor." Malkin links to this 1997 Slate article “exposing Reich’s … penchant for quote-doctoring.”

The Slate article, "Robert Reich, quote doctor," is Jonathan Rauch's May 1997 review of Reich’s then recently released book,
Locked in the Cabinet.

Rauch began - - -

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. . . .

Rauch then provides example after example of Reich’s quote-doctoring and worse. For example - - -

At a 1995 press conference, just after President Clinton and Reich have failed to settle the baseball strike, Reich has reporters asking the following questions: "Mr. President, why did you invite the players and owners to the White House in the first place?" "If you can't even get these parties to agree, what hope do you have in Bosnia?" "Does this mark the nadir of this administration's influence?" "First it was the minimum wage and now it's baseball. Why do you and your labor secretary think Washington should be involved in every employment issue in America?"
Those questions certainly help Reich paint a picture of piranha journalists intent on humiliating the administration.

But none of the questions, nor any like them, was ever asked. (emphasis added)

The reporters' focus was on major-league baseball, not on Reich and Clinton, and their tone was puzzled rather than angry.

Here are all the real questions that the reporters asked: "Mr. President, you've met now with the players and the owners. In your opinion, who is more to blame for this impasse? And why won't they simply accept voluntarily binding arbitration?" "Mr. President, what gave rise to the optimism you felt during the course of the evening that a settlement might be possible?" "How do you compare this, Mr. President, to, say, President Kennedy acting on steel prices and former uses of the office and the Oval Office for labor disputes?" There was a question about legislation. And (most scathingly), "Mr. President, if the season begins with replacement players, would you throw out the first ball?"

Rauch provides other extensive examples of Reich’s quote-doctoring (that’s saying it kindly. Later in the review, after providing irrefutable documentation of an important matter, Rauch says the evidence “leave[s] no doubt. Reich appears to have fabricated much of this episode[.]”

Rauch closes with - - -

I asked Reich what was going on in each of these cases. In reply, he pointed to his Note to the Reader: "I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it." He said that his notes accurately reflected how he felt and what he perceived. In the three cases cited above, he felt varying degrees of hostility. "I am not representing the book to be anything other than it is, which is my account of my experiences, my perceptions, what I saw and heard around me," he said. "That's all I can say."

In effect, Reich is saying that he's not writing journalism or history. He's writing ... well, what? He elides the very distinction between history and myth, memoir and novel, reality and perception. The problem is that those are real people he misquotes, real history he rewrites.

Steve Wasserman, a former Random House editor who now edits the Los Angeles Times Book Review, points out an irony: Books are often viewed as better sources for history than newspapers, but newspapers, which are generally much more careful than the average publishing house about such niceties as checking quotes, are often the more reliable source.

Reich's memoir, if that's the proper word for it, is now ensconced between hard covers and will be read for years to come as part of the historical record. That is a shame. Quote me.


I'll be traveling most of today and will wind up at a place with poor connectivity.

But if all goes well, I plan to post again tomorrow concerning Reich, the quote doctor.