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My Dinner with Secretary Reich
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Last week, I received an unusual invitation. Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich was coming to Kansas City with a film crew, and either he or they thought it might be a good idea to stage a dinner in which the secretary interacted with people who did not share his opinions.
Being near the head of everyone’s list of those who might disagree with Reich, I got the invite, accepted, and lived to write about the experience.
Reich was touring the country to promote his new book, “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few,” a title that more or less explains the book.
For the price of the dinner I was obliged to read it and did. As part of the package, I also got a reserved front row seat at Reich’s SRO presentation at the Kansas City Public Library.
Although fully open to the left, ours is the most conservative friendly library in America, maybe the only one. This summer I did my Book-TV presentation for “Scarlet Letters” in its cozy confines.
I have never been to a Justin Bieber concert—I swear—but now at least I have some sense of what they must be like. The women sitting behind me were positively giddy about Reich and threatened to run over me should they be moved to storm the stage. I did not doubt them.
On the face of things, Reich is not your average rock star. Somewhere south of five feet tall, a cross he bears gamely, Reich compensates with an amiable, professorial hauteur. He does not inflame. He instructs.
The audience members, however, were keen to be inflamed. Although virtually all white—the only minorities I saw were two of my fellow conservative dinner guests—and as old on average as Reich (69), they yearned for revolution, or at least seemed to.
Many waved “Bernie” signs. Some wore “Oligarch Watch Squad” (OWS?) t-shirts as proudly as though they had just keyed David Koch’s new Lexus. And almost to a person, they asked weird, angry questions during the Q&A.
After seven years of Reagan, my allies and I were pretty happy about the state of the nation. After seven years of Obama, these people seemed even more disgruntled than they had been when Bush lied and people died.
There is a reason why. At the risk of tautology, progressives progress. They have no fixed goals. Like sharks, they either swim forward or they die, and God help the man, woman, or oligarch who gets in their way. By comparison to these clowns, Reich was the picture of moderation.
There were nine of us for dinner, eight dissenters and Reich. Asked to introduce ourselves, I explained that I was a writer and had once made Reich the protagonist, or something like it, of one my books, “Ron Brown’s Body.”
Reich was genuinely curious. I explained that in the astonishingly exploitive, self-dealing Clinton administration, his was one voice of sincere liberalism.
Brown, his fellow cabinet member, was just the opposite, a perfect creature of Washingtonian corruption. In the way of example, I noted that Brown died on the way to Croatia to broker a sweetheart deal between the neo-fascists that ran the country and the Enron Corporation.
Reich expressed surprise that he had not heard of the book. Although he conceded he lived in a bubble—he had just moved from Cambridge, Mass, To Berkeley, Cal—he has no idea of how much a bubble he lives in.
The keepers who man the bubble’s gates make sure books like mine are “not heard of” within the bubble. This service protects the residents’ self-esteem and prevents even a seed of self-doubt from germinating.
Asked to comment on Reich’s book, I asked why, given that the subject of the book is income inequality, he did not talk about the breakdown of the family.
To tie the question back in to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, the left’s 1776, I talked about the relationship between family breakdown and the subprime crisis.
I explained that when Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, the homeownership rate was lower than it had been when Richard Nixon was inaugurated in 1969.
The decline in two-parent families was negating the increase in prosperity. How could it not? In 1993, the average income for households headed by divorced women was 40 percent that of married couples; for unmarried women it was only 20 percent.
As the numbers suggest, many of these women could not manage homes of their own. Home-ownership rates for female-headed households struggled to stay above 50 percent. For married couples, they hovered consistently in the 80-percentile range.
Clinton and his people, however, refused to acknowledge family breakdown as a problem, let alone as an explanation for the disparity. Their preferred explanation for just about everything unpleasant was the inevitable racism.
This bubble-induced thinking led them to press banks to sell homes to people without sound credit and to press Fannie and Freddie to underwrite the nonsense, all with predictable results.
In response, Reich said he preferred to approach the problem “holistically” and not focus on any one area. “But Bob,” I said, “you didn’t mention family breakdown at all.”
When the conversation came back around to me, I mentioned one other omission. “How can you talk about wage suppression,” I asked, “without mentioning the effects of immigration, especially illegal immigration?”
At this point, if I remember right, the producer said we should be concentrating on areas of agreement. That, I deduced, was to be the theme of the documentary—how this one crusading scholar convinced the heartland we were all progressives now.
If so, there is a going to an awful lot of metaphorical tape left on the cutting room floor.
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