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THE REAL DAVID STOCKMAN: THE TRUE STORY OF AMERICA'S MOST CONTROVERSIAL POWER BROKER by John Greenya and Anne Urban; introduction by Ralph Nader, the Report of the Presidential Accountability Group (St. Martin's: $15.95; 256 pp.) : STOCKMAN: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE FUTURE by Owen Ullmann (Donald I. Fine: $18.95; 368 pp., illustrated)

July 27, 1986|Peter Steinfels | Steinfels is the editor of Commonweal and author of "The Neoconservatives." and

There have been four books written about David Stockman, and readers will be forgiven if they suspect that this is at least three too many. The embarrassing truth is that five years ago, William Grieder essentially got the story right. That was in the long, notorious article on "The Education of David Stockman" which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and which Grieder expanded into the first of the Stockman books. More recently, Stockman related his own version in "The Triumph of Politics." Despite hints in these latest titles of a real Stockman hidden behind a myth which the authors will penetrate and correct with the "true story," none of these books departs radically from Grieder's original and much more concise portrait. What they do, instead, is fill out that picture with a mass of details. Fortunately, the details are interesting.

That Stockman was a puzzling character, shot through with contradictions, was obvious from the first pages of Grieder's article. These books deepen the impression. As a high school senior, Stockman entered an American Friends Service Committee essay contest on "what nonviolence means to me" and won with what he later described as "an ode to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi." At the same time, like his fiercely anti-New Deal grandfather and all his bedrock Republican family, Stockman was working for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. "I didn't see Goldwater and Gandhi as incompatible," Owen Ullmann quotes Stockman as explaining.

This episode should prepare us for Stockman's peregrinations from 4-H prize winner to SDS anti-Vietnam War militant to Niebuhrian liberal to Harvard neo-conservative to laissez-faire enthusiast to buoyant supply-sider to fiscal conservative. One after another, ideological mentors and political patrons are adopted and discarded: the Rev. Truman Morrison, the liberal interdenominational pastor in East Lansing, Mich.; Daniel Patrick Moynihan at Harvard; Rep. John Anderson in Washington; supply-side proselytizers and publicists like Jude Wanniski, Irving Kristol, and Jack Kemp; and finally Ronald Reagan himself.

Both these books search for the inner compass that might explain this journey. Is Stockman in the tow of an irrepressible though repeatedly frustrated urge to discover a simple key to "how the world works"? Or is he merely driven by old-fashioned ambition? Is he a rigid idealist or an all-too-flexible opportunist? Is his often brutal candor an indication of personal integrity--or of public cynicism? Is he a man lacking in principles--or overdosed on them?

Ullmann, John Greenya and Anne Urban assemble testimony from every possible source as they track Stockman from farm to Michigan State to Harvard Divinity School to House Republican Conference staff to Congress and to a Cabinet seat as head of Reagan's Office of Management and Budget. On some things, there is a consensus. Above all, Stockman is an indefatigable worker. He is quick, bright and articulate, although maybe not the numbers-crunching wizard sometimes conjured in the media. He is no backslapper. But--another of the puzzles--does his preference, as he once expressed it, for issues rather than people merely signal the reserve of an intellectual with a small-town background, or does it suggest a more serious amputation of human feeling?

No surprise: The interpretations correlate with political sympathy. Neither of these books is written by uncritical Stockmanites. "The Real David Stockman" is another volume in the Nader library of exposes, an updated and expanded edition of a 1983 report. Despite the Nader group's insistence on public straightforwardness, the fact that this book is not entirely fresh is remarkably well disguised. The authors' text is introduced by Nader, who clearly considers Stockman a form of environmental pollution. Stockman-sponsored cutbacks in anti-hunger programs are labeled "child abuse." Greenya and Urban do prove willing to record the views of Stockman supporters as well as critics, although the latter, whether from the left or right, inevitably have the last word. Their book has a slightly padded quality, as though every bit of testimony, no matter how undigested, had to be used once and occasionally more than once.

Ullmann's biography is better written, better organized, based on more extensive and more recent research. Its even tone inspires confidence, despite a few points where the author lets Stockman off easily. Greenya and Urban do a service, for instance, in reporting Robert Greenstein's dissection of Stockman's numbers-juggling defense of Reagan cuts in poverty programs.

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