Harvard Educational Review
  1. Locked in the Cabinet

    By Robert B. Reich

    New York: Vintage Books, 1997. 348 pp. $13.00 (paper)

    Robert Reich's newest book, Locked in the Cabinet, is more than just another Washington memoir; his writing style and choice of subject matter give Locked in the Cabinet the flavors of plea, confession, and revelation. It is a plea for us to understand why he and the Clinton administration did not complete the agenda they set when they arrived in Washington. It is a confession of his own day-to-day failings, compromises, and victories as a cabinet official, a father, and a husband. And, finally, it is a revelation about the inner workings of government that we so seldom see, and his vision of the problems looming in our economic future. Reich does all of this with a degree of humor and wry wit seldom seen in a political kiss-and-tell memoir. He ranges from composing a one-act play starring Reich and the current head of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, to describing a dream where Reich is careening down the hills and thrills of a roller-coaster trying to stop "Chainsaw Al" Donlap from downsizing America. But through all the anecdotes and humor, three overriding themes unify the book: the initiation of a political neophyte to the Washington political scene; Reich's battle to bring the growing economic and educational inequality present in today's America to the forefront of political discussion; and the conflict between the desire for public service and the desire for individual happiness.

    Locked in the Cabinet
    begins with an account of Reich's hip replacement surgery, which blurs seamlessly into the Clinton presidential campaign when, from his hospital room, he finds himself dispensing advice about the details of the campaign's economic plan. From there we flash to Reich's first meeting with Clinton on a boat to Oxford in 1968, and end up at his introduction to his wife Claire and an account of their first meeting. All of this occurs within the book's first ten pages. One might expect these rapid-fire accounts to be jarring and leave the reader without a sense of what is going on in the book, but that is not the case. Reich comes back to the strands introduced in these short vignettes, and from these very short, readable, and entertaining scenes weaves a strong, coherent narrative. A good example of his style can be seen in the way he describes his relationship with President Clinton. We first see Clinton through Reich's memory as a "tall, gangly, sweet-faced fellow holding a bowl of chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other"(p. 4). We then see Clinton as a man capable of asking for the next two months of Reich's life. From these two points--one where the two men are peers, to another where one is capable of asking for the other's complete devotion--Reich goes on to fill in the gaps, to show, through anecdotes and ruminations, how they move from one point to the other, and how that affects the relationship between two people who have known each other for the better part of thirty years. This is a work that lays out the personal and the professional and how they, at times, can be at odds with one another.

    In between the nuts and bolts of political relationships and the workings of the government, Reich manages to intersperse his own vision of where America is heading and what he believes we need to do to rectify the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. He uses statistics and research to highlight his major points: that the income gap between rich and poor is increasing, and, to reduce this gap, we need to invest more in people--not the stock market--through more and better education and training. But his most poignant and persuasive arguments come not from his scholarly work, but from what he has seen and done as Secretary of Labor. Through his eyes we get to see programs that are working and that do make a difference in the lives of individual people. For example, he describes a meeting of young women who are participating in an experimental work program that retrains women to perform jobs traditionally done by men. These women tell their stories of how this program helped them make a living wage so they could feed their children and find decent housing. In stark contrast to this story, Reich describes Al Donlap's slashing and chopping as he acquires companies, downsizes and then resells them, making a huge profit for himself and his stockholders while thousands who have lost their jobs struggle to find work. These stories help to recast the "booming" economy and soaring stock market to show who is really profiting from these conditions and what we need to do in order to help everyone benefit from this time of economic strength.

    Having freed himself from the cabinet, Reich emerges to give us "the personal testament of one man's experience during four extraordinary years" (p. xv). For a few hundred pages he lets us feel the weight of his compromises, and see his vision of our educational and economic future.

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