• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #2: Locked in the Cabinet


A labor of love

I'm a sucker for political memoirs. That wording is carefully chosen - a lot of these are ghostwritten fluff so loaded with half-truths that they scarcely qualify as non-fiction. And yet I read them anyway, for entertainment and for a first draft of history as those who lived it would want us to remember it. Books by politicos tend to fall into two camps: true memoir by those whose careers are complete and are seeking to burnish or cement legacies, and long-form campaign literature or policy manifestos that lay out plans for our future in varying degrees of specificity. I'll confess that I enjoy both varieties, for different reasons.

Robert Reich's "Locked in the Cabinet" is his recounting of the first term the Bill Clinton administration, from his vantage point as Labor Secretary. I like Reich. He's more liberal than I am, and my own center-left politics would no doubt frustrate him. This book is a catalog of similar frustrations he endured with Clinton's tack to the middle on fiscal and social policy, on the out-sized influence centrists like Lloyd Bentsen had on Clinton's governing philosophy. It's a great read, with fun anecdotes (such and Reich getting sick on the boat to England as a Rhodes Scholar and being brought soup by a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new friend from Arkansas), and loaded with Reich's familiar prescriptions for helping the middle and working classes with investment in education and training. He rails against the lasting effects of Washington's ongoing romance with tax cuts and supply-side mythology, and the power Wall Street and the bond marketeers wield over our elected would-be leaders. 20 years later, it's fascinating to go back and read about a moment in history when we missed a chance to make different choices as a nation. Clinton's swerve to the right in the mid-90s helped continue and exacerbate the increasing income and wealth gaps in America, and paved the road for the Bush II era and the Great Recession. I was a big Clinton guy in those days - but when he had a chance to swing away, he bunted. And we're still paying the price.

"Locked in the Cabinet" was released in the spring of 1997, and I read it as fast as I could. In one of life's little coincidences, Reich was scheduled as the commencement speaker at UNH that May. As president of the student body, it was my job and privilege to introduce Reich at the ceremony as part of my remarks. It's the largest crowd I've ever addressed, and was a real pleasure to meet Reich and share the platform with him. We had a chance to speak briefly before and after the event, and he was good enough to sign a copy of this book for me. That personal connection to this particular book is probably why it remains my favorite of a genre we'll see plenty of on this list before the year is out.

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