Robert Reich: How To Survive A Senate Confirmation (Part I) – OpEd


I thought you might enjoy my reminisces from almost exactly thirty years ago when I was tapped for a cabinet position. Lessons learned then might prove useful to others in the coming months because typically a few cabinet members depart after the first two years of an administration (the jobs can be overwhelming), and new ones must be confirmed by the Senate. Even when the President’s party controls the Senate, getting confirmed to a cabinet job can be tricky. 

In late December 1992 I received a phone call from a lawyer who’d been retained by the Clinton campaign who said he’d been asked to investigate me in case Bill Clinton wanted to appoint me to high office. He was a bit vague about who made the request, but said it was urgent we meet as soon as possible. 

When I arrived at his law office, he and two colleagues (all in gleaming starch-white shirts and dark suits) sat me down on a large couch. His two colleagues settled in armchairs on either side. He sat behind a large mahogany desk. 

He was friendly but firm. “Our purpose is to discover any embarrassing item that might turn up in a confirmation hearing,” he said.

Confirmation? So Clinton is considering me for a cabinet job that needs Senate confirmation? Holy shit. 

“Anything I can do to help,” I chirped, trying not to reveal my sudden excitement. “Nothing to hide here.” 

Third grade. Ronny Elliott and I have sawed almost clear through the large maple that holds Richard Merrick’s tree house. Three fathers – mine, Ronny’s, and Richard’s – sit somberly in our living room. I’ve been grounded for a week.

“I expect this will be pretty routine,” he said. “We’ve already done a preliminary check and you’re fine.”

Kindergarten. I’ve paid Holly Knox a nickel to do a somersault on the jungle gym so I can get a good peek at her underwear. She promises not to tell a soul, but she rats. Mrs. Scofield sends a note home, suggesting counseling.

“You’re pretty boring, as these things go,” said another member of the trio. They chuckled.

My host looked at me intently. “We’re on your side,” he said. “We’re on your team. If you can think of anything that, if revealed, might taint your confirmation, you probably should share it with us now.”

Miss Bouton’s Nursery School. I’m terrified of the old biddy. I refuse to eat the bowl of mysterious mush she serves up for lunch. She asks me why. I tell her I’m not feeling well but her food is delicious. She flies into a rage, telling me I’m a sarcastic little brat, and expels me on the spot. My mother is devastated.

“Can’t think of anything,” I said.

“The late nineteen-sixties? That’s a tricky period for some people. Anything you might be, er, ashamed of?”

I’m elected president of my class at my all-male college by promising to procure bus-loads of young women from every woman’s college in the vicinity. As class president I’m also part of the student court, which receives a complaint from the parents of one such young woman that a classmate engaged in consensual sex with her, a violation of the college rules against “fornication” and grounds for expulsion. I vote with the majority for expulsion. He is then drafted and sent to Vietnam. 

“Ashamed?” I asked with sudden nervousness. “Nothing immediately comes to mind.”

“If it does, give a call,” said my host, with a smile. “In the meantime, we need to discuss this.

He reached under his desk and handed me a large black three-ring binder. “We did a search of all the negative things critics have written about your books over the years.”

The binder contained at least two hundred pages, single-spaced, indexed by year, cross-indexed by topic.

I hadn’t intended my books to be particularly provocative but they turned out that way. Orthodox economists, committed to their beliefs, had been upset by them. Conservative theorists, bowing to their own gods, were even less enthusiastic. Fortunately, Clinton was a fan. Much of my most recent book had found its way into his campaign book. But that made me an even bigger target. 

My host gently took the binder out of my hands and placed it on the desk. “Quite a collection,” he said, still smiling. “You’ll need to be ready to respond.” His two colleagues looked at the volume, then up at me again, smiling politely and nodding in agreement.

“No problem,” I said, as gloom descending on me. 

My host leaned toward me. “You’ll have your work cut out for you.” He pointed to the label on the side of the black binder: Critics of Reich, Volume I.

Postscript: My Shameful Act In The 1960s

Some of you were justifiably appalled (as was I, when I thought back on it during prep for my Senate confirmation hearing in 1992), that in the 1960s I procured busloads of young women from other colleges for “mixers” at my then all-male college and also participated in a decision by the student court to expel a young man from who engaged in mutual-consent “fornication” with one of those women — an act that the college then prohibited (it had not yet entered the modern world). Worse yet, (as I related above) this young man was immediately drafted and sent to Vietnam. 

Several of you asked what had happened to him. For years I feared that he perished in that horrendous war. I could have found out, but never did. I wanted to put the whole shameful reality out of my mind. 

Then, about twenty years ago, when I was visiting the campus and having a cup of coffee at the counter of a restaurant on Main Street, he walked through the door. I was flabbergasted. I was overcome with relief. Then came a rush of acute embarrassment for the decision I had participated in years before. I lowered my head into my newspaper, hoping he wouldn’t see me. But he did. And he came bounding over. He put his arm around my shoulders and said “Bob! After all these years!” I put down my coffee, hugged him, and told him, with tears welling up, how truly glad I was to see him.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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