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Brilliant, Conniving : Stockman--More Critics Than Allies

Times Staff Writer

He swept into the Capitol like a blustery nor’easter one cold day in February of 1981, rushing to a series of meetings with congressional Republicans. Under his right arm he carried a thick black notebook with $41 billion in proposed spending cuts that he would press on astonished lawmakers.

In those days, David A. Stockman had reached the apex of his powers as the point man in what he liked to call the “Reagan Revolution.” He had taken his job as director of President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget with the radical--and ultimately unsuccessful--goal of slashing the role of the federal government in American life.

He had arrived at the White House an obscure 34-year-old conservative who had advanced from Michigan farm boy to anti-war campus radical to divinity student to congressional aide to two-term congressman from Michigan.

Cocky Yet Self-Doubting

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By the time he departed last summer for a new career in investment banking, he had dazzled and infuriated official Washington as the chief architect and salesman of Reagan’s anti-government crusade.

Brilliant yet conniving, cocky yet self-doubting, Stockman “was the most powerful budget director in history,” said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who worked closely with him in fashioning early spending cuts. “His in-depth knowledge of the budget was indispensable in converting Ronald Reagan’s philosophy into a positive program.”

But Stockman created far more critics than allies--from liberal Democrats who accused him of insensitivity toward the poor to Reagan Cabinet members who collided with his budget-chopping juggernaut.

“For the most part we had a stormy relationship,” recalled former Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, who shared Stockman’s goal of weaning farmers from federal subsidies but resisted his plan for imposing deep cuts during an agricultural depression. “Instead of allowing Cabinet members to carry the ball, he wanted to be a one-man show.”

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Grasp of Tiniest Details

Stockman’s trademark was his grasp of the tiniest details of the massive federal budget. His ability to expound on budgetary nuts and bolts with a riveting mixture of ideological zeal, candid outbursts and wisecracking humor made him a powerful force both within the Administration and in Congress, where he had served for four years. Ever the former congressman, he plunged deeply into the nitty-gritty of the legislative process.

“His understanding of federal programs was profound,” said Michael Johnson, top aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). “So he was able to make presentations and give advice to our Republican members in such a way that three days of meetings could be compressed into one. Moreover, his familiarity with the rules and politics of Congress was such that you cut through a lot of preliminaries and get right down to the basics of strategy.”

But Stockman’s strengths could also be weaknesses.

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“He was stubborn and, in a sense, entirely too dependent upon his own abilities,” Johnson said. “He tended to shortcut the decision-making process too severely, making decisions on his own, cutting one deal with the Senate and a different one with the House, playing games and making enemies.”

Almost Lost His Job

Stockman almost lost his job in November, 1981, when journalist William Greider quoted him in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly as calling Reagan’s 1981 tax cut package a “Trojan horse” designed to benefit the rich by reducing the top personal income tax rate from 70% to 50%. But he survived after a tongue-lashing at the White House and devoted his energies and talents during the last four years of his tenure to an effort to get the deficit back under control.

“After sort of doing us in to start with,” said Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, the senior Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, “Stockman got to where he leveled with us” about the looming deficits and the need to fight them with both tax increases and defense spending curbs, both of which Reagan opposed. “He was a voice of reason in the Administration,” Chiles said.

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Stockman received much of the blame for the deficits--"he blew up the American economy with his crazy experiments,” said one key Republican who asked not to be named--and he eventually left the Administration in frustration over his failure to tame them.

“He certainly knew the direction he wanted to go in but it was clear from the beginning that there were others within the Administration who were simply not prepared to follow him,” said California Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey). “He was not very successful in reaching the most prominent goal he sought, which was reduction of the deficit.”


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