Ed Driscoll

Robert Reich: The Next Al Gore of Film?

Winner of the Audience Award at the Traverse City Film Festival!

The new Robert Reich documentary has yet to become a left-wing sensation when its promotional website can only tout its Audience Award at the Traverse City Film Festival. No one knew Traverse City even had a film festival.

But Parade magazine on Sunday put the film in its “Parade Picks,” and compared Reich’s new work to that classic Al Gore science-fiction movie on global warming:

In this [An] Inconvenient Truth for the economy, former labor secretary Robert Reich illuminates America’s widening income gap – and what can be done about it.

Reich is complaining about this economic malaise in the middle of the Obama Era, but the president has nothing to do with it. On the website, he announced, “We’re in the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression, and we can’t seem to get out of it. Why? Because, exactly as in the 1920s, so much of the nation’s income and wealth are going to the top, that the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going.”

Parade may be onto something; it just depends on which genre the new movie is placed in. Perhaps even more than Gore, Reich has a knack for self-serving fiction. “Robert Reich, Quote Doctor,” is how Slate’s Jonathan Rauch described the diminutive corporatist back in 1997, reviewing Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich’s then-new memoir, reflecting on his years serving as the Clinton administration’s labor secretary:

Or, perhaps most striking of all, consider a set piece in which Reich speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers. He describes himself as being ambushed by cigar-chomping capitalists who hiss at him so loudly that he has to yell to be heard. “They plan to carve me up into small pieces,” he writes. “There isn’t a lady in the room. All men, in dark suits. They’ve finished lunch. Some are smoking cigars. Others are quietly smirking, ready for the kill.” His speech over, Reich is lambasted by a “John,” and Reich’s answer elicits an eruption of “Wrong!” “Bullshit!” and “Go back to Harvard!” As Reich speaks, the audience hisses so loudly “that I’m not sure anyone can hear me.” The cigar smoke, he says, “is making my eyes water. I feel dizzy.” He says, “We’re in a boxing arena, John’s the champ, and the crowd is loving every minute.” Finally, the meeting over, he races “out the back exit before they can pummel me.”

As it happens, the meeting was a breakfast, not a lunch. The NAM says the attendance list shows that a third or more of the people present were women (including the NAM representative with whom I spoke). If anyone actually was inclined to light up a cigar after breakfast, he would have been breaking the NAM’s no-smoking rule, according to an association representative (who, like another witness I talked to, saw no cigars). Most important, a transcript of the meeting shows a respectful Q and A session, in which none of the comments attributed to “John”–nor any like them–were actually made.

One would hardly expect a roomful of corporate reps to hiss, boo, and shout “bullshit” at a sitting U.S. labor secretary. Sure enough, the transcript shows nothing nastier than sprinkled applause and laughter. I asked Richard Boyd, the professional court reporter who transcribed the session, whether his transcript might have omitted hisses, boos, and imprecations. “I never witnessed anything like that with Robert Reich or anybody else at a NAM meeting,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain I would remember it.” Reich portrays himself as the little guy standing up to a roomful of abusive capitalists–pure Hollywood. Again, don’t take my word for it; click here.

I asked Reich what was going on in each of these cases. In reply, he pointed to his Note to the Reader: “I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it.” He said that his notes accurately reflected how he felt and what he perceived. In the three cases cited above, he felt varying degrees of hostility. “I am not representing the book to be anything other than it is, which is my account of my experiences, my perceptions, what I saw and heard around me,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

In effect, Reich is saying that he’s not writing journalism or history. He’s writing … well, what? He elides the very distinction between history and myth, memoir and novel, reality and perception. The problem is that those are real people he misquotes, real history he rewrites.

On the other hand, when Parade described Reich’s new film as An “Inconvenient Truth for the economy,” perhaps they actually were aware of what a duel-edged sword such a phrase implies.