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Stockman: beyond the Reagan woodshed

AT first the critics of the Reagan administration -- of which this city is disproportionately populated -- were titillated and elated over disclosures of what was to appear in David Stockman's new book. Then the mood changed. Washington Post columnist David Broder, under a heading ``The Dishonor of David Stockman,'' wrote: ``There is, I am sorry to say, nothing new to be learned about the character of David Stockman. He is an extremely bright and facile young man. But he has advanced to the heights without grasping anything but manipulative skills.''

The following day, columnist Hobart Rowen wrote in the same paper of Mr. Stockman's ``petty and vindictive stuff'' about his colleagues. Indeed, Mr. Rowen went on, when Stockman calls House majority leader James Wright ``a snake-oil vendor par excellence,'' he should, instead, have applied that putdown to himself.

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People should be used to Stockman in the role of maverick. At the end of 1981 he said, in The Atlantic, pretty much what he is saying now: that he entertained strong doubts about the administration's economic policy, of which he was one of the advocates.

At that time there was the celebrated ``spanking'' of Stockman, when the President was said to have taken him to the ``woodshed.'' One of the most revealing bits of information now coming from Stockman's own pen is that the President, in fact, had been very gentle with him. Stockman says that Mr. Reagan, with teary eyes, treated him much as he would a son. And, according to Stockman, the President ``put his hands on mine'' and said: ``I know the quotes and all make it look different. I wish you hadn't said them. But you're a victim of sabotage by the press. They're trying to bring you down because of what you have helped us accomplish.''

That sounds like Reagan. He is quick to forgive. Most bosses would have dismissed Stockman summarily.

There is a time when all public officials are free, ethically, to write their memoirs -- to help with historical accounts of that period. But Stockman's book is written while his old team is still in power and, whether intended that way or not, it carries a strong potential for undermining that same team.

In fairness, Stockman is tough on himself. The chief message is self-accusatory: At crucial times, he argues, he failed to brief the President on matters Reagan should have known about.

Stockman rewards the President's forgiving treatment of his indiscretions with cutting observations like this: ``What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles?''

One of Stockman's associates in the White House, Ed Rollins, makes a comment that raises a question about how many of these Stockman doubts existed -- and how much comes out in retrospect whenever he sees the chance of getting a lot of attention with an article or a book. ``I sat in five years of meetings with Dave Stockman,'' Mr. Rollins said the other morning over breakfast, ``and I can tell you that I never once ever heard him saying to the President that his programs wouldn't work. I never once saw Stockman in public or private meetings ever raise serious doubts.''

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Another close associate of the President, Richard Wirthlin, made this assessment of the Stockman book:

``I see no damage to the administration at this point. I think that it probably reflects more on Stockman than it does on the President.''

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

-Because of an editing error, a sentence in last Tuesday's column on Jesse Jackson was incorrect. The sentence should have read: ``Jackson is soft-pedaling his Mideast policy a bit at this point, except for saying the other day that the US bombing of Libya has made `terrorism and counterterrorism more likely.' ''-

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