Former Secratary of Labor Robert Reich is rethinking what success really means, for Washington power elites and ordinary citizens alike. And he's trying to make room for new definitions.
The fact that Robert Reich will even talk to you is comforting. After all, this guy quit his job as U.S. Secretary of Labor, where he presumably had the ear of President Bill Clinton, because he had better things to do. He's got enough Establishment clout to have commanded a private dinner with Bill Gates, and enough countercultural chutzpah to recommend that Windows software be given away for free, as a public resource too valuable to be sequestered in private hands. He's a professor at Brandeis University - he left Harvard to join the Clinton Cabinet - and his eight books include the bestsellers Locked in the Cabinet and The Work of Nations (which has been translated into 22 languages). OK, so the publicity campaign for his new book, The Future of Success (Knopf, $26), is the reason he's giving interviews. Still, to have him listen to your questions and give thoughtful-sounding answers suggests that maybe you are, if not actually important, not such a lightweight.
In fact, the territory for our conversation is success. What needs to be said about success? It's great. Everybody wants it. But wait a minute, Reich had it, in the form of a Cabinet post that made him one of the biggest power brokers in Washington, and he tossed it aside.
When Reich left D.C. for the stated purpose of spending more time with his family, he was covered up with letters, calls, and e-mails about the move. "Most of them were supportive, but many were critical," Reich reflects. "Some critical ones were from women on the fast track, saying I was setting a very bad example. They'd fought all their lives to get on and stay on that track, and here I was suggesting that the only way to have a full life was to get off. Other people were saying, 'It's fine for you. You're not going to have any trouble finding a job that pays you as well and gives you more flexibility. We don't have that luxury. We have to work and pay the bills. You're sending the wrong signal to us, too.'"
A few critics. That's not so bad, right? He got more than that when he was pushing to enforce child labor laws and bust up sweatshops at Labor. But Reich says the motivation for writing his latest book was largely to explore - and, of course, explain - his move. Maybe it was the critics who said that quitting his high-powered job was the coward's way out, that he had been needed on the front lines of Labor and he bugged out. That had to hurt a little.