If the Ax Falls in Washington, David Stockman's Townsfolk Say He Can Come Home Again

UPDATED 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

Only two weeks ago he was the Reagan Administration's foremost champion, the man to whom the jelly beans were passed first at Cabinet meetings. Now David Stockman is the pariah of Washington. Is there no one with an encouraging word for the President's embattled budget director? Yes, indeed. Listen to the voices of St. Joseph, Mich., Stockman's hometown. "I really admire him for his candor," says Glenn Arter, his high school football coach and science teacher. "He puts me in mind of Harry Truman, who told it like it was and let the bricks hit him." "Hang in there, Dave," exhorted an editorial in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph Herald-Palladium. "You're on the right track." The Berrien County GOP executive committee voted "to unequivocally support our native son."

Does St. Joseph simply not understand the gravity of the situation? The reaction in Washington to the Stockman profile in the Atlantic Monthly was deep and bipartisan incredulity. Surely he could not have confessed such ruinous doubts about Reaganomics; surely he did not really write off supply-side legislation as nothing more than a "Trojan horse" bearing tax breaks to the upper brackets. Yet Stockman's press conference mea culpa left little doubt that he could and did. Washington trembled with indignation. Only in St. Joe were there signs of forgiveness.

The town has changed since Stockman grew up there: The farms and tool-and-die shops have yielded to factories built by such corporate giants as Reynolds and Zenith. Just as obviously, Stockman is not the same man who went off to Michigan State University in the late 1960s and became a liberal antiwar activist. Yet memories of Stockman in St. Joseph have not altered: He is remembered still as a boy who worked long hours on his father's farm without complaint, and who quarterbacked the high school football team with more enthusiasm than ability. Some townspeople lay Stockman's current troubles to his virtues. "I think the present furor may have occurred because Dave is so academically minded," says David Clark, assistant principal of Stockman's alma mater, Lakeshore High. "I believe he said, 'Let's look at the positives and negatives of this and say what it's all about.' Dave may have let his guard down, but I don't believe he would ever try to sell anyone a bill of goods."

Neighbors remember Stockman for his honesty, ambition and intelligence, qualities which helped him become executive director of the House Republican Conference at 25, a Congressman at 29, and at 35 one of the most powerful men in the country. "Politics is a vocation that Dave comes by naturally," observes Willard J. Banyon, editor and publisher of the Herald-Palladium. Dave's father, Allen Stockman, a fruit farmer, is Royalton Township treasurer. His mother, Carol, has been active politically all her life, but failed in her attempt to succeed her father as Berrien County treasurer. She lavished her ambitions on her first-born. "Allen is a hard-working man at his calling," explains Banyon. "But Carol supplied the political push. She was the drive and inspiration."

David now overshadows his younger siblings. Linda, 34, an educational consultant, is married and lives in Missouri; Steve, 33, is a Washington lawyer; Don, 32, owns a Missouri landscaping business, and Gary, 31, is a Michigan probation officer. Although Dave is the oldest, his achievements never came easily. "What I remember most about him is that he was such a hard worker," recalls his cousin Ron Both, a sports store owner in town who worked the farm with David as a boy. "He'd milk the cows, pick fruit, make hay. He'd play baseball, basketball, football, swim and work on the farm at the end of the day, and he was never gloomy or serious." His other hallmark was determination. "He tried out for basketball in the seventh grade and didn't make it," Both remembers. "He tried again in the eighth. He didn't make it. In the ninth grade he made it. Most other kids wouldn't try out again after failing the first time."

There are some in St. Joseph who feel betrayed by their memories of Stockman. Democratic State Representative Lynn Jondahl, who hired Stockman to coordinate antiwar activities for greater Lansing, was disappointed by Stockman's political conversion. "In regard to the budget, he didn't show the compassion I expected him to reflect," he says. Stockman's fellow student and friend Sue Thaler expressed the same view in the spring issue of the MSU alumni magazine: "His congressional voting record continues to amaze me—unless I didn't know him at all."

But the complaint about Stockman most often expressed in St. Joe is that his responsibilities have carried him so far beyond his hometown. "I'm not real happy that he didn't stay our Congressman longer," says Donna Mead, a social worker and Lakeshore High graduate who worked in Stockman's campaigns. "We all expected him to do great things. I wish he had waited until he was a little older for the kind of job he's doing now." Adds assistant principal Clark ruefully: "I wish he'd just now and again do a little show-and-tell for his high school. I know he works long hours and has a lot on his mind, especially now. But I think David should placate us a little, too."

For the foreseeable future, Stockman will be showing-and-telling very little. The bet is that he will remain in office—though under wraps—at least until the 1983 budget is presented in January; few are willing to predict his fate after that. But those who knew him in his formative years are confident that he will weather the crisis, somehow. "When Dave was a senior, we had a real small football team," recalls coach Arter. "And I'd say, 'Keep your heads up and take your whipping.' Dave wasn't very big for a quarterback. But when he got knocked down he got right back up again. He never whined."

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