Physically one of the smallest people on campus, Robert Reich has a vast list of accomplishments, a huge national reputation, and an ego to which none of that particularly matters.

On the off chance that you’ve never heard of Robert Reich, here’s a quick list of who he was and is:

  • Former U.S. Secretary of Labor (appointed by Bill Clinton, served through Clinton’s first term)
  • Member of the transition teams for both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama
  • Taught at Harvard and Brandeis
  • Ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002  (came in second in the Democratic primary, i.e., lost)
  • Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy in UC Berkeley’s Goldman School (which he joined in 2006)
  • Author of 13 books, some of them best-sellers (An expert self-deprecator, in late November Reich said of his books that “they’re the kind that once you put them down, you can’t pick them up.”)
  • His last name is pronounced “RYsh.”

Behind all this, there are, as you might imagine, any number of interesting stories.

How he became a Friend Of Bill is one. Reich recalls their meeting in his 1997 book Locked in the Cabinet. Both Rhodes Scholars, they were on their way to Oxford on the S.S. United States in 1968. The sea was choppy and Reich was seasick, “belowdecks in a tiny cabin, head spinning and stomach churning.  There’s a knock at the door. I open it to find a tall, gangly, sweet-faced fellow holding a bowl of chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other. ‘Heard ya weren’t feeling too well,’ he drawls.” That was Bill Clinton, who, after handing over the universal remedy, only had time to say “Maybe when you feel better we can get to know each other” before Reich closed the door and bolted for the bathroom.

His biggest impact on American politics, he told a group of Berkeley grad students, “was that in graduate school I introduced Hillary Rodham to Bill Clinton.” Not long before that, he said, “I had a date with Hillary Rodham.”

(A movie. She had extra butter on her popcorn.)

Reich was the nation’s 22nd Secretary of Labor. In that capacity, he implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act, led a national fight against sweatshops in the United States and illegal child labor around the world. He headed the administration’s successful effort to raise the minimum wage and secure workers’ pensions.

At the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, a poll of cabinet experts conducted by the Hearst newspapers rated Reich the most effective cabinet secretary during the Clinton administration. Much more recently, Time magazine named him one of the Ten Most Successful Cabinet Members of the century, and the Wall Street Journal listed him among the Top 20 Most Influential Business Thinkers.

IN MID-2005, a Boston Globe headline read: “Area losing a star as Reich heads west to UC Berkeley.” Reich had told his colleagues at Brandeis University that week that after eight years there, and a previous 12 at Harvard, he was following a long-held desire to teach at a public university, and he called Berkeley “the best public university in the world.”

Other factors may have entered the picture. Reich’s elder son, Adam, was working on his doctorate in sociology at Berkeley. And then there was Berkeley’s built-in ace: the weather. Reich told the Globe, “Boston winters are getting a little harder, and Berkeley is a place where I want to spend a chunk of my productive years.”

Regretting the loss, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz pointed out part of what Berkeley would gain: “He’s a master teacher. He has the ability to stand in front of 200 students and make every single one of them feel he is speaking to him or her and engage them in a real discussion.”

IN THE SPRING OF 2009, Reich, whose self-possession is astonishing even while under verbal assault by blowhards, found himself completely at a loss.

He was teaching a roomful of undergrads in his marquee course, Wealth and Poverty. Without a clue what was happening, he watched, stunned into silence, as a “prize patrol” briefly and peacefully took over the packed lecture hall and made an award presentation to him. When it became evident that his Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) had nominated him for the Graduate Division’s Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs and conspired in this “ambush,” he teared up momentarily, then found words to thank them with. And then said, “Where were we?”

The award stemmed from his student colleagues’ admiration and affection for their “professor, mentor, and friend” Bob. Many of them had helped design one of the courses they now assisted in teaching, Leadership and Social Change. This birth process, his nominators said, revealed “Bob’s collaborative approach to teaching and mentoring” and demonstrated the important principle that effective leadership and social change efforts come from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He taught his students — and his GSIs — that “Leaders must surround themselves with ‘truth-tellers’ — people unafraid to make inconvenient or unpopular observations — thereby assisting leaders in identifying how they can continually improve.” The way he runs his course is a living laboratory, demonstrating within that small society how things should work in the wider world. Reich tells GSIs, fervently, “What students are picking up from you as teachers, beyond what is in the course, is as important, if not more important, than the substance of what you are teaching.” The most obvious example of this, he says, “is your enthusiasm about the subject matter, but also your excitement about doing the job you are doing.” In this, Reich is his own best example. One of Reich’s GSIs says, “I would look around at Bob’s class of 300 students, and they would be mesmerized. Bob’s ability to captivate every student was incredible.”

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AS THE FALL SEMESTER BEGAN IN 2009, Reich helped welcome all new graduate students to Berkeley as the keynote speaker at their orientation.

His first line, as the students saw him step out with the microphone from behind the podium, was, “As you can see, my years in the cabinet wore me down. I was six-foot-two when I started.”

He is four-foot-ten. And a half.

He told of spending half his adult life in academe, and the other half in public policy and politics, which he said can be a very satisfying way to live.

Reich says now, “I view myself, first and foremost, as an educator.  It’s always seemed to me that the most important role I can play, either as a public official or as an academic, is in helping others connect the dots and see how politics is connected to economics, or how both are connected to sociology, and to lay out the basic choices in front of us.”

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REICH’S PERIODIC JOURNEYS into public service even took him into a run for the governorship of his previous state of residence, Massachusetts, in 2002. Not infrequently during the campaign, he had to stand on a stepstool to be at microphone level. He turned this into a rhetorical advantage, saying, “I’m the only candidate with a real platform.”

Responding to some criticism that he was exploiting his lack of height, he said “Look, self-deprecating humor is something we don’t hear enough, especially in politics. I have joked about my height all my life.” He got 25 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, which put him in “a very close second place.”

That same year, he published a brief solutions-oriented book whose subtitle was “Essentials for a Decent Working Society.” The main title was his oft-repeated starting point at campaign whistle-stops: I’ll Be Short.

When he left the Cabinet after Bill Clinton’s first term in large part to spend more time with his family (both sons were teenagers who would, before long, be headed for college), he wrote a book called Locked in the Cabinet, a journal-like recollection of his four years in Washington. It was a bestseller. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the funniest memoir ever written by a government official, as well as one of the most instructive.”

In total, he has published 13 books, including the bestsellers The Work of Nations, Reason, Supercapitalism, and, most recently, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. He writes frequent posts on his own blog ( about the political economy and cross-posts to The Berkeley Blog (, where more than 175 UC Berkeley professors and scholars share their thoughts on topical national and global issues.

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IN 2010, REICH TOOK OFFICE as chairman of Common Cause, the nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens’ lobby and advocacy group founded in 1970 by another former cabinet secretary, John W. Gardner, a Republican who headed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Gardner earned his Ph.D. in psychology from UC Berkeley in 1938.)

Reich is a frequent guest commentator on television news shows, particularly on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC. Usually related to breaking economic and political news, these spots are brief and Reich folds them into his routine without undue strain. Just a block downhill from his Goldman School office, the Graduate School of Journalism has a convenient professional-level high-tech studio set up for feeds of this sort as well as instructional purposes.

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ALTHOUGH BEING UPBEAT isn’t easy when you’re dealing with the economy, particularly in times like these, Reich says that overall, “I’m as optimistic as ever, if not more so. This nation went through some terrible times in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The current Great Recession is nothing compared to the Great Depression. The wars that are raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, the foreign policy problems we’re having, are nothing compared to the Cold War and the so-called Soviet Menace. Our fights domestically are different from and much easier to deal with than the anti-Communist crusades of Joe McCarthy and the red scares and red-baiting. The problems today are manageable, and I’m very optimistic that we’ll get through them.”

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ON WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THIS CAMPUS, Reich says, “it seems fairly clear to me that the Berkeley campus and the UC system as a whole will have to choose between three very sharp alternatives. One is becoming a private university, raising tuition or fees to the level of private institutions around the country, financing itself and organizing itself the way a private university would. The second alternative is becoming mediocre, losing the truly exceptional nature of UC Berkeley and other campuses in the UC system. The third option is some quite dramatic reform, which I hope is the option a large number of people are trying to achieve — reform that both finances the place as it should be, and therefore does not compromise the quality of the education or research, but at the same time keeps the special quality of a public university. It’s not a private investment for the sake of young people who are coming here to make a bundle of money or researchers who are coming here to patent their products and make fortunes. We have a public responsibility because we are generating public goods, and I would hate for us to choose either of the other alternatives.”

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WHEN REICH LEFT BRANDEIS, its president, Jehuda Reinharz, said there was no way to talk him out of departing. “My assumption is, after a couple of years at Berkeley he will miss Brandeis so badly that he will come back,” he said, “and we’ll be happy to have him back.”

In September of 2010, Reinharz told the community there that he would be retiring from the presidency. His successor, Frederick M. Lawrence, took office January 1, 2011. The rest of Brandeis could still be waiting for Reich’s return.

They shouldn’t hold their breath.


by Dick Cortén (Originally published in The Graduate magazine,  Spring 2011)