Ellen Freeman Roth                      

September 6, 2001

At home with Robert ReichIn his book "Locked in the Cabinet," Robert Reich tells of getting stuck in the dog door of his Washington home during his tenure as secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997 in the Clinton administration. It was hardly a dignified position for a member of the Cabinet. However, when his wife, Clare Dalton, and two sons, Adam and Sam, then 14 and 11, moved back to Cambridge in August 1995, Reich wanted to sweep out the empty house and had no key. Hence, the unconventional route through the dog door.

Being trapped there, however, paled in comparison to "the bigger trap" of job versus family he describes in his book: "How can I do this job and be with them? I'm desperately lonely for them. But I'm obsessed by the job."He calls that job "the best I ever had and probably ever will," a dream job for one who had researched and written extensively on human capital: labor.

Then one night, gripped by the realization he could miss no more of his boys' adolescence, he knew he had to step down. He hadn't seen Clare, Adam, and Sam for six days, and meetings at the White House were running late. When he called his family to say he wouldn't arrive home in Cambridge until early in the morning, Sam said, "I'd like it if you'd wake me. I just want to know you're here with us." Reich knew it was time to return to family life.

Reich, 55, still lives in that Cambridge house ("We've been here for 20 years."), but now the roles are reversed.  Both boys are away from home. Adam, 20, completed his sophomore year at Brown University, and this year is working in AmeriCorps, a national service program. Sam, 17, is taking a year off from high school to follow his passion, acting and directing.

"Both of them have gone off the normal path," Reich says. "I think it's great.

"I had four terrific years with them, and it was inevitable they would leave Clare and me with the dogs. We used to have two wonderful boys living here. Now we have two beagles."

The Reichs got their first beagle when the boys moved to Washington feeling displaced and homesick. In the throes of politics, Reich came up with the dog's name: Waffle. When the boys decided Waffle needed companionship, they mated her and kept one of the puppies, Zoe.

Waffle and Zoe now keep Reich and Dalton company in the kitchen, much lived-in by family and friends over the years.

"We live a very informal life," says Reich. "This is the room. It's where we hang out. Our kitchen is also our dining room. It's been that way for 20 years."

He removes a photo from the wall.  "See how young the boys were? Sam is sitting at a computer in the exact place as this one here across from the table. And in the picture, Adam and Clare are at this same table. This table is where we've lived. A friend of ours made it in 1976.

"We also spend some time on the porch. Porches are undervalued. Ours looks out on the street, which is not terribly trafficked, so on spring and fall evenings we sit, say hi to neighbors. That's a lifestyle this country practiced 70 years ago but not as much today."

Down the hall, the large sparsely furnished space known as the library plays host to two regular and diverse gatherings. "The family who sold us the house had a sandbox and swings in there," says Reich. "We never figured out what to do with it because it's such a big room.  We never had enough furniture for it. Over the last few years we've discovered the value of a big empty room: We dance in it. Six couples come here every few weeks, and we take dance lessons, swing and salsa. Then we have a potluck dinner at our kitchen table.

"I also have a monthly salon, a discussion group of 20 or 30 people from Cambridge and Boston in academe and politics," continues Reich. "Often we invite guests. Ted Kennedy was by last month.  We discuss policy and politics.

"We don't do much entertaining other than that. Clare is busy. I'm busy."

Dalton runs the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University and is the Matthews Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern. Reich is a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University. He also writes extensively.

"Like many academics, I find it easier to focus in my home office," Reich says. "Several days a week, Clare and I work in our separate offices at home."

Reich has written eight books, most recently, "The Future of Success," and is working on two others, one about the future of education in America, the other about political philosophy. He is cofounder, chairman, and national editor of The American Prospect magazine, and offers commentary on public radio's "Marketplace."

"And I keep one little finger in politics," he adds. "I supported Bill Bradley in the last Democratic primary. I still believe politics matters a great deal, and I'll do what I can to support good candidates."

Reich also paints, using the third floor of the house as a studio. They formerly rented that floor to help pay the mortgage, but as more of the mortgage was paid off, Reich took over the space. In the basement, a Fellow at Clare's domestic violence institute is hanging his hat until he finds an apartment.

With no children living at home, though, Reich says, "The house is too big for us now. I've thought about moving to a smaller place, but Clare and the boys won't consider it."