When Dick Morris announced that he would write a book to divert attention from his adventure with the toes of a call girl, George Stephanopoulos, the President’s senior policy adviser, was asked if he intended to write a book about his work. “I don’t know,” Stephanopoulos replied, “but I know I wouldn’t write a disloyal book.” And when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to institutionalize the role of presidential assistants, he responded to fears of executive aggrandizement by asserting that the assistants would have a “passion for anonymity.”
George Stephanopoulos’s memoir of his years in the Clinton White House has raised accusations of disloyalty from both the President’s camp and many media critics. But the charge is not altogether surprising, given that Stephanopoulos now appears as a man whose career has been predicated on divided loyalty. We can all agree, at least, that there is no passion for anonymity here. FDR did not reckon with seven-figure book contracts and presidential spinmeisters who, above all, have been most skilled at spinning themselves.
Stephanopoulos’s memoir is surprisingly short on bombshells and revelations, nonetheless. This is decidedly not H.R. Haldeman’s pathological savaging of Richard Nixon in his Diaries; or John Ehrlichman’s bitter cry against a President who left him twisting in the wind, Witness to Power; or David Stockman’s exposé of an indifferent Ronald Reagan, with little between the ears, in The Triumph of Politics; or even Donald Regan’s revelations about Nancy Reagan’s astrologer in For the Record. It neither approaches Clark Clifford’s measured reflections on Harry Truman in Counsel to the President nor rivals any of Ted Sorensen’s unabashed love songs for John F. Kennedy.
The portraits of the Clinton players are insipid and familiar. We learn a little more about the President’s private rages behind the public smile. Stephanopoulos writes with conscious overtones of Greek tragedy; accordingly, we have Dick Morris as both villain and even a hero of sorts, as he and Stephanopoulos, allies of convenience, engage in byzantine intrigues to help their client. The book promised much on Clinton’s shortcomings and failures, but these turn out to be largely unfocused and only vaguely drawn. The President’s indecisiveness, his rages and his constant eye to the political calculus are duly mentioned but are not linked to any cohesive analysis of his character and ability. The insiders called Clinton “Secretariat, the ultimate political Thoroughbred,” and Stephanopoulos was “just happy to be his stablemate, the little goat by his side who usually knew what to say and had a knack for keeping him calm.”
Stephanopoulos confirms the common perception of a poll-driven presidency constantly concerned with its own PR efforts. Yet that is not very different from Clinton’s recent predecessors. William Safire’s memoir belabored the Nixon Administration’s attempt to raise this to an exact science. The pattern is now more apparent, characterized by a President inherently averse to making hard choices. There is a striking perversity in it all. Clinton angrily complained to Stephanopoulos about congressmen who opposed intervention in Haiti, and this time he found no comfort in opinion polls: “After those fucking phone calls, I guess we’ll have something to show those people who say I never do anything unpopular,” his adviser quotes him as saying. But this was disingenuous, for the Congressional Black Caucus pushed hard for Clinton to intervene to restore the civilian government. Clinton’s policy was really to prevent any repetition of the Somalia fiasco and insure that there be no US casualties. Five years later, the Haiti mission remains in limbo, undefined, with little visible positive result for the island.