All the President’s Man?

All the President’s Man?

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


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.

As Dick Morris rode high in 1996, he provided the President with an effective soundbite when he proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.” While Clinton succumbed to conservative rhetoric, the irony is that his defense of Social Security and Medicare helped bring him back from the brink. A momentarily troubled Stephanopoulos noted that “the triumphalist tone of the declaration felt dishonest and vaguely dishonorable, as if we were condemning Democrats from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson to the trash heap of history for the sake of a sound bite.” So much for his moment, as Stephanopoulos hastily adds that “it was solid-gold politics, testing at 80 percent in the polls.”

Stephanopoulos offers some revelations about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seemingly unchecked and largely hidden power. While the President’s own dissembling and stonewalling are often the source of his troubles, his partner is his worthy equal. On Whitewater, Stephanopoulos gibes that the President “wasn’t commander in chief, just a husband beholden to his wife. Hillary was always the first to defend him on bimbo eruptions; now he had to do the same for her.” Whatever her Whitewater problem, her posture throughout fostered an image that the White House had something to hide.

As sketched by Stephanopoulos, Hillary is an ambitious, highly logical person, but also inflexible and overly complex. Stephanopoulos enraged Hillary as he, by his claim, urged cooperating with the Whitewater investigation. She charged him with disloyalty, insisting that he did not fight hard enough in New Hampshire. “Fuck her,” he tells himself–but that sentiment only came four years later, in the conversations with himself that constitute an important part of All Too Human.

The author assumedly offers a more authoritative view of himself, an ambitious young man who, on his second try, gained a Rhodes scholarship–“a passport to the Establishment.” His ambition, it turns out, was rather tepid and was fulfilled in PR responsibilities for others. This is neither John Dean’s “blind ambition,” which, as he later regretted, led him to criminal activity on Nixon’s behalf; nor is Stephanopoulos any Greek Sammy Glick driven by a ruthless, destructive streak. We are left with a twist on the storybook American dream: the child of Greek immigrants besotted by Clinton and Clinton’s dreams.

“Proximity, like celebrity, is a source and sign of power,” Stephanopoulos writes. He is not the first White House apparatchik to realize that proximity is power, and he was obsessed by it as much as anyone. In the Nixon White House, Henry Kissinger regularly schemed for place near the Oval Office. Haldeman maneuvered Rose Mary Woods away from the epicenter. Such plans usually involved President Nixon in some cutout fashion. When a new office opened closer to Clinton’s Oval Office, “even if it was just a matter of inches,” Stephanopoulos had to have it. And he knew how to get things done discreetly: Call Vernon Jordan. The Man knew how to do it, and part of his modus operandi was to let you know that: Five minutes after Jordan informed Stephanopoulos of a change, the President’s Chief of Staff would make it official. A Revlon or UN job for a disgruntled intern, it turns out, was but a minor part of Jordan’s repertoire.

Stephanopoulos imagined himself like Ted Sorensen during the drama of the Cuban missile crisis, as bemedaled military men scurried in and out during the pre-invasion Haiti planning in 1994. But something was not right. Did he realize how he repeatedly ended up on the losing side in too many internal battles? Was he aware of his growing marginalization? Was it weariness over the inevitable internecine battles, whether with Hillary or Dick Morris? In any event, disillusionment, guilt and, above all, depression took their toll on Stephanopoulos. Privately, he sought therapy; eventually Zoloft became his necessary crutch. The memoir throughout reads like a doctor/patient dialogue, replete with the recall of events and narrated with an imagined, loathing dialogue that he dared not utter aloud while he was a retainer.

Given his symbiotic relationship with the media, Stephanopoulos has some clear insights on his onetime “adversaries.” His account of Travelgate is as comical as the media’s desperate attempts to equate it with Watergate. Billy Dale, who lost his White House travel post, received good cover from his media pals, whom he regularly courted. Of course, as Stephanopoulos acknowledges, the ineptness of the White House response to the resulting uproar played right into the hands of its enemies and the media. “The media bias I detected most often in the White House,” Stephanopoulos says, “was neither liberal nor conservative but a tendency to play up conflict and controversy.” Even Kenneth Starr found the story of the travel office firings altogether inconsequential.

Bob Woodward’s familiar reportorial techniques are dissected by this President’s man. As with others before him, the inexperienced aide foolishly believed he could leak to Woodward and control the result. What he describes as the “mutual seduction of reporter and source” eventually resulted in one-way servicing. Woodward had no interest in a favorable story or anything that minimized conflict and controversy. Never mind what his book said (The Agenda was rather favorable); when it appeared, Woodward publicly described the President’s economic policy as “chaos, absolute chaos.” Although the President and his wife spoke to Woodward, they blamed Stephanopoulos for a PR disaster. Heads rolled in the White House–chief of staff Mack McLarty lost his post–but Stephanopoulos managed to survive.

The dramatic revelations of the President’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky and the resulting media firestorm and Congressional impeachment proceedings postponed the appearance of Stephanopoulos’s book by many months. When the story broke in January 1998, Stephanopoulos no longer had to spin away the President’s involvement, as he had with Gennifer Flowers, or a hotel meeting, as he had with Paula Jones.

After leaving the White House staff Stephanopoulos worked the other side of the street as a media star for ABC, supposedly a liberal antidote to William Kristol. As a Clinton employee, Stephanopoulos had loyally defended the President against Flowers’s charges, despite incriminating tape-recorded conversations; but on the payroll of ABC, he condemned the Commander in Chief for his escapades with Monica. The Talking Head easily swiveled 180 degrees and stated that the President’s problems might result in impeachment.

Monica provided Stephanopoulos with a “news peg” ready-made for his White House stories. A book on policy and personalities might be too tame to compete in the tabloid culture of 1999, but the decision to await the denouement of the Monica story, particularly if it were to end with impeachment, would provide added drama–especially if the affair led Stephanopoulos to denounce his onetime hero.

Among changes the book underwent as it awaited publication was the addition of a fifteen-page epilogue that has reputedly angered the President and signaled Stephanopoulos’s formal break with Clinton. Now, out of the White House, Stephanopoulos refused to “buy the party line that this was more about Clinton’s accusers than his own actions–which meant I was the enemy now.” But it is a measure of the book’s dearth of substance that Stephanopoulos ignores noteworthy failures of moment, such as Clinton’s surrender on military policy and spending, the bankruptcy of his Iraq policy, the charade of his Middle East settlement, the continued uncertainty of his Balkan policy and ongoing pratfalls in healthcare policy. Never in her wildest dreams could Monica imagine herself so important. In the last words of the book–after Stephanopoulos praises the “sheer political virtuosity” of Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union address, which included a laundry list of promises soon to be forgotten, a handshake to the new Republican Speaker and an “I love you” whisper (loud enough for all of us to hear) to his wife–comes Stephanopoulos’s inevitable soundbite: “if only this good president had been a better man.” Some denunciation.

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