Stephanopoulos: All Too Ambitious?


A Political Education

By George Stephanopoulos

Little, Brown 456pp $27.95

The high-energy, supercompetitive, and ultra-dedicated hotshots who wind up working at the side of a U.S. President can be divided into two camps. There are the ideological zealots and romantic dreamers who see a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape society to reflect their moral code. Sure, they love the perks and prestige, but results are what count. Then there are the self-absorbed opportunists who claim to be driven by a call to public duty. But they spend most of their time grabbing for that golden ticket to fame and fortune.

George Stephanopoulos, who once was President Clinton's closest personal aide, is one of the opportunists. Any doubts about that are swept away by his new memoir, All Too Human, a firsthand account of a not-very-pleasant life inside the Clinton White House. Perhaps the book should be renamed All Too Ambitious, for Stephanopoulos reveals himself to be a craven politico who continually puts winning--and an obsessive need to be Clinton's indispensable assistant--above principle and self-respect. This onetime altar boy, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, is aware of the trade-off, and he struggles with it: "I wanted to do good and do well." But the raw ambition, which he describes as one of the "pistons of my character," always wins out.

That could explain what motivated the betrayal by a devoted loyalist who was a political nobody until his association with Clinton. When a book publisher dangled a seven-figure contract for a juicy insider's account, Stephanopoulos grabbed it. At the same time, he was signing a fat contract to be a commentator for ABC, a network he had once battled ferociously over its coverage of the President.

Is it an honest and revealing book? In many respects, yes--though not in the way that Stephanopoulos may have intended. He is far more insightful about the workings of the White House staff than about Bill and Hillary Clinton. There are a number of voyeuristic anecdotes sure to embarrass the first couple: Hillary breaking down and crying during a Whitewater strategy session; Clinton shouting obscenities over the phone at Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who was the make-or-break vote for the 1993 budget package; the President's fretting about a possible 1996 White House bid by General Colin L. Powell. For the most part, however, the book draws a sympathetic--and familiar--portrait of Clinton as a gifted politician who, despite enormous personal failings, struggles to embrace policies he believes in. Stephanopoulos offers nothing new to explain Clinton's self-destructivebehavior.

The book's real value to anyone interested in government is how the people surrounding Clinton elevated hardball politics and "spin" to a new level of cynicism. Stephanopoulos details proudly how--during the '92 campaign and later in the White House--he developed an intimidating, in-your-face style of combating negative stories and controlling the message. It didn't matter that he knew Clinton had lied when the then-governor of Arkansas denied that he had an Affair with Gennifer Flowers and tried to avoid the draft. Stephanopoulos would insist righteously that the allegations were groundless and browbeat reporters into retreat by accusing them of playing into the hands of Clinton-haters. And he was all too willing to push Presidential positions that he strongly opposed in private, such as welfare reform.

Stephanopoulos also underscores how this White House is often more obsessed with image and symbols than substance. Certainly Stephanopoulos was. He tinkered with Clinton's eulogy at Richard Nixon's funeral to make sure it wouldn't upset liberals. He castigated the President for doing an impromptu imitation of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone on "Larry King Live." He helped Clinton choreograph the famous 1993 handshake on the South Lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Stephanopoulos is at his most entertaining when he describes his bitter conflict with flaky pollster Dick Morris, who supplanted Stephanopoulos in 1995-96 as the indispensable adviser at the President's elbow. Morris, who convinced Clinton that he would be reelected if he coopted such Republican issues as a balanced budget, is portrayed as a cross between a brilliant, modern-day Metternich and a witch doctor who uses polls to cast political spells.

In serving Clinton, Stephanopoulos paid a personal price: He got hives, fell into a depression, suffered intense burnout. But he never seriously considered leaving until it was clear he had fallen out of favor with the Clintons. Over time, they came to think of him as a "leaker" and depended on him less and less. So he cashed in his chips at the top--right after Clinton's reelection.

In his epilogue on the Monica Lewinsky affair, Stephanopoulos complains that the President betrayed him. "For several years, I had served as his character witness," he writes. "Now, I felt like a dupe." Sure, Stephanopoulos is shocked--shocked that there's lying going on in the White House.

The truth is, George Stephanopoulos used Bill Clinton to advance his career just as much as Clinton used him for political gain. That's what too often passes for loyalty and public service these days. Little wonder the voters are so disgusted.

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