In a psychomachia (as I learned from reading Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear it Away--see review) Good and Evil wage a war for a man's soul. This memoir, believe it or not, depicts two separate psychomachias, with poor George Stephanopoulos stuck in the middle. First there is the struggle between his "good" liberal leanings and the "evil" pragmatism of Bill Clinton's politics. Second, there is the struggle between the George who was raised a good Orthodox Christian and the "bad" George who is called upon to do Clinton's dirty work. The tragedy of the story is that "bad" George surfaces time and again in order to serve "evil." He loses his soul twice, by committing morally dubious acts to further an agenda that he does not even believe in. It's really quite painful to watch.
Stephanopoulos is the real deal, an unreconstructed bleeding heart liberal. In 1992 he hoped to work for Mario Cuomo, someone who would proudly carry the liberal banner in to battle. But the notorious Hamlet of the Hudson vacillated for so long that Stephanopoulos started to look around at other campaigns. In an especially devastating sequence, he discusses meeting with Bob Kerrey and his staff, and deciding that their campaign was not worth taking seriously, that it was too messianic, too dependent on the personality of the candidate. Then he meets with Bill Clinton and is genuinely impressed. Though he does not feel that Clinton shares his ideology, Stephanopoulos decides:
Maybe Clinton's more conservative side would make
him more appealing. Maybe it was time for
In their first meeting, Clinton asks what he should do about a pledge declining PAC contributions. Stephanopoulos advises:
PAC money isn't morally worse than other contributions.
But attacking PACs is an easy sound bite
It's worth pausing here, because this is before his association with the Clintons had completely corrupted Stephanopoulos, and look at that bit of advice. There are a series of assumptions here: (1) contributions are somehow morally questionable; (2) but PAC contributions are no worse than others; (3) if you're the one receiving them, you accept them and keep quiet; (4) because you aren't and your opponent is, you oppose them; and (5) this is the moral high ground. Positioning yourself to denounce as immoral a behavior you would engage in if you could? George may not have had that much to learn from Bill after all.
But he does become Bill's boy and there is an element of seduction here:
...I was moved by more than what he stood for or
how much he knew. It was how I felt around
Without truckling in Freudian analysis here, you can't help noticing the psychosexual dynamic here and that bit about a "special job" and fingers wrapped around a staff, sounds like it could be lifted from Monica Lewinsky's book.
If the image of Clinton as lover and father stuff isn't enough, Stephanopoulos next compares him to Christ:
The messianic streak in Kerrey's camp had left me
cold. But I was yielding to a similar temptation
This might not be so embarrassing if Clinton had a "cause" other than himself. But Bill Clinton is the sum total of what Bill Clinton believes in, and so Stephanopoulos is placing nothing more than another person, and not much of one, at the center of his own life.
Within a short time, Stephanopoulos was fighting off bimbo eruptions, draft dodger stories, and all those myriad other rumors, innuendoes and, as we ultimately discovered, perfectly valid allegations. Always in these situations it is Hillary who demands that the accuser be destroyed, while the candidate dissembles and prevaricates until the story has spun nearly out of control. But these battles themselves have a certain allure:
What began as a strange, even sordid, way to spend
my time soon felt natural. Wake me up in the
Just as the candidate seemed addicted to getting into these messes, the staff seemed to become addicted to cleaning them up, regardless of the validity of the charges or the means they had to employ. The pattern was set which would follow them to the White House and remains with us today (8/07/00). Clinton triggers another scandal, Hillary demands that opponents be crushed, and the staff spins like crazy.
One of the remarkable things about the book is how little things changed once they won the election. Campaign organizations are loose knit, flexible things, sometimes even chaotic. Often they think tactically rather than strategically. Appearance tends to seem more important than reality, because by the time anyone figures out the reality, the campaign has moved on or is even over. And no matter how you dress it up, no matter how important the issues raised, they are ultimately really only concerned with one goal: to elect the candidate. Despite the obvious weaknesses of this structure, it often suffices for the election. But only people who are profoundly irresponsible would try running the nation the same way. These are those people.
Other than Health Care, which Hillary took over, there weren't really any strategic plans for the administration, so they governed tactically. For all the talk of FOBs (Friends of Bill), there just weren't many top notch folks in the cabinet or at the upper staff levels, so the whole operation was a mess. The promise to have an administration that "looked like America" and the unfortunate Nanny-Gate brouhahas combined to leave them in the position of choosing appointees for who they were, rather than for what they were (in other words, female or Hispanic or whatever, instead of merely competent). There are a few things that are especially troubling about the administration's start up. First, that they were actually not appointing people because of the nanny nonsense. Second, that they were incapable of drawing any broader lessons from the experience. A more adept political operation might have taken note of the fact that even these upper class liberals were avoiding Social Security tax payments and used it as a jumping off point to reduce the payroll tax. Instead, their sole focus was to trot out the next female victim, having predetermined that the Attorney General would be a woman come hell or high water. This left us with the conveniently childless Janet Reno, who proceeded to cook the Branch Davidians because of their unusual religious views.
The big accomplishment early in the Administration was passage of the Clinton economic plan. Because of the inclusion of tax cuts, Republicans bailed out. It was left, perversely, to Democrats to as Clinton said, become Eisenhower Republicans and pass a supposed deficit fighting package. This was an important psychological moment because it represented at long lost a return of Democrats to the, at least somewhat, fiscally responsible fold, after seventy years of advocating increasing deficits. But the plan itself was entirely inconsequential. The economy, having readjusted to a peacetime footing, had already begun growing even before Bush left office. The eventual balancing of the budget was completely a function of declining defense spending--$300 billion deficits turned into a balance budget as $300 billion was cut from defense, you do the math. Passage of the plan did have the salutary effect of helping the GOP retake the Congress, which proved to be the best thing that ever happened to Bill Clinton, but from the perspective of folks like Stephanopoulos, the Democrats had spent all their political capital passing an economic plan designed to make bond traders happy and had then paid for it with their political lives; hard to get too fired up about that, huh?
Over the course of the first term David Gergen is brought in and then after the '94 Congressional takeover, Dick Morris comes aboard. They, along with Al Gore, become the conservative foils of the book. As Clinton turns more and more to advisors like them, at one point he says that he shouldn't have kept anyone from the campaign and shouldn't have any staff under thirty years of age, Stephanopoulos is shunted aside. His loyalty becomes an issue after he gets the White House to cooperate with Bob Woodard for his book, The Agenda. But George stays in there, fighting to preserve the President's best (i.e., most liberal) instincts.
Most of his victories are hilariously insignificant in retrospect and anyone outside the Beltway would have realized it at the time. His losses on the other hand, are what made for a successful presidency: NAFTA, welfare reform, etc. The one big win, over the Government shutdown, is really disheartening, as it shows that if the GOP had just held out a little longer the President was ready to fold.
Meanwhile, running like a leitmotif through the story are the numerous investigations and scandals--innumerable women, White Water, cattle futures, Travel Gate, the Vince Foster suicide, and so on. And brooding over the story are the twin terrors of Bill Clinton's volcanic temper and Hillary Clinton's maudlin self pity and "us versus them" paranoia. Stephanopoulos leaves the very strong impression that the whole ordeal over billing records and White Water files was simply an attempt by Hillary to hide the cattle futures deal.
Stephanopoulos finally extracts himself from this mess after the 1996 reelection. But, of course, was dragged right back into the mix in his new role as a commentator once Monica Lewinsky hit the fan (wednesday, January 21, 1998). It's amazing how once he was out of the fish bowl he was able to understand how awful Bill Clinton's actions were, instead of trying to dismiss them as he had for the preceding seven years.
There is far too much hand wringing in the book. If his conscience really bothered him that much he should have quit. There is also far too much of the "staffer as hero" syndrome. Sure Clinton's the President, but the fate of the Free World seems to ride on whether George Stephanopoulos has access to him and can get him, reluctantly, to do the right thing. What makes the book worthwhile is to watch the gradual moral erosion of this seemingly decent enough fellow. For me, the most revealing moment in the book comes at the time Colin Powell is retiring. The White House is terrified that he will run for President in '96, so they want to suck up to him. Their first idea is to give him a fifth star, no one in the White House having the least idea of how rarely they have been awarded. When Stephanopoulos does the ground work and discovers how extraordinary this gesture would be and that Congressional approval would be required, he recommends against it. Meanwhile, Clinton has come to the same conclusion, but he reasoned that if they ran against Powell they would want to attack his relatively limited combat experience and his generally mediocre command record, a strategy which would be made more difficult if they'd just gotten him one of the nation's highest military honors. Leave aside for a moment the details of what this episode reveals about the men involved. The really startling thing is that for all the moral self-flagellation in the book, Stephanopoulos has become so morally blind that he doesn't even seem to realize the implications of this whole drama. At the point in your life where you don't recognize the cynicism which permeates this decision, you've truly forfeited your immortal soul.
-CV: George Stephanopoulos Visiting Professor of Public Affairs (Columbia University)
-EXCERPT: Hillary's Big Mistake The decision that spawned impeachment (George Stephanopoulos, Washington Monthly)
-DEPOSITION: In the matter of: : WHITE HOUSE TRAVEL : DEPOSITION OF : GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (House Government Oversight Committee)
-ESSAY: The Art of War: George Stephanopoulos on Fighting the Media (Trevor Butterworth, NewsWatch Associate Editor)
-ARCHIVES: "George Stephanopoulos" (Salon)
-PROFILE : Walking the Line : George Stephanopoulos, President Bill Clinton's golden boy and War Room spinmeister, is earning his journalistic stripes at ABC News -- and ratcheting up the debate about crossing over from politics to the news media (Gay Jervey, Brill's Content)
-REVIEW: of All Too Human A Political Education. By George Stephanopoulos (Gary Wills, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of All Too Human (Gabriel Schoenfeld, Commentary)
-REVIEW: of All too Human History vs. Loyalty (James Fallows, The Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW: Anthony King reviews All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos (political Science Quarterly)
-REVIEW: of All Too Human (Owen Ullman, Business Week)
-REVIEW: (Tony Peregrin, New City Chicago)
-REVIEW: of All Too Human All the President's Man George Stephanopoulos's odyssey from star-struck, ambitious young politico to older, wiser, much richer pundit is an emblematic generational story -- not in a good way (WALTER KIRN, New York)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd