All Too Shallow

All Too Human: A Political Education, by George Stephanopoulos, Boston: Little, Brown, 456 pages, $27.95

Quick: What exactly did George Stephanopoulos do in the Clinton White House? He hosted the daily press briefing for a few months, but he botched the job so badly that Clinton handed the job to Dee Dee Myers. So how did he spend the rest of his tenure?

Don't feel bad if the answer escapes you. Stephanopoulos himself seems confused about what he was supposed to be doing, a problem that has apparently plagued him for years. In 1989, he signed on with Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), then the House majority leader. "My new job was as exciting as I expected," he writes, "even though I couldn't explain exactly what it was."

Two years later, he joined the Clinton presidential campaign: "Although my duties were not defined with precision, I didn't press for clarification." After victory, the Clintons told him that he would have a place in their White House, and that he would keep on doing what he did in the campaign. "Exactly what they meant would be worked out later," he writes. "For the moment, it was just nice to hear." When Clinton dragged him from the briefing room, he says, "my new title was the nebulous 'senior adviser for policy and strategy.' Only time would tell what it would mean." Clinton reassured Stephanopoulos that he wanted him by his side, but when Leon Panetta became chief of staff, fears of unemployment strafed his mind, "which meant that I needed a job description beyond 'by my side.' "

All too typical. Washington teems with young people sporting such titles as "assistant," "deputy," and "liaison," all of them hoping to become George Stephanopoulos. They spend 60-hour weeks churning out "policy initiatives" and writing frantic memoranda on "damage control," never reflecting that most of the damage comes from all those initiatives. If they'd all just go home, the government would shrink, the storm would clear, and their mental health would improve. Instead, they settle for Band-Aids: Stephanopoulos grew a beard to cover the stress-induced hives on his chin.

It wasn't just the workload that was making him tense. Anybody in the Clinton White House ran a high risk of legal trouble, and Stephanopoulos was no exception. During the Whitewater probe, he griped to a Treasury official about a Resolution Trust Corporation investigator's GOP connections, wondering aloud if there was a way to fire him. Unknown to Stephanopoulos, the official was keeping a diary, which later fell into the hands of the Office of the Independent Counsel and the Senate Banking Committee. The journal entry did not show any criminal wrongdoing, Stephanopoulos says, but it did cause him some tense and embarrassing moments.

The incident undoubtedly reminded him of what was already conventional wisdom among Washington insiders: Diaries are subject to subpoena, so never keep one. According to press accounts of Stephanopoulos' book deal, he abided by that rule throughout his White House years.

A question arises. Although Stephanopoulos surely has a fine memory, it is implausible to think that he summoned 456 pages of detail and dialogue from the recesses of his brain. It is hard enough to reconstruct a conversation from yesterday, much less seven years ago. So without a diary, where did he get all this material?

In his acknowledgments, Stephanopoulos says he refreshed his recollections by speaking with other participants and having interns research the public record. He deserves credit for his diligence, but the product is a book that is short on fresh information.

For example, he tells of a 1992 focus group where hand-held meters showed a negative response when Hillary Clinton appeared on videotape. He recalls Bill Clinton showing both spousal concern and a capacity for denial by saying: "Oh, man, they don't like her hair." When Newsweek ran excerpts from the book, its editors thought this anecdote was newsworthy enough to merit inclusion. Apparently, they forgot that it had appeared five years ago in All's Fair, the joint memoir by Mary Matalin and James Carville.

In fact, whenever Carville appears, Stephanopoulos' account tracks closely with the earlier book. Their urgent phone conversation about Gennifer Flowers, Hillary Clinton's role in naming the now-famous War Room, the tearful farewells at the final War Room meeting--in each case, Stephanopoulos offers the same story as Carville, with only slight variations.

There are other stale crumbs. During the 1993 budget debate, Clinton called Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who was on the verge of breaking with the White House line. Stephanopoulos remembers Clinton's increasingly heated responses, climaxing in an obscene Anglo-Saxonism. Bob Woodward published this conversation (including Kerrey's side) in his 1994 book The Agenda. Woodward, of course, probably got his information from Stephanopoulos in the first place--but that doesn't help the reader in search of something new.

In fact, by talking to so many reporters during his tenure, Stephanopoulos repeatedly scooped himself. In All Too Human, he tells of his anguish over Clinton's support of the death penalty--an anguish he aired three years ago in a Boston Globe interview. He offers a good account of Clinton's 1991 pre-primary skirmish with Mario Cuomo over welfare. But he already related the episode to Joe Klein, who wrote it into his novel Primary Colors--narrated by a character based on Stephanopoulos.

In a weird, postmodern twist, Stephanopoulos seems to draw even from his fictional alter ego. During the 1992 campaign, he says, his own doubts about Clinton's character merely increased his determination to fight even harder: "Now I was a true believer." Joe Klein's "Henry Burton" put it this way: "True Believerism...I was caught up in the thing. I had no perspective."

The Clinton people are true believers in their own righteousness--and in the basic evil of anyone with a different viewpoint. When a Republican House candidate won an upset victory in a 1994 special election, Clinton said: "It's Nazi time out there. We've got to hit them back." Stephanopoulos shares this attitude, describing criticism of federally funded midnight basketball as "a fiscally conservative stance with a racist subtext."

Stephanopoulos now suggests that he has lost some of his faith in Clinton--but only because his lies got too gross to ignore. Never in this book does he seriously question his beliefs about the role of government, or even acknowledge that the issue might be subject to debate. There's plenty of introspection here, but it's all petty. Obsessing about whether he was up or down, he forgets to ponder whether he was right or wrong.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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