All Too Human: A Political Education
by George Stephanopoulos
Little, Brown. 456 pp. $27.95
One of the dubious pleasures of American politics these days is observing (at a distance) the strange creatures constantly thrusting themselves into prominent positions on the public stage. Over the past six and a half years, the presidency of Bill Clinton has offered a particularly rich parade, and one who has garnered more than his share of notice has been George Stephanopoulos. A former senior adviser to the President, Stephanopoulos is now a visiting professor of politics at Columbia University and a commentator for ABC.
In some ways, the story Stephanopoulos tells in All Too Human, his best-selling book about his path to the White House, is straightforward enough. In 1991, while working as a ranking aide to House majority leader Richard Gephardt, he decided to try his hand at presidential politics. After assessing the various Democratic horses, he hitched himself and his liberal political attitudes to a “thoroughbred”—his term of praise for Bill Clinton. For the next fourteen frenetic months, he toiled as a kind of high-level stable hand, burnishing his candidate’s message, feeding sugar cubes to the media, and covering tales of draft-dodging and sexual hijinks with hay.
But once ensconced in the White House as the President’s new chief spokesman, Stephanopoulos found that things did not go quite so winningly Bill Clinton’s “honeymoon” began with a series of spectacular gaffes: consecutive nominees for attorney general beset with nanny problems; a presidential pledge to allow gays into the military; a presidential haircut (by Christophe) in an idling Air Force One; the burning of David Koresh’s complex at Waco; the firing of the White House travel-office staff. In contending with these fiascoes, Stephanopoulos was, he concedes here, a flop: his combativeness earned him the ire both of the press and of his superiors, and he was finally removed from his position, “congratulated,” as he writes, on a “promotion” he had not heard about before it was announced.
Though being kicked upstairs was a painful public humiliation—the more so since he was replaced by David Gergen, a former aide to such Republican villains as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—all was not yet lost. Over the next year and a half, Stephanopoulos, operating from a cubbyhole adjacent to the Oval Office, began to climb back up the ladder, a struggle he recounts here rung by rung. With virtually unrestricted access to the President, he writes that he was able to play a central role in both domestic- and foreign-policy decision-making, helping, for example, to select a Supreme Court Justice and plotting a mini cruise-missile attack on Iraq.
By November 1994, just when Stephanopoulos seemed to have recovered fully from his mortifying fall, another calamity struck; the voters turned out the Democrats from Congress en masse and Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House. Clinton’s reaction, according to Stephanopoulos, was to emit a “silent scream. No yelling, no finger in your face, nothing. Just silence.” It was then that the President began simultaneously to freeze out his aide and to change political gears, “triangulating” according to the geometry of another longtime Republican adviser, the pollster Dick Morris.
Over the next two years Stephanopoulos hung tough, once again managing to score comebacks here and there—supervising the President’s “mend-it-don’t-end-it” review of affirmative action, fighting the budget wars against congressional right-wingers bent on shutting down the government. But things would never be the same. The heaviest blow was being excluded from the weekly high-level White House strategy meetings. This disgrace, Stephanopoulos writes, “was killing me and my pride,” and in short order he made his exit. By the time Monica Lewinsky became a household name, he was in an ABC studio, wagging an accusatory finger at the President with one hand and signing a multimillion-dollar, tell-all book contract with the other.
Though the reviewers have dismissed All Too Human as a somewhat dreary read and lacking in candor, they are not altogether on the mark about the latter point. The book may not tell us anything wholly new about the Clinton presidency, but it does usefully confirm outsiders’ impressions of its fecklessness and vacuity while adding authoritative emphases that could come only from one who saw it up close. It also offers a generous glimpse of George Stephanopoulos himself, an exemplar of a new breed of homo politicus Americanus.
As he relates with some pride, Stephanopoulos, like the President and quite a few other members of the administration, is a former Rhodes scholar. That is, he expatiates, he has benefited greatly from the chance to ponder “the fundamental questions of politics—war and peace, life and liberty.” To judge, however, by the essentially contentless contents of this book, the sole effect of his Oxford association has been to supply him with what he himself calls a “ticket to the establishment.” The few attempts here to address the “fundamental questions of politics” do not rise above the level of the sound-bites he crafted for the President-to-be.
During the campaign, in any event, far more “fundamental” to Stephanopoulos than the great questions of politics were the secrets of Clinton’s prior life and what they might portend for him:
A blow job in a car ten years ago? A one-night stand or two? I couldn’t bear the thought that an old dalliance dredged up by a tabloid would curtail the professional experience of my life.
In passages like this—and there are many like it in All Too Human—one comes close to the essential Stephanopoulos, a man who habitually congratulates himself on doing good while exposing his ruling passion for doing well. Here he is, for instance, on his first night at Blair House:
As the butler ushered me up to the second floor, I pocketed the gilded card that carried my name, spelled correctly, in an elegant calligrapher’s script. Closing the door, I lay back on the feather bed and luxuriated in the feeling of being one of the chosen.
But the most striking persona to emerge from these pages is neither that of the climber nor that of the operator, but that of the suitor. When Stephanopoulos writes about the person of Bill Clinton, he sounds like no one so much as the world’s most famous intern, Monica Lewinsky. “Bill Clinton wasn’t my type,” he declares early on, and friends even suggested that he was “marrying the wrong girl.” But a relationship developed between the two men that was “intense, intimate at times.” Coos Stephanopoulos: “I 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.”
Like Monica, Stephanopoulos lingers lovingly on the President’s cravats (one, an “iridescent” number, featured “shiny gold horns against a deep blue background”); focuses obsessively on the shortcomings of his own personal appearance (the stress-induced hives that covered his chin, his disfigured fingernails); frets at being cut off from the President’s “raw, naked, intelligent, proud, and profane humanity.” And when at last the handwriting appears on the wall, like Monica again he assuages his grief with the aid of an anti-depressant, the wonder-drug Zoloft.
Can one draw a line between the touchy-feely, arrogant, self-absorbed personality of George Stephanopoulos, with his many look-alikes in the Clinton White House, and the methods of governance he tells us were followed there?
As far as foreign policy is concerned, even the most sensitive issues seem to have been evaluated in Stephanopoulos’s time on the basis not of any stable set of intellectual criteria but of how they would play in the polls. During the Bosnian crisis of 1994, for example, one simple and irrefutable fact, plus one overriding objective, ensured that the favored military option would be air power. The simple fact was that “bombing polled well; ground troops didn’t,” and the overriding objective was to repair the reputation of a President widely perceived to be a vacillator. As Dick Morris explained to Stephanopoulos at one critical juncture, “I want to bomb the shit out of the Serbians to [make Clinton] look strong.” Shortly thereafter the bombs fell, and the poll numbers duly rose.
For snapshots like this one, and for what they reveal of the abysses to which the American political class has sunk, we owe a small measure of debt to George Stephanopoulos’s unctuous and faithless confessions.