Stephanopoulos Tells All; Critics Ask: Et Tu, George?
Soon after political consultant Dick Morris quit his campaign post in disgrace and announced plans to write a candid book about his role in the Clinton administration, White House advisor George Stephanopoulos erupted in anger.
“You have a responsibility not to embarrass the president. . . . It hurts the country, it’s just stupidity and weakness,” he told a New Yorker reporter in 1996. Asked if he would ever write such a book, the 35-year-old deputy shot back: “I don’t know, but I know I wouldn’t write a disloyal book.”
Today, those words have come back to haunt Stephanopoulos, whose stinging memoir of the Clinton years, “All Too Human,” has just been published, raising once again the tricky question of how much loyalty an underling owes a president. Has he written a valid work of history--or simply betrayed his former boss for a fat $2.7-million advance?
“I know there’s an endless argument whether I have or haven’t” been disloyal, said the ABC-TV news analyst during an interview Thursday in a limousine speeding to the airport. “The main thing I can say in response is that I’ve written a book that is honest and fair . . . to tell people how we learned from our mistakes and our failings and ultimately succeeded.”
But Stephanopoulos does much more, taking readers behind the scenes to show tense arguments between Clinton and his staff, tantrums and tender moments with Hillary Rodham Clinton and a leader whose efforts to manipulate uncomfortable truths only made matters worse.
Some Former Aides Defend the Book
It’s the raw stuff of history, yet several historians who might be expected to devour such material have blasted Stephanopoulos for choosing to write about his former boss while he is still in office. Meanwhile, several former Clinton aides have rushed to the author’s defense, suggesting that the president’s reckless behavior no longer merits much trust.
Earlier White House tell-alls dating back to the 1960s sparked similar questions. But the financial stakes have grown considerably since then, and publishers now view these recollections as potential mega-sellers. Indeed, the story of Stephanopoulos’ memoirs says as much about pressures to cash in on fleeting celebrity in America as it does about Clinton himself.
“It used to be that people waited years before writing such White House memoirs, and there was almost an unwritten code that required you to wait for a decent interval,” said presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. “But the time frame is shortened now and publishers are pressing insiders to publish as soon as possible so they can make a big splash in the news. All of which helps book sales tremendously.”
Stephanopoulos left the White House soon after Clinton’s reelection and said he told his boss that he hoped to write a book about his experiences. The president was supportive, he recalled, saying: “Great, we need a good book out there.”
Yet Clinton never dreamed in December 1996 that he would soon be looking down the barrel of impeachment because of Monica S. Lewinsky. When he signed his book deal in 1997 with Little, Brown, Stephanopoulos planned to write a wry, coming-of-age memoir, the story of an idealistic, ambitious kid who backed a little-known Southern governor for president in 1992 and hit the jackpot when he actually made it to the Oval Office.
“A year after I left the White House, the Monica story broke,” he said. “And there’s no way I could avoid that. I changed my view of things. . . . Mistakes I saw [in Clinton] in the past became a pattern. They had become part of a prologue.”
As the book changed, so did Stephanopoulos’ on-air attitude toward his former employer--most notably in January 1998, when he was one of the first TV pundits to suggest that the Lewinsky story could lead to Clinton’s impeachment.
White House officials immediately branded him a turncoat, a poster boy for betrayal, and the president reportedly asked that his name not even be mentioned in White House meetings. The chill continues, with some presidential advisors calling Stephanopoulos and other former associates “commentraitors.”
Bracing for further criticism, Stephanopoulos insists that his book is fair and balanced. He said he was aboveboard, unlike Morris, who made a secret deal to write a book. Pressed on the ethics of his decision to publish now, the author noted that five disgruntled members of Ronald Reagan’s administration penned books about their boss while he was still in office--some far more vitriolic than his own. After all, Reagan’s onetime chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, spilled the beans about the astrologer who helped chart administration policy.
“If you take the position [that writing such a book is wrong], then fine, that’s your position and I can’t change it” he said. “But don’t pretend this is something unique.”
‘Should Have . . . Waited Five Years’
Others take a dim view of that rationale.
“I like George, but he dined very well at the president’s table for five years . . . and you don’t cancel the rules of a relationship the minute you leave,” said Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and a now a public relations executive at Hill & Knowlton.
“There were things Bobby Kennedy told me that I would never reveal to a single soul, no matter how much money somebody offered me for a book deal or a television deal,” he added. “I think George should have at least waited five years.”
For historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stephanopoulos’ book could be a gold mine of information. Yet he said it violates what has long been a cardinal rule of confidentiality in the White House and is a sad reflection of loosening ethics.
“All of this speaks volumes about the extent to which people no longer see presidential figures as inspirational,” Dallek said. “You have a lot of turnover in the White House, and aides want to make their mark. They become celebrities.”
Stephanopoulos, whose boyish good looks and hard-driving style were captured in “The War Room,” a documentary film about Clinton’s 1992 campaign, was also the model for the character of the idealistic young aide in “Primary Colors,” a novel and later a film based on Clinton’s presidential race. Some publishing industry observers predict that Stephanopoulos’ book will almost assuredly unseat Lewinsky’s tell-all at the top of the bestseller lists, due to his potent celebrity.
While some presidential allies, including James Carville and Paul Begala, have questioned the propriety of “All Too Human,” other former aides have rushed to the author’s defense. Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s former press secretary, says the president’s behavior no longer merits trust or unwavering staff support.
“I used to think that when you walked out the door, you couldn’t write a book until the president leaves office, but now I’ve changed that view,” said Myers, who does not rule out writing her own account. “Like a lot of people, I feel he [Clinton] has released me from a bond of loyalty because he has failed utterly to be loyal to people who supported him.”
In his book, Stephanopoulos chronicles the rise and fall of a president who took office with soaring optimism. In short order, the author admits his inexperience during his early days as press secretary; he details major mistakes like the handling of health care reform; he reveals that he experienced depression and anxiety attacks under the pressure of White House life and feels guilty in retrospect for not having detected Clinton’s “dishonest” behavior earlier.
“One of the consistent patterns I saw is that the president almost always gets into more trouble by the way he tries to fix a problem than with the problem itself,” he said. “Whether it’s calling Gennifer Flowers on the phone to keep her in line . . . or finally with Monica, when he spends an entire year trying to control the problem rather than address it.”
The pressures of the Clinton White House created severe mental stress for the aide, and he finally got relief by seeking professional help and taking Zoloft, an antidepressant drug. “The only thing I regret is waiting so long to get help,” he said, “because there is still something of a taboo in politics against seeking treament for emotional stress.”
Still, there were moments of great elation. On the day he left the White House, Stephanopoulos felt close to his boss and real affection for Mrs. Clinton because of their shared adherence to progressive values. He looks back with pride, bitterness and the knowledge that comes only with growing up.
“I once thought that I was looking for the next Bobby Kennedy in the White House. Now, I’ve learned there’s a real danger in romanticizing people. When you sit down to tell the truth, some people are bound to get hurt.”
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