The Book Club

Caldwell and Weisberg

Dear Chris,

Do you know anything about self-flagellation in the Orthodox Church? At moments in this book, I visualized Stephanopoulos tearing up his back with a cat-o’-nine-tails. He lashes himself not just for various shortcomings and mistakes as a political operative but for his moral impurity. Stephanopoulos confesses that he wanted not just world peace and universal health insurance but also power, success, and glory. After walking barefoot over sharp stones, he can hardly wait to get into his hair shirt and admit all the petty and ignoble things he did in pursuit of those goals–misleading the press, flattering his boss, and conniving for prime real estate in the West Wing.

Because his near-masochism felt to me like a sincere expression of personality rather than a calculated rhetorical stance, I found it quite effective. By abasing himself, Stephanopoulos lends credibility to his criticisms of others. This isn’t the kind of ritualistic acceptance of blame one usually finds in Washington kiss-and-tells, most of which could be titled If They’d Only Listened to Me. Unlike so many political memoirists, including Robert Reich and Dick Morris, Stephanopoulos doesn’t play the game of score-settling and self-vindication. I think this is a work of authentic self-examination, inspired by the diaries of Stephanopoulos’ hero, Mario Cuomo, but without Cuomo’s literary pretensions and air of moral self-congratulation. Perhaps a better comparison would be Making It. By picking apart his own career, Stephanopoulos pulls back the curtain on the world of Washington’s special assistants in a frank, perhaps overly frank, way.

Paradoxically, I think the way he describes the moral compromises and complications of political life make it seem more attractive. What job could be more interesting than one where you have to make difficult ethical choices under pressure? Likewise, I found myself put off by the aspects of politics Stephanopoulos seems to savor the most. In narrating his career working for Clinton, Stephanopoulos draws a vivid picture of what a political operative actually thinks about. To my mind, these micro-mechanics of spin control are about as petty and inconsequential as anything gets.

A good example is an episode he describes from the 1992 pre-primary season, when it came out that C-Span had inadvertently captured Bob Kerrey on videotape telling Clinton a tasteless joke about Jerry Brown and lesbians at a Democratic fund-raising event in New Hampshire. Stephanopoulos explains how he crafted a perfect three-sentence statement from the candidate that subtly twisted the knife in Kerrey’s wound while sending a signal that Clinton wasn’t going to try to hurt his rival further and simultaneously letting Clinton off the hook for laughing at the joke. Stephanopoulos then explains that Kerrey, who did not have the advantage of his advice, made himself look weak by apologizing too much.

Stephanopoulos loves this kind of stuff. What seems to animate him is not policy or even politics in the conventional sense, but this sort of tinkering with the nuances of symbolism and image in campaigning and governing. In Republican terms, he’s far more Peggy Noonan than David Stockman. Later in the book, Stephanopoulos explains that when he was summoned to appear before a grand jury to testify about one of the more pointless byways of Whitewater, he took the precaution of hailing a cab on the street. He thought he would look guilty if he arrived at the courthouse in a black government sedan. He savors his lovely populist touch even in the midst of the unfairness and humiliation of being put under oath.

Stephanopoulos owed his place at the center of the Clinton administration to his talent for this kind of P.R., which politicians all think they need these days. But no one seems to have noticed that when it came to being a presidential adviser in the more traditional sense, he was pretty much a washout. As I put it together, Stephanopoulos was wrong on substance and politics of every big issue Clinton faced in his first term. He was on the wrong side of the big budget battle at the outset of the administration, arguing that deficit reduction should take a back seat to new spending programs and tax cuts. He was wrong about NAFTA and wrong about health care. He was wrong in arguing that Clinton should oppose a balanced budget after the Republicans captured Congress in 1994 and wrong in arguing against the welfare bill Clinton signed in 1996.

Stephanopoulos acknowledges many of these errors individually. But as much as he beats himself up, he never draws the larger conclusion that seems obvious to me. His advice to Bill Clinton wasn’t any good.