The Book Club

Careerist George

Dear Jacob,

Just got back from a bowl of spaghetti at Il Radicchio on 17th Street, a place you probably remember from your Washington days. I used to eat there almost weekly, and every time I went I thought of a favorite anecdote from the Eleanor Clift-Tom Brazaitis Washington book, War Without Bloodshed. When Ira Magaziner feels a bit blue, they wrote, he eats a big bowl of spaghetti. Me, too! And since learning that, I’ve found it impossible–no matter how hard I study Magaziner’s ludicrous ClintonCare health plan–to look at him with the same revulsion.

I’ve been trying to get to that point with Stephanopoulos, but I can’t. I agree with you that this book is a sincere expression of his character. But what does that character consist of? Careerism and careerism, with a bit of careerism thrown in. You’re right that this is an unusual political book, and most unusual for its self-effacement, which verges on masochism. Most political memoirs are Elmer Gantry; this is The Remains of the Day.

Like you, I was struck by the badness of almost all the advice Stephanopoulos ever gave anybody. There is only one good suggestion in the book. Before Clinton was to debate Jerry Brown during the Illinois primary, Stephanopoulos prepped his boss on what to do should Brown raise the matter of Hillary’s shenanigans with the Rose Law Firm. “The minute you hear the word Hillary,” Stephanopoulos says, “rip his head off.” But beyond that, your list of Stephanopoulos Bad Ideas could go on and on: telling Gephardt he should run against George Bush, telling Clinton he should nominate Mario Cuomo as veep. … I also get the impression that Stephanopoulos was even more committed than he lets on to the total Clinton failures–gays in the military and the stimulus package, in particular.

Some of the observations have a real aphoristic bite. One I really liked was his description of spin as “a hope dressed up as an observation.” That’s almost Johnsonian. I don’t know whether it’s Stephanopoulos or William Novak, whom Stephanopoulos describes as “the best writing coach a first-time author could ask for.” (A note to future White House memoirists: If you don’t want people to think your whole book was ghosted, don’t hire the nation’s most successful political ghostwriter as your “writing coach.”)

The biggest paradox in this book is how ambition and self-effacement go together. Stephanopoulos talks about the “twin pistons” of his character being a) idealism and b) ambition. The question is which is the means and which is the end. No one who reads this book can doubt that it’s the idealism that’s the means and the ambition that’s the end.

If so, what’s idealistic about this “idealism”? Stephanopoulos does an awful lot of lying and bullying in this book. There is one incident that just makes one’s jaw hang open. A driver, angry that Clinton broke a promise to appear at a charitable event, tries to sell an anti-Clinton story to the Nashua Telegraph . Stephanopoulos goes to the paper to confront the driver and, as he leaves, finds the man’s 8-year-old daughter waiting for her dad in the lobby. Stephanopoulos glares at her and says, “Your father … is a really bad man.”

Brave of him to mention it, I suppose.

I get the impression that Stephanopoulos must be a genuine dork, one of those people who sits down in seventh grade and maps out his whole life and never deviates. I even feel–and this is an uncharitable thought–that this very act of contrition is part of his larger plan, that there’s a careerism even in his spiritual life. This is something other than contrition. This is an Augustinian Give me chastity and continence, but not just now. As if it’s always been part of Stephanopoulos’ life plan to put his ethical house in order–but not before he’d clawed his way to the top, using every means at his disposal.

Clinton is not as useful an ally to a penitent as he is to a climber. Maybe that’s why Stephanopoulos has dumped him in such a Clintonesque way.