The Book Club

Class Snobbery and Coverups

Glad you mentioned the Morris descriptions, which I marked, too–but for different reasons. It’s another thing that bugs me about this book. I’m sure Stephanopoulos is as intelligent as you say; I’m as impressed with his frankness here as you are. But there’s something that he doesn’t quite realize about himself, which is that the tendency in the Democratic party of which he is most representative is upper-class self-congratulation. His real complaint about Dick Morris–“the dark Buddha,” as he calls him at one point–is that he’s down-market, oafish, a bounder. That’s what he means when he faults Morris for a lack of “idealism.” Look–I think Morris is appalling, too, but I don’t think he’s any more or less “idealistic” than the next guy. (Though maybe it’s just a word I don’t understand. Much as I like Ira Magaziner’s pasta-eating habits, for example, I’m mystified by your insistence that he’s more idealistic than ambitious. A guy who at age 21 thought his entire university–Brown, for the curious–should be reshaped according to his own whimsy strikes me as ambitious enough.)

Just as “idealistic” is Stephanopoulese for “upper-class,” “tabloid” is a code word for lower-class. When Clinton claimed to have been misquoted by New York Times bigfoot Tom Friedman on a foreign policy matter, Friedman called Stephanopoulos and screamed, “I have won not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, and I won’t stand for being called a liar by the next president.” Stephanopoulos’ solution–apologize to him profusely and publicly on the president’s behalf. And yet, when the legwork of less famous but no less credible reporters resulted in bimbo eruptions, Stephanopoulos refused to “dignify” them with a response. And still doesn’t. There’s no mention of the Troopergate scandal–which made David Brock famous and then was documented immaculately by Bill Rempel and Doug Frantz of the Los Angeles Times–that turned the White House upside-down at the very point of Stephanopoulos’ maximum influence.

I’m not blind to the realities of power here. I know you can’t bully the New York Times in the same way you can the Star, or even the L.A. Times. But the point is that, nice guy though Stephanopoulos may be, his job description was: “Systematically Misrepresents Things and Muddles the Truth.” That’s why Troopergate is such a telling omission–it undermines his claims to have been surprised by anything later in the Clinton presidency.

He obviously doesn’t even know what misrepresent means. The best inside nugget in the book is that Yitzhak Rabin refused to shake hands with Yasir Arafat as they spoke inside the White House before their 1993 Rose Garden handshake. “Outside! … outside!” Rabin kept saying distrustfully. Stephanopoulos sold the story of their measured pre-ceremony conversation to the big dailies–minus its defining detail. “Why risk misrepresentation?” he asks. Here the prefix mis- means “unfavorable to us” rather than “contrary to the truth.”

He’ll spin anything–often to Keystone Kop effect. It sounds like he was responsible for the entire Vince Foster scandal industry. Because when Clinton privately called the Foster suicide a “mystery,” Stephanopoulos told the Washington Post: “The fundamental truth is that no one can know what drives a person to do something like this. Since you can’t ever know, it’s impossible to speculate on it.” Since both Clinton and Mack McLarty were taking the same we’ll-never-ever-ever-ever-know line at all their public appearances, rational members of the public took this to mean there was a coverup going on. Stephanopoulos calls these charges following the Foster killing “inevitable.” He’s wrong, and those crazies who howled coverup were right. The Clintons may not have been covering up anything in particular. But they were covering up routinely, behaving like people who know from habit that soon enough there’d be plenty of real stuff for them to cover up.

Stephanopoulos followed the same strategy on Travelgate, to similar effect: “After the story broke,” Stephanopoulos says, “I compounded our problems by asking the FBI public affairs officer to attend a meeting in my White House office so we could coordinate our public statements.” Now that’s great–muzzle the law enforcement agency that you’ve just sicced on a dozen innocents for your own political gain.

Stephanopoulos says that in our time, “every president is Nixon until proven innocent.” Let’s admit, though, that (a) some are more Nixonian than others; (b) the Clinton White House is the most Nixonian of all; and (c) Stephanopoulos was employed in one of its most Nixonian roles.