The Book Club

Disingenuous George

Dear Jacob,

I hope I don’t leave the impression I fault Stephanopoulos for writing a book. There is, of course, an ethics issue here, the same one that beset Newt Gingrich when he took his book advance. It’s that his position–what he was really selling in the book–is something he possesses by the electoral grace of the American people and their system of government. So it’s public property, and not really his to sell. But the public gets to exact its revenge, punishing Gingrich at the polls and Stephanopoulos with a long (but not necessarily permanent) vacation from politics. No big deal.

What I fault him for–as an author, not as a political operative–is that he engages in selective recall in order to further his narrative framework of “gradually, it became clear to idealistic old me … ” That’s why Troopergate’s a central problem. Stephanopoulos doesn’t mention the scandal. He mentions talking to the president and finding him “lawyerly” on the matter, but not being “bothered” by the reports himself.

Let’s recall. In December 1993, two stories broke on the same day: the Troopers and the news that files had been spirited away from the White House on the night of Vince Foster’s death. In Stephanopoulos’ account, the former is a distraction from the latter. In Bob Woodward’s account of the story, practically the whole White House senior staff was called out of a Christmas party for emergency meetings–to talk about the women. The Clinton character flaws that “dawned on” Stephanopoulos as the Morris era progressed must have been on glaring display in those meetings.

Worse, Clinton talked to the press. Asked about the charges, he replied (if memory serves), “It … it … but … I … she … but … it … ” With the possible exception of Ted Kennedy’s multi-second silence when Roger Mudd asked him in 1980 why he should be elected president, this is the single biggest spin catastrophe in the history of American presidential politics.

And Stephanopoulos, who lives for spin and image, who takes it as his White House raison d’être, who obsesses on the way his boss holds his head for a photo op, who spends pages and pages describing his quibbles with Christopher Edley about how to nuance the president’s statement on the Supreme Court’s Adarand affirmative action decision, has absolutely nothing to say about that. Nothing!

Why not? Stephanopoulos claims it was only during the Paula Jones aftermath of the Troopergate story that he began to wake up. (“Only on February 11, 1994, when Paula Jones disputed the account and accused Clinton of sexual harassment, did I begin to pay attention.”) Thereafter, the book becomes a supposed-to-be-inspirational tale of how the wool gradually fell away from his eyes. The Lewinsky business gets bundled into the Morris “betrayal” of Democratic ideals, as if they’re the same thing. I’m saying I don’t buy this line. You can object to Clinton’s womanizing or not–I tend not to–but the wool had already fallen away from everyone else’s eyes long before Stephanopoulos had his first misgivings.

I like the Clinton that appears in these pages better than I like the Stephanopoulos. There’s more self-knowledge and less pretense. Clinton doesn’t talk about “idealism” the way Stephanopoulos does (and we’ll have to have that conversation, Jacob, because I still don’t know what “idealism” means); he talks about “helping people.” And he cares about helping people, but without ever losing sight that he’s a political and not a religious figure. He’s capable of admiring James Michael Curley or Huey Long in a way that Stephanopoulos wouldn’t even have a language for.

It boils down to his being more old-fashioned. Because of his rural background, Clinton is an early-’60s person. (As opposed to Hillary, who as a late-’60s person has more in common with Stephanopoulos’–i.e. our–generation.) I’m always struck by an incident in David Maraniss’ biography First in His Class in which Clinton returns from Oxford to Little Rock and is mystified by the kids just a year or two younger who are smoking pot.

That’s why people stick with Clinton. We shall not see his like again. I say this not just in that he’s as wacky, randy, and shifty as any president in living memory, but also in that he’s exactly what Bob Dole claimed to be in the last election–a bridge to the past.