The Book Club

Getting Out of the Kitchen (Cabinet)

Dear Chris,

You’ve put the case against Stephanopoulos well today. And although we disagree, I think you’ve pinpointed the central issue: Is this a heartfelt self-examination or an effort to shape perception?

One complaint you make is that George had all the information he needed to throw Clinton overboard years earlier. He might agree with you about that. But you take his concessions as spin. You think Stephanopoulos is cleverly “inoculating” himself against criticism by preemptively confessing. In your view, George is doing what historical actors often try to do as the curtain draws down on their scenes: get their reviews out first.

I, on the other hand, see a real journey here. If the book is self-serving spin, it’s incredibly subtle and sophisticated spin–better than the sort Stephanopoulos provided for Clinton, which was generally transparent and irritating. Sure Stephanopoulos is trying to justify having worked for Clinton. But I think he’s trying to justify it to himself more than to history. The evidence for this is that he doesn’t worry about getting the better of the big internal arguments. As I pointed out on our first day, he has made a pretty good case that no one should ever take his political advice again. This is entirely different from what Robert Reich tried to do in his memoir, Locked in the Cabinet. All Too Human is equally disloyal, but feels far less calculated and strategic.

I think we have both overplayed the extent to which Stephanopoulos casts his story as one of, as you put it, “bruised idealism.” While Stephanopoulos is a fairly conventional liberal, his attitude toward politics was hardly that of a goo-goo or a misty romantic. By the time he signed on with Clinton, he had already endured the uncompromised failure of the 1998 Dukakis campaign. Stephanopoulos chose Clinton in 1992 over the more soulful Bob Kerrey because he thought it was time for the Democrats to quit being the minority party of moral purity.

Stephanopoulos thought he was prepared to serve a hardheaded winner. What he learned working for Clinton was that he didn’t have the stomach for the job. Defending Clinton made him literally sick. His skin broke out in hives, he couldn’t sleep, and he was treated for depression. Ultimately he had to leave. This wasn’t merely a response to hard work and pressure. I think it was the reaction of a scrupulous person who finds himself compromising his values. I doubt Harold Ickes ever went on Zoloft because of what skirting the campaign finance laws was doing to his soul.

You can say Stephanopoulos should have been tougher or you can say he should have been even less tough and quit sooner (in fact, I think you have said both things in the course of our exchange). But what fascinates me is the dilemma of an intelligent, morally sensitive person in the thick of politics, where you can’t avoid issues of means and ends. Liberals sometimes act as if such questions don’t apply to them. The Democratic Party is full of Paul Wellstone types, who deny any possible conflict between their “values” and electability. By 1992, Stephanopoulos had had enough of this mentality. He signed on with Clinton because Clinton was a practical politician, willing to play the game hard and able to play it well. What Stephanopoulos learned in his political education is that the price of winning was more than he was personally willing to pay.

It’s easy for me to identify with someone in this position. As a journalist who watches from the sidelines and comments, I don’t often face conflicts between my values and my goals. But if I acted on my political views instead of merely expressing them, I imagine that I might find myself confronting choices much like the ones Stephanopoulos faced–like whether to defend a decision I deplored, or whether to keep working for a guy who lied to me.

The reason I applaud this book is not that Stephanopoulos handled such quandaries perfectly–of course he didn’t. It’s that he convincingly describes what it’s like to be where he was. The compelling depiction of a genuine struggle with conscience is what makes this a valuable work about politics as a vocation and not just a Clinton-era period piece.

I’m not sure that writing a good book excuses writing a disloyal book. But to my mind, it mitigates it.

I’ve enjoyed this exchange and I’m sorry if sounded a bit harsh at times. The last word is yours, if you want it.

All the best,