The Book Club

Idealism vs. Ambition

Gee, Chris, I think you’re being pretty hard on our boy George. By being so frank about his own motives, he has handed a lot of ammunition to people who want to accuse him of sheer careerism. But I think that’s a pretty crude understanding of his character, which is more complicated and interesting, and certainly of his book.

Anyone who gets seriously involved in politics, whether as a candidate or an aide, acts out of a combination of idealism and ambition. I think this is true even of those who exude ambition from their pores like garlic–say Richard Holbrooke or Richard Darman. And I think it’s true of those who put their purity on a pedestal, like Mario Cuomo and Gary Bauer. That’s as it should be. Personal ambition is a necessary ingredient in politics just as greed is in business. What’s desirable is a balance. Too much ambition without any ideals and you get Dick Morris. Too much idealism and you get Ira Magaziner.

After reading this book, my impression remains that Stephanopoulos’ equilibrium of public service and self-advancement is a healthy one. As he says, he wanted to do good and do well, to serve and succeed. Where he is unusual is in his own obsession with the issue. Stephanopoulos is plainly someone who agonizes about his own motivations. I’m not sure that this level of self-consciousness is helpful in politics, but I don’t think it’s a pretense.

What you take as calculation to me seems more like conscience. I invite you to reconsider the episode you mention, where Stephanopoulos tells the little girl that her father is a bad man. Here’s what you left out: First, the father, who had been a driver for Clinton in New Hampshire, made up a story about overhearing Clinton talking to Stephanopoulos about paying off Gennifer Flowers with a state job. The story, which he almost got a newspaper to publish, wasn’t true; the driver really was a bad man. Of course, that was no excuse for saying something hurtful to a child, which is George’s point. Here’s what he says next: “I felt ashamed the second the words escaped my mouth, but it was too late. The girl just stared back at the brutal zealot I’d become, and I couldn’t argue with her, or change the subject, or even spin myself.” I found this moment chilling, which I think is how Stephanopoulos felt it, which is why he included it. And yes, I think it was brave to include it.

I also think “careerism” is a bit ill-defined as an accusation. Sure, writing a memoir gets Stephanopoulos a lot of money and attention. But by writing this book, he has also put paid to his political ambitions. As he says, people now consider him a poster boy for disloyalty (an issue I’d like to take up tomorrow). Had he kept his feelings to himself, he would stand a good shot at being a member of a cabinet or a White House chief of staff in a future Democratic administration. He could have run for the Senate. I think what the book says is that his political career is over. Basically, he couldn’t stand the heat.

Finally (for this morning), I don’t think you’re onto anything on question-of-authorship front. Here’s what I’ve heard: Stephanopoulos originally hired William Novak as his ghostwriter and Novak wrote a draft. But Stephanopoulos didn’t like it, so he threw it out and started over, writing the book himself (this is what delayed it). In thanking Novak for being his “writing coach,” I think Stephanopoulos is being gracious. Of course, this could be Stephanopoulite spin, but the book contains some fine writing that doesn’t sound ghosted to me. One of my favorite passages was the description of Dick Morris: “… a small sausage of a man encased in a green suit with wide lapels, a wide floral tie, and a wide-collared shirt. His blow-dried pompadour and shiny leather briefcase gave him the look of a B-movie mob lawyer, circa 1975–the kind of guy who gets brained with a baseball bat for double-crossing his boss.” You have to admit that’s just about perfect.