The Book Club

Once a Spinner, Always a Spinner

What kind of president-staff relationship is it where the staffer feels his obligations to his boss stop the moment the latter fails to “keep his pants zipped,” as you put it? This is government, not therapy.

There were other reasons for Stephanopoulos to leave the White House besides bruised idealism, other grounds for his anti-Clinton stance besides moral outrage. Stephanopoulos admits that as he grew more famous he grew less influential–thrown out of Oval Office meetings by Leon Panetta, not trusted with secrets, given the silent treatment by Clinton.

You’ve tended to take the line that we know all these facts, damaging to Stephanopoulos’ case, thanks only to his forthrightness. True, in a sense. But there will be other cabinet memoirs, and in jumping the gun before the end of the administration, Stephanopoulos is following the Golden Rule of Clinton spin: Get your version of the story out first, even if it’s damaging. So his frankness is good as far as it goes, but it can’t be the last word.

I do think he is still spinning. On the one hand, he claims to have been in favor of a quick and full revelation of Whitewater documents. On the other, he’s still a prisoner of the spin he was peddling at the time. He rehashes the fraudulent White House rationale that they were withholding documents because corporate lawyers like David Kendall, those doctrinaire private-sector oafs who have no clue about the politics of anything, insisted on it–as if presidents regularly put their political lives in the hands of incompetents. (“Although this sort of maneuver was routine and appropriate in private litigation … “)

In general, Clinton seems to have treated Stephanopoulos with exemplary forbearance, considerably more than Stephanopoulos showed him. The president kept Stephanopoulos when too many of his quotes found their way into Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, and welcomed him back in a high-stakes role–go-between with Dick Morris–for which he was ill-suited. Clinton, in fact, seems to have been a boss of remarkable kindness. His good-bye to Stephanopoulos–expressing fatherly concern rather than pique when Stephanopoulos confides his plans to move on to David Remnick–is tender and big-hearted. (“Do you really want to leave? Nobody around here can do what you do.”) Hillary seems to have been nastier, but even she gives him a passionate sendoff. (“I love you, George Stephanopoulos.” “I love you too.”)

Stephanopoulos wonders what might have been “if only this president had been a better man.” But I see relatively little evidence of Clinton’s moral failings in this book, given that the “character issue” has been staring us in the face for seven years now. Where such evidence of bad character crops up, Stephanopoulos falls back on “the agenda” and on “idealism.” His rationale for trashing Gennifer Flowers and backing Dick Morris was not just ambition “but my belief that progressive ideals would be better protected as long as Clinton was president.” Then comes the corollary that explains Stephanopoulos’ turnabout in the Lewinsky affair: “If that was true, then Clinton didn’t have a right to put his presidency at risk.” This antinomian equation of “progressive ideals” and virtue opens the door to every kind of corruption. If it’s progressive ideals that make the man, then Stephanopoulos “didn’t have a right” to help snow the public into putting a progressive-ideal-endangering priapic time bomb into the White House. And he doesn’t now “have a right” to take bread out of the mouths of all those starving children by helping Ken Starr run the Vessel-of-Progressive-Ideals-in-Chief out of town.

I don’t share that logic, of course. Nor am I particularly bothered by this betrayal. Nor do I doubt that this political memoir is as sincere as most. Stephanopoulos has taken an honorable route in splitting the White House, and he’s a smart and insightful TV commentator. But I have the uncomfortable sense that Stephanopoulos is trying to meld his two roles into something wholly noble, to be both an insider and an idealist. Perhaps unwittingly, he’s using today’s objectivity to recast what he saw with yesterday’s access–which was won and preserved by his turning a blind eye to conduct he regards as reprehensible.