The Book Club

Traitorous George?


Did you get through the book? Stephanopoulos not only mentions but also discusses the Troopergate story and his doubts about Clinton’s answers in at least two places (pages 228 and 266). Perhaps you’re relying on the index, which is next to useless.

I’ll have to persuade you that there’s such a thing as idealism and that Dick Morris lacks it another time. I don’t think Stephanopoulos objected to Morris because he was déclassé. I think he objected to him because he was a Republican trying to move Clinton to the right and because he was a slime.

You describe the Clinton White House and Stephanopoulos’ role in it as highly “Nixonian.” I just don’t think that’s an apt characterization. The essence of Clintonian bullshit, much of which Stephanopoulos shoveled in his day, is “spin,” a term that came into vogue in 1993. You quoted Stephanopoulos’ definition the other day–“a hope dressed up as an observation.” Spinning isn’t lying. It’s P.R. It’s trying to put a rosy face on everything, and sometimes refusing to acknowledge the obvious when it’s staring you in the face. Nixonian bullshit was totally different. It was bureaucratese obscuring poison. Instead of trying to bamboozle reporters, Nixon’s team audited their tax returns. I think our real difference may boil down to the question of whether Stephanopoulos is still spinning. You think he is. I think he isn’t.

On to the question of the day: loyalty. A Slate colleague points out that it’s a tad hypocritical for journalists to castigate Stephanopoulos for betraying his boss since that’s what they wanted him to do when he worked for Clinton. Reporters who grovel for leaks are now crying foul because Stephanopoulos has bypassed them, selling his skinny directly to the public. This is a fair point: Journalists complaining about leaks from politicos are a little like pushers decrying drug abuse.

There’s also something off-the-mark about the charges of betrayal flowing from the Clinton camp. To administration officials, Stephanopoulos became a traitor in January 1998, when he said on ABC News that if the Lewinsky charges were true, they could lead to impeachment proceedings (a bull’s-eye prediction, by the way). To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with Stephanopoulos’ doing that. Assuming you don’t think it was wrong for him to become a media commentator, how can he go on TV and not say what he thinks? Once gone from the administration, he no longer has an obligation to defend it. To my mind, the more effective criticism would be that Stephanopoulos’ new role demands honesty just as his old one demanded a degree of dishonesty, and that he has gladly supplied both.

Where I fault Stephanopoulos is not for sharing his opinions but for revealing private information. Little Brown didn’t pay $2.7 million for his views. It paid for dirt about a sitting president. The Clintons and those in the administration had an expectation that no one would write a memoir like this until they were gone from office. That expectation was reasonable. Stephanopoulos isn’t the first to violate it, but his betrayal stings more, because he was so close to the center of the action.

Stephanopoulos never gets around to defending writing a book in his book, but there are some clues about why he believes it’s OK. He says that Clinton betrayed him and the others who served him by having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. I only sold him out after he sold me out, as Stephanopoulos might put it in one of his italicized interior monologues. A second line of defense might be that he hasn’t betrayed Clinton–much. The revelatory morsels Stephanopoulos includes are small and not that juicy: Hillary cried about Whitewater; Al Gore told Lorena Bobbitt jokes; Clinton had temper tantrums. These revelations fall into the category of mildly titillating but largely harmless. I didn’t give up anything really damaging, Stephanopoulos might be thinking. Lastly, he may be saying to himself, Everyone leaks.

Absent better excuses, I don’t think he’s off the hook ethically. For one thing, Stephanopoulos doesn’t just tattle on Clinton. He tattles on Gore and others in the administration who can’t be claimed to have fired first. For another, the gossip is enough to sting even if it doesn’t cause serious harm. It’s the act that hurts as much as the content of the betrayal. Lastly, there is a difference between leaking to reporters and writing a book for millions of dollars. When Stephanopoulos fed Bob Woodward, he could at least maintain the illusion that he was doing it for Clinton’s benefit. Now he serves only George.