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CURIOUS GEORGE

The Political Education of George Stephanopoulos

12:00 AM, Apr 5, 1999 • By BRIT HUME
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You can say this for George Stephanopoulos: He's emerged from his brush with Bill and Hillary Clinton in much better shape than have a lot of others. He's gainfully employed, unindicted, able to pay his legal bills, with full-time work, and now has a New York Times bestseller to his credit. Not bad for a young man who served the most dangerously seductive of politicians in the most dangerously seductive of places, the White House.


His book, All Too Human, is subtitled "A Political Education," and that's an apt description. Stephanopoulos is not the only top Clinton aide who managed to escape without irreparable harm. Leon Panetta did too. So did Mike McCurry, who stayed later and in a more public role. But they were both veterans of the Washington wars who had seen politicians and presidents rise and fall, and they knew the dangers. Stephanopoulos was a very smart former Capitol Hill aide who suffered acutely the master-of-the-universe illusions that naturally afflict people who have just helped elect a president. He had a lot to learn.


Looking back now at such first-year fiascoes as the president's misbegotten nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general, Stephanopoulos concedes, "We may have been snakebit, but we were also suffering from our own ineptitude and arrogance. We had won a campaign, but we didn't yet know how to govern -- and we didn't know that we didn't know." At the time, Leon Panetta, Mike McCurry, and David Gergen were not in the White House. The jobs they would later hold were then in the hands of Mack McLarty, Dee Dee Myers, and Stephanopoulos.


Baird's nomination was followed by a similar mishap with Kimba Wood, another possibility for attorney general whose problem was the illegal immigrant her children had for a nanny. Then there were the travel-office firings, in which Stephanopoulos got the FBI to help draft a statement to explain the sudden dismissals. Peppered with questions in a White House daily briefing, Stephanopoulos conceded that yes, an FBI official had taken part in a meeting to draft a White House statement on the subject.


How, I thought to myself at the time, could anyone be so foolish as to involve the FBI in White House spin after the experience of Watergate? The answer should have been obvious: George Stephanopoulos was twelve years old when Nixon was president.


This was not Stephanopoulos's only difficult day as Clinton's communications director and daily press briefer, and in May 1993, he was relieved of the duty, failing upward into a job at the president's immediate right hand, with a tiny office just outside the Oval Office. "When it comes to White House offices," Stephanopoulos notes,


it's not the size that counts. Location, location, location. Proximity, like celebrity, is a source and sign of power. The closer you are to the president, the more people believe he listens to you. The more people believe he listens to you, the more information flows your way. The more information flows your way, the more the president listens to you. The more the president listens to you, the more power you have.


And so it was for George Stephanopoulos, who entered upon a golden period of closeness to the president and participation in his power. It would last barely a year, ending in large part as a result of his seduction by another dangerous Washington figure: the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who was writing a book about the development of the Clinton economic plan. It was a ripe subject, given that Clinton ran for president on an economic program and then spent much of the time after his election trying to think one up. Over dinner at Woodward's house in Georgetown, Stephanopoulos succumbed. "I was arrogant enough to believe I could beat him at his own game, that my spin would win." It didn't, of course, and Stephanopoulos's role in Woodward's book The Agenda became known in the White House -- most dangerously, to the first lady, who said at one point,


The whole problem with this administration is the Woodward book. . . . There are people who go out there with no loyalty to the President, no loyalty to the work we have to do for the country, just seeking to aggrandize themselves. And I hope they're satisfied!


Mrs. Clinton's view was nutty, of course, but it was shared by the president and typical of the paranoia that is present in varying degrees at the center of nearly every White House. Things would never be the same for George Stephanopoulos. He was no longer trusted by the first family.


Indeed, following the failure of the first lady's health-care initiative and the loss of Congress in the 1994 election, very little would be the same in the Clinton White House. For one thing, Dick Morris was recalled from the president's past to become the de facto White House chief of staff through the middle of the 1996 campaign (when Morris's own sense of omnipotence led him into the sexual indiscretions that forced him into exile).


Stephanopoulos's fall from grace was not his first encounter with the first lady's paranoid tendencies. Her secretiveness proved disastrous in the development of the health-care plan. More important, as it turned out, was what happened in late 1993. The Washington Post was seeking answers to questions about the Whitewater real-estate deal, its interest spurred by the suicide of Vince Foster. Stephanopoulos and Gergen, believing the Clintons had done no wrong, wanted them to answer the questions and turn over the requested documents. Mrs. Clinton and the lawyers wanted to stonewall, and it was they who won. Denied the material, the Post, joined by the New York Times, was soon in full cry on Whitewater. The scent of coverup brought the rest of the media into the hunt, and soon the Republicans in Congress were calling for an independent counsel. The issue seized the front pages, and over the first lady's fierce and sometimes tearful objections, the president ultimately agreed to ask for a special prosecutor. That led to the naming of Robert Fiske, who gave way to Kenneth Starr.


"If a genie offered me a chance to turn back time and undo a single decision from my White House tenure," Stephanopoulos writes, "I'd head straight to the Oval Office dining room on Saturday morning December 11, 1993," when the decision was made not to cooperate on Whitewater and the course of events that would lead to Clinton's impeachment was set in motion.


By the time of that impeachment, George Stephanopoulos had been out of the White House for two years, having decided in late 1995 to leave. By then, he was fighting depression and insomnia, seeing a psychiatrist, and had grown a beard to cover the stress induced hives that periodically broke out on his face. Still, he hung on through the campaign, fought to diminish the damage the "triangulation" Dick Morris urged on the president would do liberal causes, and left with Hillary Clinton saying, "I love you, George Stephanopoulos."


He now teaches at Columbia University and holds forth on ABC News. The depression is gone and with it, the hives and the sleeplessness. At the end of All Too Human, he writes, "If only this good president could have been a better man." He recently told Diane Sawyer he now thinks Bill Clinton should not have been elected. The political education of George Stephanopoulos has brought him a long way.




Brit Hume, now Washington managing editor of Fox News, was chief White House correspondent for ABC News from 1989 to 1997.