All the President’s Man

When a professional propagandist proposes to come clean, readers are entitled to be dubious.

All Too Human: A Political Education
Little, Brown & Co. 456 pages; $27.95

As his generation’s preeminent teacher’s pet, young George Stephanopoulos might have known that if his career as a spinner ever ended, he’d face some skepticism when he went straight. Like a particularly precocious student suddenly invited to leave the dining hall and sup with the professors, Stephanopoulos was an object of peer envy in the heady first years of the Clinton administration, and now that he’s back with his classmates, so to speak, he’s made it his business to tell those left behind precisely what one imagines they want to hear – that he felt out of place on Mount Olympus and didn’t have an especially good time there, what with all the hypocrites and jerks he met and all the tough lessons he learned about himself. It’s a perfect reingratiation strategy from someone who learned early to use language not to communicate, primarily, but to manipulate; a born P.R. guy who cheerfully refers to one of his favorite rhetorical stratagems as “the modified pander.”

When a professional propagandist proposes to come clean, readers are entitled to be dubious, and doubly so when the occasion for the book is the public disgrace of the sideman’s former boss. Even the title of All Too Human, Stephanopoulos’s memoir, smacks of slippery, high-end flackery. Whether the title is taken to refer to Clinton, Stephanopoulos, or both (and given the weird merging of identities that binds an administration and its servants, I would guess it’s both), what sounds like a painful confession is also a subtle self-absolution. Admitting to venial sins to cover mortal ones has long been the essence of the Clinton defense team. What’s more, it worked for John Dean, whose Blind Ambition made the conscience-stricken White House diary a genre in itself. If All Too Human doesn’t quite rank with Dean’s book, it isn’t for lack of literary skill, but because the Clinton melodrama somehow lacks the amplitude of Nixon’s. Dean wrote of a challenge to his very soul; Stephanopoulos tells of a lighter, psychic agony. More a career crisis than a moral one.

He tells his calculated story well, with a novelist’s flair for sketching scenes and characters, and he does a nice job of conveying his first impressions of Air Force One and the other haunts of power that he was the first person in his class to snag a backstage pass to. Riding on his ticket, we feel the delicious shivers of meeting Mitterrand, of standing on a convention podium, of cruising D.C. in a bulletproof limo. When the gang orders pizza for a late-night policy meeting and a Secret Service agent grabs Clinton’s slice away, reminding him that it hasn’t been tested for poison, Stephanopoulos is our generational surrogate, appropriately dazzled and intrigued. What’s harder for us to share with him, however, is his almost instant loss of self to his new political master – a man whom he’s only still getting to know when it becomes his duty to start lying for him. So complete is the emotional transference that when the sun breaks out above the stage during one of Clinton’s speeches, Stephanopoulos falls into a rapture. A word slightly stronger than co-dependence seems called for.

There are two villains in All Too Human, neither of them named Clinton, despite the headlines the book has generated. Villain one is Stephanopoulos’s own darker self. He’s riddled with insecurity and moved by a half-formed lust for power and paternal love. He’s more ridiculous than evil, so infatuated with his mentor that he’s not always entirely in control of his Freudian imagery. The son of a leading Greek Orthodox cleric, he writes: “Clinton spoke to the yearning to be singled out for a special job – the boy who had wrapped his fingers around the archbishop’s staff.” Once he gets this staff firmly in his grasp, Stephanopoulos holds on tight. Too tight. He’s forever measuring his place on the presidential-access graph, despairing when it falls too low and bubbling up when it starts to rise. This gets a bit off-putting after a while. We appreciate Stephanopoulos’s honesty about his callowness, but you have to wonder if he’s really outgrown it. When Waco burns and women and children die, it’s not the human tragedy he writes about, but his own failed effort at damage control. As for military actions, he writes about how they played or how they polled, not what they accomplished or what they cost. On matters besides the state of his own mind and his power within the inner circle, Stephanopoulos hardly reflects at all.

The second villain is Dick Morris. Morristopheles. The man who brought out the worst in Clinton (an oddly passive figure in the book) but also set in motion Stephanopoulos’s belated journey of self-discovery. Morris is wickedly caricatured as an off-his-rocker huckster. He wears garish ties and stupid suits. He jumps up and down on the furniture when he’s happy, stews with paranoia when he’s not. “His blow-dried pompadour and shiny leather briefcase gave him the look of a B-movie mob lawyer,” Stephanopoulos writes, showing a flair for vivid invective that he otherwise suppresses, even when it seems more earned. After all, it’s Clinton who hired Morris and took his wacky, insidious advice, going all out for campaign-ad cash and trashing traditional Democratic programs. Still, it’s the lieutenant, not the general, for whom Stephanopoulos reserves his wrath, even praising Clinton for subtle genius in bringing on board the pathological Morris to counter and challenge more staid White House advisers.

While Morris flourishes, hypnotizing Clinton with instant polls on hypothetical bombing campaigns and focus-group studies straight out of the cola wars, Stephanopoulos shrinks. Gore, who’s portrayed as surprisingly sly and sharp, has always distrusted him, anyhow, and Hillary, an old-line liberal prone to weepy bouts of persecution mania, has never forgiven his coziness with the press. Shorn of influence, he ends up fronting a virtuous but unsexy research project on the future of affirmative action. This work brings out the wonky idealist in him and reconnects him to the young Rhodes Scholar who holed up at Oxford with books on Christian ethics. The real inner transformation comes later on, however. Perhaps inevitably, since this is the story of a yuppie career path even before it’s a fable of disillusionment, the key catharsis is pharmaceutical. It’s Zoloft, not a spiritual epiphany, that frees Stephanopoulos from the White House and ends his stint as the president’s pander bear. Indeed, the last chapter, which lashes out at Clinton over his conduct in the Lewinsky affair, feels tacked on. A puny caboose of outrage hitched to a long train of compromises. His first-class ride, Stephanopoulos assures us now that he’s back in coach, wasn’t easy, but one may feel after reading this savvy memoir that it was probably easier for him than it would have been for other people.

All the President’s Man