The Testing of ‘Georgie’ Stephanopoulos

Early in The War Room , D.A. Pennebaker’s behind-the-scenes documentary of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, a mop-headed George Stephanopoulos appears on screen, sitting on the set of ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley . The campaign was on the verge of a meltdown-Gennifer Flowers had gone public with her story of a 12-year affair with Mr. Clinton, and the candidate was fending off charges he’d dodged the Vietnam draft. Sam Donaldson put the tough question to Mr. Stephanopoulos: What about Mr. Clinton’s “character problem”?

“Governor Clinton has no character problem,” Mr. Stephanopoulos shot back. Then he went into attack mode: “Bill Clinton has passed his character test throughout his life and this campaign, and he’s shown what he’s going to do in this campaign is focus on what’s important to real people.” Even Mr. Donaldson, the Sunday morning pit bull, was quiet for a moment. In fiercely defending Mr. Clinton’s image, the young Mr. Stephanopoulos was building his own: He was cocky, charming, loyal and hardheaded in the best ways.

On Feb. 8, in those same ABC studios in Washington, D.C., with Sam Donaldson again at his side, Mr. Stephanopoulos appeared an inversion of his former self. His hair a little poofier, his gaunt face showing the wear of the five stressed-out years since that early performance on This Week , Mr. Stephanopoulos, in his new role as an ABC News “analyst,” was telling the audience that the White House was preparing a new defense in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “What I’ll call the Ellen Rometsch strategy,” he said.

“She was a girlfriend of John F. Kennedy who also happened to be an East German spy,” Mr. Stephanopoulos explained. “And Robert Kennedy was charged with getting her out of the country and also getting John Edgar Hoover to go to the Congress and say, don’t investigate this because if you do, we’re going to open up everybody’s closets.”

Even George Will had to laugh: “Monica Lewinsky is an East German spy?”

Mr. Stephanopoulos came back with a theory. “The President said he would never resign,” he said gravely. “And I think some around him are willing to take everybody down with him.”

This was the latest in a series of dire on-air pronouncements by Mr. Stephanopoulos. On the set of This Week With Sam and Cokie , he has described himself as “heartbroken by the evidence that is coming out”; declared Mr. Clinton “in big trouble”; and predicted that the President would “have to either apologize or admit mistakes.” And it was Mr. Stephanopoulos, in an early appearance on Good Morning America , who was among the first commentators to mention the I-word-impeachment-giving urgency to a murky story. Taken as a whole, Mr. Stephanopoulos’ performance in the last weeks has been a kind of media-age Oedipus story-he seems unable to create a new identity without destroying every vestige of the old.

The extended family of Clinton loyalists are divided in their judgments of their wayward son “Georgie,” as they like to call him. A longtime adviser to the Clintons said that the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton “are taken aback and unhappy” about Mr. Stephanopoulos’ commentary. Another stated unequivocally that Mr. Stephanopoulos has “cashed in” his connections to the President and is telling his new masters at ABC exactly what they want to hear. “It’s all about George,” the Clinton partisan said.

Even as Mr. Stephanopoulos’ close friends in the Clinton camp-Paul Begala, James Carville, Rahm Emanuel-defend him, they admit that he has caused consternation.

“Some of the comments have caused pain, there’s no two ways about it,” Mr. Begala said. “I’ve loved him before and I’ll love him after, it’s just getting harder to do.”

“Let me put it this way,” said Mr. Carville. “He’s been saying some things that I wouldn’t say.”

“Some people in the White House haven’t come to fully understand that George has a much different role,” said Harold Ickes, the President’s former deputy chief of staff who was summoned back to the White House to assist in the Lewinsky matter, and who is a longtime ally of Mr. Stephanopoulos. “I think those people, because they saw George as he was, as a very close colleague in the White House, look at those comments much more personally than if a Cokie [Roberts] or a Sam Donaldson had said exactly the same thing … But it seems to me that he almost has an obligation to raise all possible issues, which is all I saw him do.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos’ colleagues at ABC say they are pleased with his transformation into a television commentator. “I like the guy,” said Mr. Donaldson. “I think he’s a plus on our broadcast.” On air, Mr. Stephanopoulos seems to have come to the realization that he can’t support the President anymore. Though he speaks to 4 million viewers every Sunday on ABC, he said he cannot answer reporters’ queries because of obligations to his publisher, Little, Brown & Company, which paid a $2.85 million advance for his memoir.

“I have to let my work stand for itself,” he said.

Though some inside the White House are calling for Mr. Stephanopoulos’ head, the operating strategy has been more deferential. Within a few days of his first apocalyptic utterances, Mr. Carville asked his former sidekick to meet him for a chat at the Palm, Washington’s testosterone-fueled media lunch spot. Mr. Emanuel got wind of the lunch and at the last minute rushed over from his office in the West Wing. All three denied that it was an attempt to strong-arm Mr. Stephanopoulos. “We’re three friends, and we were flipping shit to each other like we always do,” said Mr. Emanuel. But in these tense times, the high-profile lunch in a restaurant crowded with media types seemed an orchestrated effort to convey an image of peace. Sure enough, the meeting got a mention in the next day’s Washington Post . But by the following Sunday, Mr. Stephanopoulos was at it again, disparaging the White House’s game plan.

So Mr. Clinton’s supporters have fallen back on a strategy they’re much more comfortable with: spinning. Mr. Emanuel told The New York Times that Mr. Stephanopoulos was “on a fast-speed train to darkness.” And Mr. Begala and former Clinton campaign consultant Mandy Grunwald trotted out the new party line to The Observer .

“Georgie goes dark,” Mr. Begala explained. “That’s the way he deals with troubling news, to presume the worst … It was a legendary thing in the campaign in ’92. Every time something would happen, Georgie would say, ‘It’s over, it’s over.”

“I think that George was always a pessimist,” Ms. Grunwald said. “He woke up early during most of the campaign and said to the rest of us, ‘It’s over. We’re dead.’ But it’s different when you have several million viewers listening.”

Hearing the suddenly popular “darkness theory,” it’s hard not to think of the scene in The War Room in which Mr. Stephanopoulos instructs his campaign staff to “keep saying ‘Bush was on the defensive,'” after a Clinton-Bush debate in 1992. In the next scene, the spin doctors repeat the mantra endlessly to the gathered media, who gobble it up and dutifully rebroadcast it. The goal in spinning the “darkness theory” in this case seems clear: By attributing “Georgie’s” commentary to a benign neurosis, Clinton stalwarts can downplay it without insulting or further provoking him. The darkness theory is an affectionate way of saying, “George is full of shit.”

According to friends of both men, the bonds between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Stephanopoulos have weakened over time. Their relationship was always primarily professional; Mr. Stephanopoulos did not know the Clintons before he joined the campaign in 1991. But early on, he had the President’s ear. When Mr. Clinton was considering Mickey Kantor for the position of chief of staff, Mr. Stephanopoulos argued against it, according to those close to the discussions, and Mr. Clinton offered the job to Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty. (Mr. Stephanopoulos’ critics make much of this power play now: “It’s ironic that Mickey was cast out and he’s now there for the President to defend him, and George is out there trashing him,” one angry former campaign staff member said.)

Mr. Stephanopoulos has endured much as well. For six years, he has suppressed his opinions, at least in public, on the Welfare Reform Bill and the North American Free Trade Agreement, both of which he bitterly opposed and Mr. Clinton signed. Mr. Stephanopoulos had to endure the humiliation of Mr. Clinton’s decision to hire former Reagan adviser David Gergen, and he was compelled to work with Dick Morris, a man he felt was beneath him in every way. Discussing Mr. Morris’ downfall in a profile in The New Yorker , Mr. Stephanopoulos offered insight into what he may be feeling about the President today. At first he felt sympathy for the man, then changed his mind, he said, because “That he was willing to risk so much is upsetting…. You have a responsibility not to embarrass the President. It hurts the country.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos is said to have a strong moral streak; his father is a Greek Orthodox priest, Mr. Stephanopoulos studied theology at Oxford, and he has named Bill Moyers, the minister-turned-political aide-turned-television journalist, as his hero.

Mr. Stephanopoulos left in late 1996, and the President’s friends say that his relationship with the Clintons eroded soon after, when he signed his book deal. The Clintons felt betrayed when former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich published a book soon after leaving the Cabinet, and were upset to learn that Mr. Stephanopoulos planned to write one as well.

“Signing the book contract before the Clinton Administration was over raised a lot of eyebrows,” said one friend of the President. “You’re clearly profiting off your proximity to the President … and it’s inherently compromising. The pressure from the publisher is to tell some secrets that are going to be embarrassing.” Mr. Stephanopoulos’ ghostwriter is William Novak, who also ghostwrote Oliver North’s memoir, another irony Mr. Stephanopoulos’ detractors have latched onto. “I’m surprised Lucianne Goldberg wasn’t his agent,” said the friend.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Stephanopoulos haven’t spoken since before the Lewinsky affair broke. And according to Mr. Begala, “The President has never mentioned George or his comments to me ever, and he knows how close we are.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos is, to a degree, a victim of bad timing. His position at ABC was supposed to be cushy, maybe even pleasantly dull. And it would certainly provide ennobling exposure for, say, a future political candidate. Instead, in a very public forum, he has had to work through a painful identity crisis. His personal hell has made great television in a Montel sort of way. And to the delight of his producers at ABC, his Sunday-morning comments are readily picked up by the print media to fill the Monday news hole.

Some of Mr. Stephanopoulos’ detractors have speculated that he is being intentionally provocative with his comments, to draw attention to himself. His colleague Sam Donaldson disagrees. “I think it’s a genuine expression of what George really thinks rather than some calculated effort to change his image,” said Mr. Donaldson. “If his image changes … it may be a benefit to George, and it surely will be if he wants to stay in the business.”

Lost in the obsession over the Lewinsky affair is the question of whether Mr. Stephanopoulos should be a paid ABC analyst at all, especially in light of the fact that he has testified before the grand jury convened by independent counsel Ken Starr.

“Would you have John Dean commenting on Ehrlichman?” asked Stuart Stevens, a conservative media consultant. “He’s a player in the proceedings and should be interviewed as such.” Mr. Stephanopoulos’ role is even more complicated because ABC staff members say he has been helping them with their reporting on the Lewinsky matter, filling in details and helping them flush out scoops, which essentially makes him a paid source.

“I would assume any reporter who works for us … might call George and ask [for assistance], and in that sense I’m sure he’d help,” said Dick Wald, senior vice president of ABC News and the network’s “ethics czar” who approved Mr. Stephanopoulos’ appearance on This Week after his grand jury testimony. “Is he acting as a reporter? The answer is No.”

Clarence Page, the Chicago Tribune columnist who along with Mr. Stephanopoulos is a regular on ABC’s This Week , explained his colleague’s role this way: “He’s a newsmaker and a news analyst. He testifies before a grand jury, then goes to ABC to talk about it.”

“It’s strange,” Mr. Page said. “But these are strange times.”