George’s Tell-All Reads Like Fine Whine

Seeing George Stephanopoulos on television as he promoted his best-selling book reminded my favorite old New Dealer of a vintage but suddenly pertinent remark by Franklin Roosevelt. There supposedly came a time when a former Roosevelt aide published a revealing memoir, in clear violation of the unwritten rules of that era. After the book appeared, reporters asked the President how he felt about this awful act of betrayal. He smiled serenely, then said: “Yes, that fellow kissed my ass and told.”

That cutting quip describes the feeling that lingers upon finishing All Too Human , with its repetitive recollections of the “modified panders” and “full suckups” that came with the job he once did for Bill Clinton. Assuming that he wrote the book himself, the former communications aide proves that he can tell his story well, but it is in large part a story we already know. There is no startling news to justify his revelation of private moments between himself and those who helped him to attain the celebrity he always desired.

What is startling, however, is the degree of self-loathing that Mr. Stephanopoulos insists on sharing with his readers. As someone who has known him not well but for a number of years, I find the doubts about his own motivations and competence slightly exaggerated. As the narrative proceeds from his first encounters with Mr. Clinton through their shared triumphs and defeats and on to his inevitable disillusionment, the constant smack of the whip upon his own flesh begins to sound more perfunctory than painful. It is as if he plans to expiate the sin of betraying his master by making a dramatic display of his own self-punishment. (He does, however, omit a famous story about his reaction to the Gennifer Flowers story during the 1992 New Hampshire primary, when he is said to have curled up in the fetal position on a motel bed, crying, “It’s over!” Funny, if true.)

Perhaps he protests against himself too much. Are we supposed to be surprised when he admits that he coveted power and fame? It would be more shocking if he tried to deny those longings, typical as they are among young people who wish, as he puts it, “to do good and do well.” Is his account of lonely suffering-complete with psychotherapist, antidepressant medication and stress-induced skin rash-meant to redeem the royalties he will earn from these indiscretions? It doesn’t quite work.

Actually, Mr. Stephanopoulos doesn’t have to work quite so hard as he does here. The rules have changed since F.D.R.’s day, and the only embarrassment to the successful Mr. Stephanopoulos might be the memory of his own criticisms of the tell-all authors who have preceded him. Back when he was shielding Mr. Clinton from “bimbo eruptions,” the phrase “cash for trash” probably passed his lips. I can still recall his disdain for Dick Morris when the consultant pulled back the White House curtain in his own memoir a few years ago. That episode is missing from the devastating portrait of Mr. Morris that appears here, including a priceless scene of the consultant babbling madly about bombing Bosnia. Anway, Mr. Stephanopoulos now has the sweetest revenge on the man who ruined his last two years in the White House: His book has gone back for more printings, while Mr. Morris’ quickly ended up in the remainder pile.

More importantly, Mr. Stephanopoulos offers a brisk corrective to the received version of Mr. Clinton’s political redemption and its meaning for the Democratic Party. As one of the band of liberals in the White House who struggled valiantly against the Morris strategy of “triangulation,” Mr. Stephanopoulos shows that the President’s fortunes were improved as much by defending Democratic principles as by abandoning them.

Against Mr. Morris’ advice, which might have transformed Mr. Clinton into something resembling his other client Trent Lott, the President took on the Republicans over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, the environment and other progressive programs. That was how he won the budget battle of 1995 against the right-wing Congress.

Mr. Stephanopoulos still seems bitter about the moments when the President turned the other way, as in the 1996 State of the Union speech in which he announced an end to the era of big government, which he terms “dishonest and vaguely dishonorable.”

“I thought it proved we had won some battles but lost the larger war, that we were the prisoners of conservative rhetoric, and that the American people were as full of contradictions as their President,” he writes.

True enough, but perhaps when the intense passions of the recent past subside, Mr. Stephanopoulos will be able to see more clearly the historic purpose that this Presidency has served. After a long period of Democratic decline, Mr. Clinton and his allies wrested power from a failed conservative establishment. Against powerful and unscrupulous opposition, in which much of the media collaborated, they curbed that establishment’s very worst excesses. Despite all of Mr. Clinton’s disappointments, that achievement is real-and Mr. Stephanopoulos ought to stop flailing himself and his President long enough to recognize it.