St. George Apostate Plays Kiss, Kick and Tell

All Too Human: A Political Education , by George Stephanopoulos. Little, Brown & Company, 456 pages, $27.95.

One evening during the fall of 1992, I took George Stephanopoulos and James Carville out for dinner in Little Rock. I had written a column in Newsweek about then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s use of language, noting that when he’d complained to Ted Koppel in January about “a woman I never slept with and a draft I didn’t dodge,” it was another form of “I didn’t inhale.” Bill Clinton screwed Gennifer Flowers, I argued, but because he never actually closed his eyes and went to sleep with her, he could say he wasn’t lying.

George Stephanopoulos was particularly contemptuous of my theory that night, and now I know why. “Even had I known for certain then [after Nightline ] that Clinton’s closing statement wasn’t really true, I would have had a hard time admitting it to myself,” he writes in his new political memoir, All Too Human . “I was in battle mode, and nearly anything we did, I believed, was justified by what was being done to us.”

After our dinner ended, George drove back in his battered Honda, and James and I shared a cab back to the hotel. James, whose performance-art spin I always found more entertaining and less smug than George’s, told me earnestly that George was the only truly indispensable person in the Clinton campaign. The reason for that, James said, was that George had learned to think exactly like Bill Clinton, which meant that the candidate could literally be in two places at once.

What George Stephanopoulos describes as “an apostle’s love” was bound to end badly, though the breakup was more complicated than reported. He has been blasted for being the first to float the “I” word the day the Lewinsky story broke. That was actually prescient; it did, after all, end in impeachment. Nothing wrong there. But as he admits in the book, “There were times when I did start to pull for the other side … the longer he lied … the more furious I became.” Soon the feelings were mutual; George was declared a nonperson in the White House, his name not to be uttered in President Clinton’s presence.

While only 13 out of 443 pages involve the Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Stephanopoulos writes that it shaped the way he viewed the rest of the story. Everything is now seen through the lens of Bill Clinton’s mendacity, which means that the author himself comes across much worse, as well. He admits every possible inadequacy one could find in him, a kind of pre-emptive self-flagellation that leaves critics with a much shorter lash.

You think he’s arrogant? Well, he beats you to it–then beats you over the head with it. First, he describes his “vanity and arrogance.” Then, it’s his “ineptitude and arrogance.” Then, it’s his “legislative arrogance.” Finally, describing his falling out with the President: “I was arrogant enough to believe I could beat him [Bob Woodward, then writing The Agenda ] at his own game.”

Mostly this is welcome confession, and not just because it has the benefit of sounding sincere. The reflective, honest tone makes this book essential for anyone trying to understand life inside big-time politics. It’s free of the too-tidy anecdotes that clog most political memoirs. The stories ring real, and they’re well rendered. He has an ear for pithy characterization (Ross Perot, for instance, is described as “the weird little man who was a ventriloquist’s dummy for voter anger”) and a judicious sense of where Bill Clinton went not just wrong, but right. After hiring a ghostwriter, Mr. Stephanopoulos ended up writing this book himself, which is refreshing nowadays.

Even so, I can’t help feeling there’s a too-clever anti-spin spin at work. Mr. Stephanopoulos argues that his kiss, kick and tell book is kosher because Presidential aides have been doing this since F.D.R. But it’s only since Jimmy Carter that they have written inside accounts before the President they serve has left office. James Fallows attacked President Carter’s politics and governing style, but didn’t betray personal conversations. With the exception of Donald Regan, who was fired (by Nancy Reagan), the Reaganite memoirs didn’t slam the President personally, either.

George Stephanopoulos’ next line of defense was aptly summarized by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times . Loyalty breeds loyalty; disloyalty breeds disloyalty. By breaking faith with his staff with his astonishingly risky personal behavior, Bill Clinton was the one being disloyal. This is dead on, and it justifies the shots Mr. Stephanopoulos takes. But it ignores the fact that Mr. Stephanopoulos received an advance of nearly $3 million before Ms. Lewinsky. Little, Brown & Company was not paying for a policy tome, but for candid reflections on the Clintons in power, including personal conversations.

“You have a responsibility not to embarrass the President. It hurts the country, it’s just stupidity and weakness.” That was Mr. Stephanopoulos’ reaction when his archrival Dick Morris (whom he wonderfully lacerates here) announced in 1996 that he would do a book. At the time, Mr. Stephanopoulos didn’t deny the possibility that he’d write a book, but said if he did, “I know I wouldn’t write a disloyal book.” But he had to know he couldn’t cash in and be loyal at the same time.

To make the whole thing even stranger, the book is disloyal in tone but not in its particulars. We don’t learn any great secrets about the Clintons here. Either Mr. Stephanopoulos, for all his resentment of Bill Clinton’s poor character, continues to be relatively discreet, or Bill Clinton never told him anything that amazing. (Or perhaps we can no longer be amazed by anything, even the President saying “fuck you” to Bob Kerrey on the telephone.) In any event, the only news to come out of the book was the details of Mario Cuomo’s Hamlet act before turning down a nomination to the Supreme Court.

Even that story was not really about Mario Cuomo or Bill Clinton, but about George Stephanopoulos. From the early struggles over gays in the military to the abortive nomination of Bobby Ray Inman to be Secretary of Defense to the struggle over welfare reform, this book is about George, not Bill and Hillary. How George was responsible for President Clinton not taking responsibility for Waco. How George’s advice on coming clean to The Washington Post about Whitewater wasn’t followed. How George was teased by Al Gore. “Spin,” he writes, is “hope dressed up as an observation.” Mr. Stephanopoulos’ hope here is that he lives large in history, and to get there he’s willing to wrap it in some not-so-flattering observations about himself.

As it happens, he’s a compelling enough archetype to pull it off. Yet contrary to James Carville’s 1992 formulation, Mr. Stephanopoulos is not really a stand-in for Bill Clinton. This is a fascinating account, but for all the proximity to power, it still doesn’t take us much closer to the enigma of the “Big He.”

Jonathan Alter is a columnist for Newsweek.