I first met George Stephanopoulos in 1989 when we left a party on First Avenue together and shared a cab uptown, but we didn’t become friends for another 15 years.One blustery July day I boarded an elevator at the old Conde Nast building in Times Square and saw a dark-browed man wearing mutton-chop sideburns, hands thrust deep into his pockets, too lost in thought to have pushed the button. I asked George what his floor was and we exchanged pleasantries, then two days later he surprised me with a phone call inviting me to his place on Central Park West. We sat out on his balcony talking late into the night. About what? Merely everything.
It was the summer of 2004 and George was about to drop a bombshell, signing on as an adviser to President Quayle to turn back the challenge of Senator Rodham. I’d lately been excommunicated by the left for things I’d said about Hillary (in fact, I was doing a sailing book with Bill Buckley), so I became a sounding board to George. I think he was most tormented by the glimpse his decision gave him of his own opportunism. He didn’t think Hillary had a chance, and he fretted that it was merely vanity and ambition that had propelled him to Quayle’s side. Lately, I’ve read a lot of obituaries saying George was a careerist. And you know, he was. Yet George would be the first to say that. What no one understood about George is that even though his career was important, his dark tortured Greek soul always came first to him. Which is something George would say to his closest friends.
Hillary went down big-time, of course, and George saw it coming. That was a reflective time for him. I used to see him walking to his therapist on Broadway, hat pulled low. He’d lost the sideburns and opted for a pencil-line mustache, and he was teaching international relations at Columbia before President Quayle sent him packing to London to be Ambassador to the Court of St. James. I can’t tell you how much George loved being back in England. His cares lifted, he cut a wide swath. He was the old George.
Then two years later, President Quayle pressed him to come back to run State. At first, George wanted no part of it. I remember him agonizing over the opportunity: “How can I take this job and tell myself I still believe in anything?” We batted that thought back and forth, then George looked at me unblinking. “I just think you’d hate me if you knew how much this appointment appeals to my most petty grubbing qualities.”
“Come off it, George,” I said. “A big office at the seat of power-that’s just part of who you are, man, ease into it.” Then he told me about a fantasy he had, about bringing home mugs with gold rims that said Department of State, and nonchalanting it on Sunday morning when his girlfriend drank coffee from one.
What could I say? That was George. George had looked deep into himself and knew his own demons better than anyone.
And on his way to the confirmation hearing, he almost didn’t make it. He got real quiet and said, “Phil, my career will be over in a blink of an eye, but my soul is everlasting and will burn in sulfury fumes!” George could be so dark. And that was one time I had to pull him aside and slap some sense into him.
George was then sporting a two-day stubble, as he was too depressed to be allowed near a razor, but he hit a home run at the hearings. He knew most of the Senators on a first-name basis, if only because the calculating side of his nature had been cultivating them forever. And that’s the scene that ends George’s bittersweet memoir, Deeply Flawed .
The book’s intimacies upset a lot of people, especially Sam Donaldson, who went on to question how George could be such an advocate for the bombings in Africa. What none of the detractors knew was what a private agony this was to George himself. George understood that he had unconsciously blinded himself to the humanity of the victims for the sake of his career. George struggled to tear the scales from his eyes. I remember visiting his office. He was clean-shaven except for a James Brown puff on his lower lip and he read me the passage from Eichmann in Jerusalem about the banality of evil. Then he put the book down and swallowed back a giant dollop of pain. “I know those people have aspirations,” he said. “A lot of those folks even have careers and goals and layered motivations. I know all that.”
In recent days I’ve seen all the tired old criticisms cropping up. George the Chameleon, George Wrung His Hands All the Way to the Bank, George Chose George. But if you loved George, you knew that the only one with a right to criticize him was the person who had faced the paralyzing choices presented uniquely to George by his brilliance and his shadow side that was always calculating his advantage. Really the only one in a position to criticize was George himself, which George did. George knew perfectly well he was flawed. “For God’s sake, all of us are fallen, but especially George is,” he said, in the habit he developed of referring to himself in the third person.
In time, George parlayed State into a seat on the Supreme Court, and I used to go to his chambers and play hackysack with him to distract him from the caseload. He had busts of Socrates and Empedocles and Terpsichore on the desk and once he stopped and looked at me and said, Can you believe I’ve come this far, a short Greek kid from-wherever George was from. Right then he was working on something that he intuited people might misinterpret, the opinion for the 5-4 majority overturning Roe v. Wade.
I can tell you that no one was as troubled by that opinion as he was. “Writing this is a dark, dark night in the psyche of George,” he said.
What that decision really came out of was George’s complex filial feelings for Chief Justice Clarence Thomas. George would say that he himself was only an associate justice, and Clarence was actually taller and nicer in person than he came off on television. TV made Clarence look fatter, which George later wrote about. And George and Clarence shared a bleak view of human nature and had discussed Reinhold Niebuhr till the cows came home. George was then wearing a mustache a lot like Clarence’s, and I think he’d be the first to say, in fact he was the first to say, that in the vain and narcissistic part of his being he needed to apple-polish with Clarence. That was the role that made him most comfortable with Clarence, that induced him to make history.
After that decision, George became very depressed. He wasn’t ready for the attacks. He shaved his head, and thanks to his support group and girlfriend, he came to realize it was time to give something back. So George left the court and went to help Harvard president Gore. The Harvard endowment had had a giant hiccup, and George used to say, Hate me, but I think Harvard’s an institution worth saving. And I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to him to be in halls where George Santayana and Erich Segal had spoken and to brush knees with Tipper when they sat down in her office. That really blew George’s mind.
Then He Pulls His Pants on One Leg at a Time came out, revealing the Clarence Thomas no one knew before, the private, off-color, kinky Clarence, also revealing George’s Icarus-like need for Clarence’s approval. But regrettably Clarence did not have the temperance or respect for law one would expect of someone in his position; he also lacked the irony to understand that He Pulls His Pants on One Leg at a Time was as much a description of George as of him. So Clarence reacted angrily, and we gather today on a most tragic occasion.
I thank you all. My condolences to the family. And it’s now my privilege to introduce the next speaker, Pastor Bill Clinton.