Clinton's chief spokesman dominates with a whisper Stephanopoulos manages message

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- White House communications chief George Stephanopoulos is such a master of control that when he gets annoyed, he lowers his already faint voice to a near whisper. As he gets angrier and angrier, the voice gets gentler and gentler, and the listener must get closer and closer to hear him out.

It is a sort of reverse bludgeoning, a psyche-out played pianissimo.


"It allows him to dominate in a very unusual way," says one of his friends.

It is much like the way the White House spokesman, who has become one of the celebrities of the Clinton crowd with his boyish features and GQ look, is trying to command the message sent out by the new administration each day: with measured words and measured access and a supremely controlled hand.


At 31, Mr. Stephanopoulos, the son and grandson of Greek Orthodox priests, has the intensity, seriousness and, say his admirers, the wisdom of a man well beyond his years. One of Mr. Clinton's most trusted advisers and a fellow Rhodes scholar, he has proven himself glib, sure-footed and unflappable -- and so pleased with his position that some who have watched his rapid rise have started referring to him privately as "King George."

He is also so guarded a person, so intent on privacy that, as chief of staff to former Ohio Rep. Edward F. Feighan in the late '80s, he had his desk facing into a wall so his phone conversations could be more discreet.

Now, his desk, in one of the few large offices in the West Wing -- with a fireplace, built-in bookshelves and, at this point, only a plant and a photograph of John F. Kennedy as decor -- faces out toward the Oval Office.

And now his slight voice, the voice of the Clinton administration, booms out to a worldwide audience.

One of the prime craftsmen of the Clinton media strategy, Mr. Stephanopoulos, a New York native raised in Cleveland, has said he plans to continue the techniques that proved so successful in the campaign. Those involve having the candidate, and now president, speak directly to the public as much as possible -- through such venues as talk shows, C-SPAN and televised summits and town halls -- in many cases, bypassing traditional media.

On Friday, for instance, Mr. Clinton made a cross-country conference call to people who were forced to choose between family and job demands to dramatize the need for family leave legislation.

"Once you understand that there's a huge audience out there that doesn't read the New York Times or watch the evening news -- and that you can reach them and they do care -- you're going to try to reach out to them," says Mandy Grunwald, one of the media architects of the campaign.

Tighter control


At the White House, that has translated into a tighter control of the information flow to the press than any administration in recent history has exerted, say veteran White House reporters.

"We thought the Reagan era was the state of the art for how you keep the press at bay," muses United Press International's Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps.

Already, the Clinton team has broken with decades of tradition in several ways. Provoking the ire of many reporters on Day 1, Mr. Stephanopoulos closed off to the media the upper press suite in the West Wing, where he and his deputies have offices. Mr. Stephanopoulos, who failed to respond to both verbal and written requests for an interview for this article, has said he doesn't want journalists "loitering" in such a small area where people are trying to work.

He also opened up the White House briefings to television cameras, giving the public access to the daily question-and-answer sessions with reporters, which have been running live on CNN. Although TV and radio journalists are happy with the change, some reporters feel the cameras change the dynamics of the forum.

And in yet another unorthodox move, it is Mr. Stephanopoulos who holds those televised briefings, performing what would ordinarily be the primary task of press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Rocky start


It could be argued that for all of his attempts to control the message, Mr. Stephanopoulos -- and the Clinton administration -- have gotten off to a rocky start.

The theme of the first 10 days has been one of controversy -- first over the Zoe Baird nomination, then the explosive gays in the military issue -- rather than one of decisive action.

Michael K. Deaver, media wizard of the Reagan administration, says he no longer sees the attention to detail in the images of Mr. Clinton that he saw during the campaign, perhaps because the director of communications is spending most of his time preparing for briefings rather than developing marketing strategies.

Although Mr. Stephanopoulos had lobbied for a more policy-oriented position -- and has said he will still have a hand in policy-making -- few involved with the campaign and transition were surprised that, whatever his title, he would serve as chief spokesman.

Aided recently by a new pair of glasses (intended, says his father, to add years and gravitas to the youthful face Mr. Clinton once described as "angelic funk"), Mr. Stephanopoulos has performed in the spotlight with an extraordinary command of the president's agenda, and with a cool, almost stoic, demeanor.

"From a policy standpoint, George has an encyclopedic knowledge of Clinton's positions," says Ms. Grunwald. "He can tell you, literally in the same cadence, what Bill Clinton would say to any question."


Ms. Grunwald says that her former colleague never misspoke during the countless interviews he gave during the campaign. Reporters who took the leak-proof communications director to dinner in hopes of gaining a tidbit of information always came away hungry.

"We'd all compare notes afterward," said one reporter. "Nobody ever got anything."

As communications director during the campaign, where he was known to colleagues as "Georgie," he ran the war room with chief campaign strategist James Carville, orchestrating everything from the president's foray into pop culture to the almost instantaneous responses to Republican attacks.

Mr. Clinton made one phone call every morning at 8 to discuss the message of, and likely problems of, the day. It was to Mr. Stephanopoulos.

Pessimistic streak

They are similar people in their drive and passion for politics. But Mr. Clinton has a sunnier, more outgoing nature. In Mr. Stephanopoulos, there is a pessimistic streak that friends and colleagues call his "dark side."


At trying times during the campaign, when the draft issue was at full tilt, for instance, the young aide always assumed the worst. "It's over," he would lament. "George, it's going to be OK," colleagues would have to reassure him.

But the other streak that distinguishes the young political operative is his religious side, one born out of a family of theologians. At Oxford, he studied Christian ethics and political thought. He attends church every Sunday. Until he joined the Clinton campaign, he was a "big brother" to a ghetto teen-ager.

His father, the Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Cathedral in New York, says that, ironically, George, the second of four children, is most like the oldest child, Anastasia, a nun who leads a cloistered, contemplative life in upstate New York.

"He has a religious-moral framework that underpins everything he does," says Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who has known the fellow Greek-American and his family for about 15 years.

But if he had wanted to be a priest as a teen-ager, he was drawn into politics as soon as he went off to Columbia University, where he studied international relations. At 22, armed with a strong sense of public service, he became legislative assistant to Mr. Feighan, later becoming his chief of staff after two years of study at Oxford.

More liberal than Clinton


His own political views are more liberal than Mr. Clinton's more centrist ideology. He opposed U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf war, is highly suspect of corporate lobbying and believes in an activist government.

On Capitol Hill, he earned a reputation for hard work and doggedness -- in by 7, newspapers read by 8:30 -- that has followed him to the White House.

He was never frosty, but he was not one to mix work with socializing. Staffers considered it a "major coup" when they got him to play on a soccer team.

Even now, that discipline spills over to the gym where he works out religiously and is often seen marching on a Stairmaster with a screen that's bright red, programmed at its highest setting.

In 1988, Mr. Stephanopoulos rounded out his resume by joining the presidential campaign of Michael S. Dukakis, where he headed a "rapid response" team that answered charges that came flying at the then-Massachusetts governor. But most of his rapid responses were never used.

He returned to the Hill to work as floor manager for House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Uncannily youthful, the diminutive, long-haired aide was so often seen at the side of the Missouri Democrat in photos or on C-SPAN that insiders often wondered, "Who is that kid?"


Now, most people know. His briefings -- coupled with regular appearances on TV talk shows -- have turned the baby boom bachelor not only into every Greek-American mother's dream son-in-law but also into an international celebrity.

At the MTV inaugural ball, many of the pop musicians and Hollywood stars were scrambling to meet Mr. Stephanopoulos.

He is deluged with letters from young women around the world who admire his bright smile, hip haircut and stylish suits.

While riding on a bus in New York recently, a woman said to him: "You look just like that George Stephanopoulos."

"Well m'am, I am," he replied.

"Hey, Sid, it's George Stephanopoulos!" the woman yelled over to her husband.


He relates the story with a wide grin and a big laugh, says his friend Kevin Thurm, chief of staff for Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services. "He's become a cultural figure, but he remains down to earth -- as much as a White House communications director can."

Father Stephanopoulos says he does his best to keep his son's ego in check. Whenever he gets the chance, he reminds the fast-rising political operative that "there is always the danger of believing what you read."

"That's probably why he doesn't call that much," Father Stephanopoulos says.