All too human tale by Stephanopoulos


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

Former Clinton insider George Stephanopoulos has written a book that's very different from the buzz surrounding it.

To hear such veterans of earlier administrations as Richard Goodwin, Carl Rowan, and Jack Valenti tell it, Stephanopoulos has betrayed his ex-boss for a reputed $2.7 million advance.

But Bill Clinton has been so thoroughly sliced and diced that the most newsworthy "dish" Stephanopoulos serves up is about himself. And, unlike the usual Washington memoir, which might be entitled "If Only They'd Listened to Me," Stephanopoulos' story is disarmingly self-critical.

He presents himself as a former altar boy, still torn between the immigrant's drive to "succeed" and the priest's desire to "serve." Altruism and ambition drew him to the Clinton campaign, where he became the candidate's strategist and spokesman. Forced to respond to allegations about Clinton's past, he soon found: "Crisis management was starting to consume my time and define my character ... I needed Clinton to see me as his defender, not his interrogator, which made me his enabler."

Stephanopoulos acknowledges that his "vanity and arrogance" undid him during his brief stint as White House communications director. Even after he shifted to an ill-defined role as free-floating adviser, his uncertainties about both his ethics and effectiveness resulted in insomnia, anxiety attacks, and a "screeching" noise in his head which he treated with weekly visits to his therapist and a prescription of the antidepressant drug Zoloft.

Amid the self-reproach, Stephanopoulos offers insightful descriptions of people and events. He shrewdly explains how Clinton survived the 1992 New Hampshire primary and, by inference, impeachment as well, by "channeling public disgust" with scandal-mongering "and transforming it into a reason to vote for him." Of the man who replaced him as Clinton's closest adviser, the former Republican political consultant Dick Morris, he writes: "His blow-dried pompadour and shiny leather briefcase gave him the look of a B-movie mob lawyer, circa 1975."

But all this cleverness confirms the view that Stephanopoulos is a tactician, not a strategist, with insights about how to make it through the day, not how to make a mark on history. He has little to say about the economic, social and political trends that produced the public discontent that elected Clinton in 1992 -- and a Republican Congress in 1994. His accounts of the debates over NAFTA, affirmative action and welfare reform dissect the political maneuverings but not the larger issues.

For all his talk of the "compromises" he and Clinton made, he offers little sense of the debates within the Democratic Party over social policy and political strategy that produced the chastened progressivism that Clinton so successfully represents. And he seems not to appreciate the extent to which, for all his bad behavior, Clinton bonded with middle-class Americans and built a new base of support for activist government.

Had he explored the larger context that produced and preserved Clinton but also prevented him from enacting an ambitious agenda, Stephanopoulos would indisputably have done more than cash in on his proximity to power. Instead, he's written an entertaining, even enlightening, book. But, like the president it portrays, this memoir is not only "all too human" but also, too often, too clever by half.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton during the 1992 campaign and the first two years of the administration. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties."

Pub Date: 03/21/99

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