By John F. Harris
To Gelt, the answer is obvious: Stephanopoulos was nobody until he was lifted from obscurity by Bill Clinton. So Gelt finds it "disheartening" to hear the former White House adviser questioning the credibility of the man who helped make him renowned and rich.
"What he's doing doesn't pass my smell test," said Gelt, a former chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. "It strikes me he's offering his opinion in a manner that's designed to profit him and no one else."
Stephanopoulos's barbed commentary about Clinton -- openly speculating that allegations of a sexual affair and a criminal coverup might sink his presidency -- has outraged many Democrats across the country. Closer to home, it has strained the tight circle of advisers -- a group that includes consultant James Carville and White House aides Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala -- who forged friendships during the 1992 presidential campaign and have stayed in touch almost daily since then.
His remarks have sparked a raw debate on the Clinton team about loyalty: Has Stephanopoulos betrayed the cause? Or is the real betrayer Clinton, who some current and former aides privately suspect has abused the trust of those who toiled so hard for him?
The comments have also raised questions about motives. Some believe Stephanopoulos is calculatedly repositioning himself in his new career as a commentator, increasing his own prominence by being outspokenly independent.
But several veteran members of Clinton's inner circle who know Stephanopoulos well say they believe his motives are more complex. They see him voicing feelings of ambivalence -- a paradoxical blend of admiration and resentment -- that came from years of working with Clinton, sometimes in the inner circle, sometimes brushed to the side in favor of other aides.
Some Stephanopoulos friends say the simplest explanation is also the most convincing: He is just being knowledgeably candid in his assessment of where the controversy might lead.
"George is not a puritan or a prude, but he's not a rake," said one person who has worked with him. "I think this [the allegations] is really abhorrent to him."
Clinton has denied having sex with Lewinsky or urging her to lie but has refused to answer questions about their relationship. Many people, both in the White House and on the outside, acknowledge privately that they are angry with Clinton even if those denials are true -- believing that the apparently close relationship he had with the former intern was rashly inappropriate, even if no sex was involved.
"I am empathizing with George," said another former Clinton aide. This person said the president's actions were disloyal to people like Stephanopoulos, who had so often put his own reputation on the line defending the boss -- including in other instances of sex-related allegations. "He looks like a dupe, and he knows he looks like a dupe."
Stephanopoulos, who now lives in New York, declined to be interviewed for this article. He said the understanding with the publisher of the book he is writing -- reportedly for a $2.8 million advance -- about his history precludes his cooperation with newspaper profiles. "My work," he said yesterday, "will have to speak for itself."
It speaks too loudly, in the view of Clinton loyalists.
In recent weeks, Stephanopoulos was among the first commentators to publicly speculate that Clinton's problems in the Lewinsky controversy might lead to impeachment proceedings. Of Clinton, Stephanopoulos has said, "I pray he is telling the truth," and confessed to being "heartbroken with all the evidence coming out." In a column for Newsweek, he said he didn't know whether to be "angry, sad, or both" but if the accusations are true, Clinton will be responsible for a "terrible waste of years of work by thousands of people with the support of millions more."
These words, according to many Clinton advisers, have made Stephanopoulos the most damaging voice to Clinton in the Lewinsky controversy -- not because he is the sharpest critic but because he is the most surprising.
Stephanopoulos was the first person hired when Clinton's presidential campaign began in late 1991. Now 37, Stephanopoulos's youth, his stylish attire, his distinctive shock of black hair -- along with an easy fluency in both politics and policy -- vaulted him to media stardom during that campaign. And always his public role was the same -- the man relentlessly promoting Clinton's virtues, tirelessly defending him against character assaults on issues from his Vietnam draft history to his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers to the sexual harassment allegations of Paula Jones.
The campaign documentary "The War Room" captures Stephanopoulos squaring off against ABC News's Sam Donaldson -- in the very same studio where both men now appear on the Sunday "This Week" program.
Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are disappointed by Stephanopoulos's current commentary but rarely discuss it around other aides, according to a senior White House adviser.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry said some of Stephanopoulos's comments have caused "gnashing of teeth" among White House aides, many of whom are just starting to understand his new role as a commentator. "George is a friend, and we've all trucked a lot of miles together," McCurry said.
"He has said things I would not say," Carville said.
Begala, in an interview yesterday, said he was reluctant to talk about his feelings toward Stephanopoulos because he had not discussed the matter with him directly. Just then, Stephanopoulos called on the other line.
"He's my friend," Begala said. "Does this complicate that? Enormously."
But Begala said he considered Stephanopoulos's reaction to the latest charges to be utterly in character.
Stephanopoulos, he said, has a "dark side" that tends to assume the worst. In a campaign, he said, this penchant is a "coping mechanism" that helps spur him to action. In his current job, he said, it has led him to speculation about impeachment that in retrospect may look overheated. When Begala shared his darkness theory with Stephanopoulos, he said, his friend laughed but did not comment.
Stephanopoulos is not the only former Clinton aide facing a conflict between fidelity and candor.
"I have said I want to believe [Clinton] but I haven't said any more than that," said Dee Dee Myers, a first-term White House press secretary who is providing commentary during the Lewinsky controversy for NBC News.
While not wanting to sound like an administration shill, Myers said she has come to learn that "you have to be careful about being used. Anything critical you say is going to be picked up and used by [conservative commentator] Rush Limbaugh. . . . You're constantly trying to find the balance."
In some ways, Stephanopoulos is facing a timeless conflict of political aides who leave the boss's shadow. Commentator Bill Moyers, who worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson, recalled that he too faced cries of betrayal when he left the White House and spoke out against the Vietnam War.
"If you are a thinking person, you are going to respond differently" to issues after leaving the White House, Moyers said. "To offer an independent judgment and an opinion is not betrayal. If he had done otherwise, he would have betrayed himself."
But Marvin Kalb, who studies media issues for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, said the confusion is inevitable.
"We don't know what to make of him," Kalb said. "Which George is the public to believe? The George who in the White House brilliantly defended Clinton, or the one who now skillfully critiques Clinton? . . . Is everything he said before not true?"
The question is complicated even more because Stephanopoulos is a minor participant in the Lewinksy controversy. He was called two weeks ago before the grand jury investigating the allegations to testify about White House operations and whether he had direct knowledge of a relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. He has said he does not have such knowledge. Eileen Murphy, an ABC News spokeswoman, said Stephanopoulos has no conflict because he is not a central character in the controversy and because he is a commentator, not a reporter.
William Phillips, Stephanopoulos's editor at Little Brown and Co., said Stephanopoulos is facing an unpleasant controversy with candor.
"It's a difficult situation," Phillips said. "He is trying to be as honest and forthright as possible, but it's impossible to think he's not going to be criticized. . . . I don't think he sees this as a golden opportunity. I think he sees this as something that it would be a lot easier if it were not here."
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