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Stephanopoulos Book Tests Loyalty

George Stephanopoulos is now a political analyst on ABC, placing him in a tricky position since he still has friends in the Clinton administration. (AP)

Related Links
  • What I Saw (Newsweek, March 15)

  • Stephanopoulos Remarks Raise Doubts of Loyalty (Washington Post, Feb. 1998)

  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 8, 1999; Page A3

    President Clinton is a man of vast "seductive powers" who uses his "personal magnetism" to charm the people he needs, but he is prone to sudden, behind-the-scenes tantrums that descend on aides like "an impersonal physical force, like a tornado," former senior adviser George Stephanopoulos recalls.

    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is a vulnerable woman who can at times be tender with her husband and his closest aides, but who felt angry and abandoned when scrutiny turned on her in the Whitewater affair. In January 1994, tears in her eyes, she unleashed her wrath on Stephanopoulos at a White House staff meeting: "You never believed in us," she snapped, recalling the 1992 New Hampshire primary. "We were out there alone, and I'm feeling very lonely right now. Nobody is fighting for me. . . . If you don't believe in us, you should just leave."

    The question of Stephanopoulos, his loyalty and his ambivalent relationship with the Clintons is rising anew this week, with the release of his book "All Too Human," which is excerpted in the new issue of Newsweek magazine and is the source of the above recollections. The memoir is the latest in a succession of unvarnished and often damaging accounts about the president told by people who were once his intimates.

    Beyond the story of one celebrated aide's journey from idealism to a White House "burnout" so draining he sought psychiatric help, Stephanopoulos's book highlights vividly how the presidency -- and the recording of presidential history -- have been transformed in the Clinton years. A confluence of factors has left Clinton arguably the most exposed president ever to hold the office.

    Clinton is a leader who has had difficulty establishing lasting loyalties among many who worked most closely with him. And he is governing in an era when the ethic of profiting through published revelations -- such as the reported $2.75 million advance to Stephanopoulos -- has become routine.

    No predecessor has had his policy deliberations, political strategy and emotional makeup so thoroughly disclosed and dissected while his presidency was underway.

    Last week alone shows the trend starkly. The president's former paramour, Monica S. Lewinsky, published a book and appeared on national television talking about their relationship and offering her perspective on his interior life. Consultant Dick Morris, who earlier published a tell-all book about the 1996 campaign, held forth Wednesday at a Washington press breakfast on his conclusions about Clinton's psychological profile. A few days earlier, former White House press secretary Michael McCurry was quoted in a magazine interview saying he knows of no one who is completely loyal to Clinton.

    The latest public exposure to come at Clinton's expense is not a surprise. Stephanopoulos, once the most unflagging of Clinton's defenders, publicly signaled his disaffection with his old boss when the Lewinsky controversy erupted in early 1998.

    But his book again raises questions that already echoed through this presidency: Why do so many Clinton loyalists fall out with him? Are the former associates who tell their stories being loyal to the truth or disloyal to him? And is it fair to any president to have history told as soon as it is made?

    "It's not only unfair, it's a violation of a relationship of trust," said Richard Goodwin, a former aide to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. "It is disloyalty to the man and the whole institution of the presidency."

    Goodwin, who broke with Johnson publicly over the Vietnam War, waited 20 years before publishing his insider's memoir. He believes Clinton's personal and political style has contributed to his travails -- "When you've got an administration without standards or values, it infects everyone who works there" -- but says nonetheless Clinton has been betrayed.

    "Who is George Stephanopoulos except another kid on the make?" he asked. "Clinton created these people, in a public sense. Who would know or care about George Stephanopoulos if not for Clinton?"

    This view is common among many senior aides still toiling at the White House that Stephanopoulos left behind -- and is held most deeply, advisers said, by the Clintons themselves.

    "This is such a betrayal," said one veteran Clinton aide. "George was family, he was that close."

    "They can't stand him," said one family friend, purporting to describe the views of both the president and Hillary Clinton toward Stephanopoulos.

    Stephanopoulos addresses the issue in his book, acknowledging that his mixed feelings about Clinton may lead him to "irrational and uncharitable anger," and saying he is anguished by charges of disloyalty. But, he adds, "I didn't think Clinton had 'created' me, or that loyalty demanded defending behavior I found abhorrent."

    Clinton, aides say, long ago realized he could not expect confidentiality from many people around him. After authors such as Bob Woodward and Elizabeth Drew published detailed books about Clinton policy-making in the first term, the president became much less voluble in large meetings for fear that his comments would leak.

    At times, Clinton's presidency has become a virtual "Truman Show," last year's movie about a man whose life is broadcast on live television 24 hours a day. Yet his own indiscretions -- the Lewinsky affair and the criminal obstruction-of-justice probe it spawned -- have done more injury to his privacy than the revelations of any aide.

    Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton press secretary who has voiced criticism of Clinton similar to Stephanopoulos's but in more modulated tones, said the documenting of Clinton's presidency in virtually real time is partly a product of the "hyper-speed information age" in which he governs. No one expects to wait until a presidency ends to learn its secrets, she said: "People expect to see things on live TV."

    Myers said Clinton's complexity -- his talents and flaws alike -- does not invite till-death-do-us-part loyalty. "Bill Clinton's most important goal is his survival, and he's been willing to sacrifice individuals and issues to get what he wants," she said. "The public is very willing to forgive people being honest about Clinton, because they've all had to go through the process themselves" of coming to terms with his shortcomings.

    McCurry, Myers's successor, says in the current issue of George magazine that he knows of "no one who is blindly loyal to Bill Clinton. . . . They always see the faults, but they also try to explain what's so compelling about him."

    Clinton is hardly the first president to suffer through publication of an insider's book while still in office. The Reagan administration, for instance, saw the publication of books by former budget chief David Stockman and former chief of staff Donald Regan, who used his book to settle scores with first lady Nancy Reagan. But these books offered nothing like the kind of personal disclosures or criticism that has greeted Clinton from former associates ranging from former campaign consultant Morris to former labor secretary Robert B. Reich.

    The Clinton administration, said historian Michael Beschloss, makes the controversies of an earlier era seem quaint. In the 1960s, accusations of violating confidences greeted former White House aides Emmet John Hughes (who wrote "The Ordeal of Power" about Dwight D. Eisenhower) and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (who wrote "A Thousand Days" about John F. Kennedy). Both were published after the presidencies they described were over.

    So much has been written so early about Clinton, by contrast, that it has led to a kind of historical inflation. Morris scarcely drew any attention at all last year when he published documents that in an earlier age would have been a major disclosure: the agendas and polling from Clinton's weekly political meetings during the 1996 campaign. They are filled with passages revealing hidden political motives behind policy decisions or contradicting official explanations of events. An accompanying essay describes Clinton as an effective president, but also "a shark" who puts "everyone he meets into two categories -- edible and inedible -- depending on whether the person meets one of his needs."

    Unlike Goodwin, Schlesinger said he sees little threat to governance posed by the trend toward contemporaneous presidential history. Memoirs "enrich the historical record," especially when many White House aides no longer keep diaries for fear they will be subpoenaed, he said. And he noted it is more fair for people to try to settle their scores while there is still time for rebuttal: "If you wait long enough and everyone dies, you can say anything you want about someone."

    Clinton will most likely rebut "All Too Human" with silence. White House aides declined to comment publicly on the book, which publisher Little, Brown and Co. will release on Thursday. Most of the Newsweek excerpt is a calm discourse of Stephanopoulos's conflicted feelings about Clinton, but it contains some news nuggets:

    Clinton thought O.J. Simpson was guilty and worried that his October 1995 acquittal would enflame the "angry-white-male" vote. When the verdict came down, "he struggled to remain silent, but a single disgusted syllable slipped out: 'S -- -.' "

    Stephanopoulos lobbied hard to get Clinton to nominate then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) to the Supreme Court in 1993, working as an intermediary with Cuomo's son, Andrew, who is now the housing and urban development secretary. The campaign nearly worked, but Cuomo begged off in a call to Stephanopoulos just 15 minutes before Clinton was to call and offer the job.

    Stephanopoulos began visiting a therapist after White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. committed suicide. In 1995, insomnia and a "screeching" noise in his head led his doctor to prescribe Zoloft, an antidepressant that Stephanopoulos took until after he had moved to a less pressured life in New York, where he teaches at Columbia University and works as an ABC News commentator.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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