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June 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 6

History vs. Loyalty
by James Fallows

By George Stephanopoulos
Little, Brown, $27.95

This is an interesting book that should not have been written.

At this point, readers with long memories will be saying, "Wait a minute, how can he complain?" I was involved in a situation somewhat like Stephanopoulos' 20 years ago, and some people have even blamed me for starting the tradition that gives us instant-confessional books like this one. There are better and worse reasons why people entrusted with a political confidence might decide to break it. I think that Stephanopoulos' reasons were not good enough.

First, my story. In the summer of 1976, as Jimmy Carter was wrapping up the Democratic nomination for the presidency, I signed on as a speechwriter in his campaign. I was then in my mid-20s, was living with my wife in Texas, and was writing freelance articles for various magazines. When I signed up with Carter, I had already voted for him in the primary and thought he was the Democrats' best hope. I had barely started in journalism, and I was working on the principle that writers can do a better job if once in their career they have had hands-on experience in politics or public life. While I hoped to continue writing when the Carter episode was over, I did not join the administration as a mole. I wanted to help him win, and after that to help him do a good job in office--and when it was over, to use the experience as a source of general intuition about politics and government, not a stockpile of secrets to reveal.

Things turned out in a way that no one involved foresaw. During the campaign, the chief speechwriter had been Patrick Anderson. After Carter won, Anderson left, and I got that job in the White House. I stayed for two years. Then I resigned and joined the staff of the Atlantic Monthly, for which I'd previously done freelance articles. Early in 1979 the Atlantic published, as a cover story, my article "The Passionless Presidency," with a shorter follow-up the next month. The articles contended that the Carter administration had defects that were potentially fatal but at least in principle correctable. Unless he changed course in several basic ways, I argued, he'd lose his influence and perhaps even lose his office.

The articles caused a flap at the time and left hard feelings that endure to this day among some former members of the Carter administration. The complaint was not about the articles' accuracy but about my disloyalty. In the guise of wanting to "help" Carter or save his administration, I had (it was said) only hurt the man who had taken me into his trust.

No normal person likes to be seen as disloyal. But I felt justified, even compelled to write those articles at the time. My uneasiness about Stephanopoulos' book has made me wonder whether I was just fooling myself 20 years ago. But I think there are at least four differences between what Stephanopoulos has done and the way I went public with complaints. Indeed, there are differences between this book and what anyone else has done before; Stephanopoulos' action represents something unpleasant, and new.

One consideration is money. If you're doing something whose appearances will be questionable in any case, then it's not a good idea to take a lot of money while doing so&emdash;unless you don't care about appearances at all. I was paid for writing the Carter articles, but the pay was my normal salary from the Atlantic, which at the time was quite modest. I declined a series of lucrative, cash-up-front offers from publishing houses to turn these into the first "inside" book about the Carter presidency. The richest of the offers was equivalent to five years' Atlantic salary.

I said no partly because I'd said as much as I had to say about Carter and didn't want to be cast as "disgruntled former speechwriter" for years to come. But I also hoped to avoid giving detractors an easy and obvious way to dismiss my motives for having complained publicly about the administration. I could almost hear Jody Powell saying, "Well, he's taken his thirty pieces of silver." When you are getting nearly $3 million dollars to tell what you saw, as Stephanopoulos did, it becomes very hard to avoid the impression that you're simply tattling for money.

A second consideration is how personalized the critique seems&emdash;personally indulgent about the criticizer, personally nasty toward the politician. Robert Manning, who was then the editor of the Atlantic, shrewdly cut a few gee-whiz passages that made my articles seem to be about me (how excited I was to travel on Air Force One, how much more money I was making at the White House than I had at The Washington Monthly). Such details would have their place in a political coming-of-age book, but they got in the way of what was supposed to be a case about the administration. And in making that case, I tried to use personal details about Carter only to the extent they affected his performance as president.

This may seem a meaningless distinction--nearly anything about a president affects the way he does his job. And it may seem hypocritical, coming from me. One vivid personal detail that I supplied&emdash;Carter's supervision of requests to use the White House tennis court--was easier to remember, and therefore did more damage, than most of the high-policy objections his detractors might raise. But this was in a sense the representative detail about the administration: the president's application of his time and intelligence to unworthily small-scale matters, while neglecting the sweeping leadership responsibilities of the job. Later there was dispute about whether Carter actually handled the tennis court requests. I had notes in his neat handwriting about courts and times; if his secretary had in fact forged those, the significant point is that everyone believed they came from the president himself.

It is hard to know which standard Stephanopoulos has used in deciding to disgorge personal information--or more precisely, hard to imagine that he has held back anything at all, considering what he reveals. You can see one form of rationalization at work: if he says enough embarrassing things about himself (his treatment for depression, his joy in being famous), then he can say them about others too. But rather than dignifying the disclosures, this gives the whole account the bathos of a daytime talk show. An early review of the book made a perceptive point. Stephanopoulos recounts an awkward moment when he blundered into a breakfast room and saw Hillary Clinton browbeating Bill, who meanwhile shoveled cereal into his mouth. Stephanopoulos quickly excused himself and backed out. As the review pointed out, Stephanopoulos had enough tact in real life to recognize that this was something he wasn't meant to see, but not enough tact to leave it out of the book.

Third, there is the special awkwardness of a real insider publicly attacking the person he recently served. This wasn't the way I put it to my parents at the time, but the truth is, I was a nobody in the Carter administration. Some speechwriters have been very close to the presidents they serve. Others, including me, are just extra members of the staff.

When even a nobody complains publicly about a politician, questions of loyalty and betrayal arise. But it's something different when a truly central feature--the counterpart to Jody Powell or Hamilton Jordan in Carter's day, Ed Meese or Michael Deaver in Reagan's--turns against a long-time patron while the patron is still in office. That is what makes Stephanopoulos' case so extraordinary. He had not been with Clinton for years and years. But within a few months of meeting Clinton, late in 1991, he was one of a handful of wholly trusted advisors. Within the campaign and then the administration, there was almost nothing Stephanopoulos did not see, hear, or know. Except for once on a softball field and once on a tennis court, I never saw Jimmy Carter outside a working situation. Stephanopoulos shared motel bedrooms with Clinton, talked with him through the bathroom door, was on the in-most side of any inside/outside division (at least in the administration's early days). To tell all the things you saw in this kind of intimate exposure is like going public about your spouse.

His complete-insider status also affects public response to his disclosures. As the White House press spokesman in 1993, Stephanopoulos was literally the public face of the administration. Before that, he had been the most prominent and unyielding of the Clinton campaign's counter-punchers, knocking down any criticism almost before it was made. Even after he lost his press spokesman job he was often pictured at Clinton's side, helping form policies and then fiercely defending them on talk shows and in interviews. And after all of this, for Stephanopoulos to recount the foibles of a sitting president--it's as if Jody Powell had gone public about Jimmy Carter's failings (which he knew better than anyone else), or Ray Price about Nixon's (during Watergate). There may be a precedent for (a) such an intimate advisor who was also (b) such a prominent presidential defender turning on the president (c) while he was still in office. But I don't know of one.

The nearest precedent--David Stockman's book The Triumph of Politics, which followed his confessional interview with William Greider for an Atlantic Monthly article in 1981&emdash;brings up the fourth distinction, which again underscores the rarity of Stephanopoulos' deed. Stockman, like Stephanopoulos, was a relative newcomer to a president's inner circle who quickly gained influence and became a symbol of an entire administration. Stockman, previously a congressman, was named Ronald Reagan's first director of the Office and Management and Budget. He soon became nearly as visible a public evangelist for supply-side tax cuts as Reagan himself, and was unquestionably the most important behind-the-scenes architect of the cuts. Near the end of Reagan's first year, Stockman revealed, via Greider, what Reagan's critics had claimed all along: that the administration was basically making up its economic assumptions. Far from paying for themselves, with magic "supply-side" revenue, the tax cuts were sure to generate huge deficits--as they later did.

Reaganites must have hated Stockman for saying this, but he had a defensible motive. He was arguing about a point of substance, and one of the most important points of that time. In my pipsqueak way--the difference being, again, that no one inside or outside the Carter administration thought I had shaped its policies--I had a similar motive in mind. I thought that the administration was doomed unless it made fundamental changes in strategy, and I thought that public discussion of the need for such changes was the most likely way to bring them about. I turned out to be right on the first count and maybe wrong/maybe not on the second. Public discussion of the problems did not fix them, but maybe nothing would have.

What, exactly, was the motive behind Stephanopoulos' revelations&emdash;while Clinton is still in office? Newsweek suggested nicely in the cover line on its excerpt from the book: "What I Saw." The theme of the book is not much more or less than his revealing whatever his privileged position allowed him to see.

What he reveals is generally intriguing, deftly-written, and historically significant. He makes vivid the obsession with short-term positioning, the struggles between the hard-liberal and "triangulated" liberal factions of the administration, the role of Mrs. Clinton, and many other aspects noted in reviews of the book. If he had waited to publish this book until the day Bill Clinton left office, it would have lasting historical value--like, say, William Safire's revelations about Richard Nixon in Before the Fall. Breaking confidences to inform history would also have left its author with a different historic role. He might have felt free to leave out the passages of tortured self-obsession that mainly seem salve for his tattling on Clinton. And the most often-quoted line in the book, a description of his arch-foe Dick Morris, would have seemed delightfully vivid and vicious writing, rather than a Freudian revelation about what Stephanopoulos senses he has done. Morris, he said, was " ... a small sausage of a man encased in a green suit with wide lapels, a wide floral tie, and a wide-collared shirt. His blow-dried pompadour and shiny leather briefcase gave him the look of a B-movie mob lawyer, circa 1975--the kind of guy who gets brained with a baseball bat for double-crossing his boss."

James Fallows, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, is the author of six books, most recently Breaking the News.

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