Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: All Too Human

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 29, 2010

“I was his altar boy, hoping to serve peace by serving my president.”

George Stephanopoulos writes about his time in the Clinton campaign and White House. He also talks about his hero worship and subsequent disillusionment.

AuthorGeorge Stephanopoulos
Length456 pages
Book Rating7

One of my favorite George Carlin jokes involves him talking about his youth in “white Harlem”. Yeah, we’re bad, we grew up in Harlem. “The real name was Morningside Heights, but that sounds so faggy.”

George Stephanopoulos signs his prologue from Morningside Heights. That was the first time I laughed reading this book, but it wasn’t the last. Stephanopoulos is an engaging writer, and when he started the book, he wanted it to be a sort of farcical look at a newbie (himself) in the White House.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal turned towards a light tragedy1 it ended up a lot like M*A*S*H goes into politics, with President Clinton taking the part of Colonel Henry Blake.

For all that he feels betrayal towards the end, this is as loving a portrait of President Clinton and his White House as you’re likely to find that still maintains a connection with reality. He conveys the politics of the inner circle in all its byzantine glory, from the perspective of one man caught in it. Robert Altman couldn’t do better.

Stephanopoulos tries to tell his story as it happens, feeling as it happens too. There are a couple of places in my notes where I wonder if he realizes how ironic or clueless he’s being, given what we know the results were. Sure enough, when we get to that point he’s aware of the discrepancy. He’s writing “in the moment”, which gives us an insight to what he was thinking at the time.

The downside of this approach is that we don’t often get a discussion of the conflicts between the two moments, except a sense of his own betrayal or embarrassment during his frantic attempts at spin control.

For example, President Clinton isn’t remembered for the accomplishments Stephanopoulos would like: a partially-sunsetted crime bill, raising taxes on the wealthy2, or the Family and Medical Leave Act. Clinton’s legacy instead is his Dick Morris-inspired balanced budget3 and welfare reform, epitomized by his quote, “the era of big government is over.”

The budget debate within the White House highlights a couple of examples of Stephanopoulos’s liberal myopia. In 1995, when the Republicans, Dick Morris, and the President were talking in terms of “balancing the budget”, he continued to talk in terms of “reducing the deficit”, as if merely overspending a little less was all that was necessary.

He thought that way even though he also knew that a more fiscally sane budget in 19934 had had economic benefits that made up for the cut government programs. He was still looking at it as a purely partisan exercise: fiscal sanity was a Republican issue; therefore, they should oppose the Republicans—even if the Republicans were right.

Dr. Stephanopoulis and Mr. Morris

He recognizes his tendency to ignore policy and focus on the partisan and on the process of winning. Early on he notes hopefully that one of the major achievements of the Clinton presidency would be the Clinton presidency—that is, that a Democrat would once again win a second term. Much later, he writes more disdainfully that he tried always to avoid policy debates because they were “political time bombs. My job was to disarm them before they destroyed us; it didn’t matter how.”

Towards the end of his tenure, Stephanopoulos gained an arch enemy. If President Clinton was his Colonel Blake, Dick Morris was his Frank Burns. But his description of how Morris thought of Morris fits Stephanopoulos and his friends just as well:

They believed in the power of politics to help people, but loved the sport of it even more.

Morris relied on polls and statistics to formulate his stratagems where Stephanopoulos relied on his instincts and personal connections. From the portrait that Stephanopoulos draws, Dick Morris is a more rigorous version of George Stephanopoulos.

In his stress-induced mania, Stephanopoulos began to view Morris as “a cautionary tale”, a Jacob Marley to his own Ebeneezer Scrooge, “a daily reminder of who I was when I wasn’t careful.”5

Stephanopoulos feared what Hunter Thompson would call the junkie’s high, debasing himself morally for political victory. His fear didn’t stop him from doing it. It was very easy to work themselves into a righteous anger that allowed them to respond in any way in the defense of their man. One common pattern: Clinton would lie, he’d get caught, and his operatives, such as Stephanopoulos, would realize he’d lied. But then Clinton’s opponents would call him on his lies, and the White House team would take on the siege attitude of “They’d stop at nothing to defeat him, so nothing would stop me from defending him.”

Interesting from a historical standpoint are Clinton’s worries that, if General Colin Powell entered the race, “the press is going to give him a pass” and the pundits would swoon. Stephanopoulos believed that in the event of this potential historic run by a black man,

…despite the fact that they love him and despite the fact that they may want him to win… they will feel compelled to cover him like any other candidate

Today? Only if he switched parties, George. Women and minorities who stray off the reservation get savaged in the press. But Clinton certainly saw his prediction come true when his wife ran against a far less qualified candidate in 2008.

Stephanopoulos’s liberal view on war is most fascinating, as it conflicts with the responsibilities of the White House. He was annoyed at other Democrats opposing intervention in Haiti because,

Defending human rights and democracy was what Democrats like us were supposed to do.

Even better from a “things change depending on who is in the White House” standpoint, unlike Bush and Iraq, Clinton eventually decided to go into Haiti without congressional approval.6

A faded love affair

Stephanopoulos left after Clinton won his second term. All Too Human covers 1991 to 1996. A lot has changed since then. One funny anecdote during the campaign had Ted Koppel calling the campaign’s beeper—cell phone coverage was pretty spotty in most places in the United States.

Stephanopoulos writes as if he were a needy son of father Clinton; on the other hand, he’s a bit passive-aggressive, too. At one point he writes that Rose Law was “Little Rock’s version of ‘The Firm.’ Not that anyone’s ever been murdered there (as far as I know)…”. That’s the kind of statement that, if it came from Clinton now or a rival politician back then, he’d be parsing like crazy. That’s just on page 7.

His philosophy of politics is just as twisted: good government is “a government that forces us to care for the common good even when we don’t feel like it.” His upbringing pointed him towards supporting fellow Greek Paul Tsongas, but Tsongas had an economic plan that included cutting capital gains taxes to improve the job market, and cutting social services to bring ballooning spending under control7, “precisely the policies I’d been working against.”

He tended to dislike Clinton’s instincts most when he tried to appeal to “the lazy Susans of middle-class kitchen tables”.

On the other hand, he is a good writer, and he doesn’t bore us with personal introspection that’s unrelated to White House politics. For example, a trip to the Ozarks with his then-girl friend merits half of a sentence at the top of chapter 3; by the time the sentence completes we’re back with the Clintons on New Year’s.

Stephanopolous presents himself as humble but self-assured. He’s also sometimes almost penitent about the compromises he made, and sometimes oblivious to the unseemliness of an alliance between the media and the Democrats, such as when he recounts how Ted Koppel “[used] his anchorman’s authority to subtly suggest that the attacks on Hillary were misleading. All I had to do was fall in behind…”

I doubt you’ll ever hear a Republican spokesperson say that.

There’s good advice here, too, if you ever find yourself in the position of having to counter bad news: always have news to replace bad news. This will probably be more useful if you’re a Democrat than a Republican, but it’s good to know.

If there’s any flaw in the book, other than having to constantly remember that it was written by a person who prides himself on being able to spin bad news, is that the index is very inside-the-beltway. All it contains is people. At one point I wanted to look up what he said about the 1993 budget fight—but I couldn’t find it easily because there is no entry for terms. The only thing that matters in Washington are the politicians.

Every administration is a new business, with little institutional memory. It’s fascinating watching this one take shape, especially when, due to their own faults, it often acted as a White House under siege. If you’re a political junkie you’ve probably already read this, but if you haven’t, it’s worth picking up.

September 2, 2012: Stephanopoulos: No bias in media

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, George Stephanopoulos was asked if he believes there is a liberal bias in the media.

I don’t,” he said.

Really, George? You were aware of it when you wrote your autobiography. In my review of All Too Human I quoted Stephanopoulos as saying that Ted Koppel helped him win a debate against the Republicans. This was on page 96, and it started around page 93. The debate that Koppel helped “turn” in Clinton’s favor was that Hillary Clinton kept going on TV and saying things far to the left of the mainstream. This particular gaffe was relatively minor: Hillary mildly denigrating staying home to drink tea and make cookies, but the problem was an ongoing one. For the more substantive, and thus harder to sound-bite, progressivisms, the media was able to ignore it, but “tea and cookies” was obviously going to be a memorable line.

Why did the media ignore Hillary Clinton’s progressive gaffes when they could?

Most of the reporters shared her progressive side and kind of liked her sarcastic sense of humor. So did I, but the Republicans would have a field day if Hillary didn’t clean this up before the close of the news cycle.

Stephanopoulos was happy to accept a “progressive” bias then, both that it existed and when it helped them:

What turned the debate was Ted Koppel’s using his anchorman’s authority to subtly suggest that the attacks on Hillary were misleading. All I had to do was fall in behind and remind viewers that the Republicans were up to their old tricks.

Emphasis mine, and the bias has only gotten worse since then. The only time Conservatives have the opportunity to “fall in behind” is when they’re joining in attacks on other conservatives.

  1. “Clinton lacks the grandeur of a tragic hero.”

  2. “The legislation that would make or break Clinton's presidency.”

  3. Given that the “surplus” didn’t include internal borrowing, he probably won’t be remembered for that, either.

  4. The fight, if there was one, for the 1993 budget is not part of this book; it happened when Stephanopoulos was fighting for his job. And that’s good: the internal politics of the Clinton White House were far more interesting than the external politics.

  5. If Stephanopoulos used prostitutes, he doesn’t mention it.

  6. The junta backed down just before the invasion.

  7. Or, what we thought of as ballooning at the time.

All Too Human

George Stephanopoulos

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed All Too Human…

For more about Bill Clinton, you might also be interested in No One Left to Lie To, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, and Hillary Clinton and husband accused of sexual assault.

For more about Clinton administration, you might also be interested in Mitt Romney Day 2015, No One Left to Lie To, and Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine.

For more about George Stephanopoulos, you might also be interested in Mitt Romney Day 2015 and Stephanopoulos: No bias in media.

For more about White House, you might also be interested in Taking Heat and Front Row at the White House.