Tuesday Book: Pitiless portrayal of a President


IN THE days when the White House was graced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a well-educated young American journalist was assigned to Washington. He asked the great Scots expert on American politics, DW Brogan, what he should read before covering the White House.

"Saint-Simon," said the great man without hesitation. "The 19th-century founder of French socialism?" asked the young journalist. "No", said Brogan, "the author of the memoirs of the court of Louis XIV."

The White House is a court. Small, cramped and crowded, it is the residence of an elected monarch and his family as well as the headquarters of a frenetic, yet strangely unstructured bureaucracy. George Stephanopoulos, one of President and Mrs Clinton's closest aides since the 1992 campaign, has captured this aspect of the White House as brilliantly as any other memoir of the past 40 years.

Just as dukes, Jesuits and mistresses worked themselves into lathers of jealous insecurity about their status at Versailles, Stephanopoulos recalls how he agonised over a suspected coldness in the First Lady's greeting, or exclusion from a strategy meeting. No courtier, banned from the royal presence in the ruelle behind his master's bed or refused the privilege of passing the royal periwig, suffered more than George, who was denied access to the Oval Office or a seat on Air Force One.

Almost equally strange is the abject deference of the White House aide, supposedly armed with the thunderbolts of the All-Powerful, to the barons of the media. Stephanopoulos muses penitentially for pages over whether he was right to talk as much as he did to Bob Woodward, once the hero of Watergate, now The Washington Post's specialist in "I was under the bed" reconstructions.

Most of Clinton's aides had no career ahead of them unless they could sell their services as political consultants or negotiate a transfer to television (Stephanopoulos's own solution). The impression he leaves is that they were understandably more deferential to any reporter from the Post or The New York Times, let alone to a network anchor or talk- show host, than to a mere senator or congressman.

Not that Stephanopoulos is a cynic or a careerist. The son of a Greek Orthodox priest and grandson of a Greek immigrant, he holds dear the Old Democrat faith. His characterisations, of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and others, are subtle and nuanced. Only one portrait drips with venom and contempt: that of Dick Morris, the Republican pollster and operator who replaced him for a while in Clinton's good graces.

It is plain that, at least for Stephanopoulos and his friends, there was an ideological battle in the White House for Bill Clinton's political soul, between those who wanted him to cling to the good old Democratic liberal cause, and those who wanted him to position himself in the centre and bow to what seemed - in 1994 and 1995 - the inexorable rise of conservative sentiment. It is not, in other words, that the gyrations and manoeuvres of the White House court are devoid of political content. Rather that, playing his own hand almost in isolation from a Congress where power is increasingly gathering, a president has to be obsessed with "the numbers" - the rating he is given by the media. He trades his political portfolio in the market of Washington politics, and only the media pundits can say how much capital he has left or move his price upward.

Stephanopoulos's portrait of the Clintons is affectionate, but pitying and pitiless. As he says, no man is a hero to his valet. He is equally severe on himself. His political ideals, he hopes, are unchanged. But he acknowledges that they have had to take second place to the hectic scuffling of a bourse where success is measured in access to the president and recognition by the media. Small wonder that a decent, highly intelligent man who sees his ideals weighed in the scales against tacky cynicism and self-interested scheming ends up in therapy.

What does George Stephanopoulos have to tell us about the defining tragicomedy of the Lewinsky affair? Not much. He admits to having been the recipient of a tentative pass from the world's most famous woman himself. Luckily for him, his secretary barred her way whenever Monica tried to tempt him with unsolicited cups of double-tall latte.

But it had fallen to George to handle the bimbo eruptions in Clinton's 1992 campaign. He had an uncomfortable feeling that, if he hadn't exactly been lied to, he had been used; and if he hadn't exactly lied to the reporters on Clinton's behalf, well, they had been used, too.

So, half-free from the silken chains of loyalty and affection after he left the White House, he spoke out courageously about what Clinton ought to say and do. Now that impeachment is over, he will have done himself no great good. He has the consolation that he has woven his own frustrations into a small, sad political classic.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss