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.