Tuesday Book: Pitiless portrayal of a President

ALL TOO HUMAN: A POLITICAL EDUCATION BY GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HUTCHINSON, pounds 17.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible