The US in Transition: Gifted Greek named as Clinton spokesman - The mouthpiece

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HE IS a tender 31 and looks like a choirboy. Indeed, like his grandfather before them, his father and uncle are Greek Orthodox priests. He has an unwieldy foreign name, all of 14 letters long. But it will soon become familiar. For George Stephanopoulos, more than any other, will be the man who presents Clintonism to the world.

He enters the White House as Director of Communications. Dee Dee Myers, technically his deputy, will have the title of Press Secretary, the first woman to hold that position. But for the first months at least, Mr Stephanopoulos will conduct the daily briefings as he has done throughout the transition phase in Little Rock, Arkansas.

There have been youthful presidential spokesmen before: Pierre Salinger was 35 when John Kennedy entered the White House; at 33, Jody Powell was even more of a stripling when the Carter administration took office in 1977. Neither though offered the same outward blend of innocence and vulnerability. Appearances, however, must never be trusted.

Bill Clinton himself may have described Mr Stephanopoulos's looks as 'angelic funk'. More to the point is the assessment of him by US News And World Report as 'one of America's great political operatives'. By common consent, he will bring at least three priceless assets to the nerve-racking task of being presenter-in-chief of the world's most powerful man.

Mr Stephanopoulos is razor sharp, he can think on his feet faster than anyone. He has perfected the necessary art of telling reporters nothing without giving offence. And never, repeat never, does he lose his cool in public.

Greeks are supposed to be a fiery, emotional breed. But when they are transplanted to US politics, the opposite somehow becomes the rule. Take the two most recently prominent of them, the 1992 Democratic contender, Paul Tsongas, and the party's unsuccessful 1988 candidate, Michael Dukakis; both, if anything, were too passive and phlegmatic for their own good.

Sometimes Mr Stephanopoulos can seem the same. But he worked on the Dukakis campaign and learnt from its mistakes, as the Republicans overwhelmed it with unanswered charges and innuendo. He, as much as anyone, helped perfect the technique of instant riposte, which helped Mr Clinton withstand the accusations of womanising and draft-dodging that threatened to overwhelm him last winter.

The reward has been a place at the very top table. Not only is Mr Stephanopoulos a living emblem of the generation in its thirties which is taking over the White House, few are closer to the boss. Every list of Mr Clinton's most trusted private counsellors includes his name. During the campaign, he was the only aide to have a regular and scheduled daily time with the candidate. Now he will be one of a handful of people with instant access to the Oval Office.

There are many resemblances between the two men. Both were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford; both have charm in excess, both understand policy as well as public relations and possess that preternatural staying power of the born politician. For that reason alone, it may well be Mr Stephanopoulos will not for long be primarily a mere spokesman.

For the time being though, George Stephanopoulos will be the face on a billion television screens all around the world.

(Photograph omitted)