December 11, 2009


I Could Fix That: a review of The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History in the White House by Taylor Branch (David Runciman, London Review of Books)

In the final year of the last century, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s one-time aide and press secretary, published a memoir of his time in the White House entitled All Too Human: A Political Education. Back then, it seemed like a terribly exciting book: 1999 was the year of Clinton’s Senate trial, following his impeachment, and also of the first appearance on US television of The West Wing, which offered the fantasy of a different kind of liberal president. Stephanopoulos made working in Clinton’s West Wing sound thrilling, monstrous, deranged. A group of super-smart men (and one or two women) fought round the clock to pin down their super-smart, hopelessly promiscuous president (promiscuous with his time, his interests, his attention, rather than in the more obvious ways). Speeches got written at the last moment, policy was endlessly being reformulated, old enemies were reached out to while a train of new enemies was picked up along the way. Stephanopoulos describes how important physical proximity to the president was – having your office a few yards nearer to the Oval Office than the next person was crucial – and he lets us know that he got close. This was more like a medieval court than a modern workplace, both deeply hierarchical and frighteningly chaotic. And there at the heart of it was George, fixing, fighting, cajoling, despairing, scheming, outwitting, getting outwitted, and all the time feeding off the power. At one point, our hero (George, not Bill) takes a fancy to Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze’s costar in Dirty Dancing, and he gets his people to sound out her people about whether she fancies a date. Yes she does! He goes to gatherings of Greek-Americans and they crowd round wanting to know when he is going to lift the curse of Dukakis (which says that short Greek men can’t get elected president, because they look ridiculous in tanks). What can George say – who knows?

Well, it turns out that America was due an African-American president before it was due a Greek-American one, something that would have seemed pretty incredible in 1999. Stephanopoulos is now a talk-show host, occasional journalist and, like everyone else, a blogger. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock reading The Clinton Tapes to discover just how little George mattered to Bill during the time when Bill meant so much to George. Stephanopoulos hardly features at all in these write-ups of a series of nearly 80 taped conversations Taylor Branch had with Clinton over the course of his presidency.

When I was the body man on the 1985 gubernatorial in NJ it was made quite clear to me, though not to them, that a significant portion of the job was protecting the candidate from his staff.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2009 6:44 AM
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