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Book Review: All Too Human

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What can I say about George Stephanopoulos that has not been said before? He’s smart, granted. And charismatic. And there was always something else about him – his age, or his hair maybe – that made him the most watched and well-known of President Bill Clinton’s advisers and strategists.

So when he wrote a memoir, I decided, well, if there is any one memoir I’m going to read about the Clinton administration, this is it.

‘Tis a shame that George is a whiner.

Ok, I guess that was harsh but it’s true.

This book could be titled “I spent five years working with Bill Clinton and sometimes he, his wife and advisers were mean to me.” There are glimpses of the larger policy debates that he was involved in. And some of the gossip and anecdotes are interesting. But so much of the book is about how hard his job and life was. I mean, who cares?

The book isn’t all bad, of course. Just disappointing. Like Clinton. Reading the book is like reliving the exciting 1992 campaign, complete with what at first seemed like off-base allegations about adultery and draft-dodging but later Democrat voters learned, to their dismay, that there were some facts to back up those claims.

He says that from his first meeting of Clinton in September 1991 to when he left office in December 1996 Clinton was the dominant figure in his life. He takes us through his dumb decisions- cooperating with Bob Woodward on the book, “The Agenda,” and the tough ones, including dealing with a Republican attempt to get him fired.

The book is a good bookend to Howard Kurtz’ Media Circus. Both look at the media and Clinton, but whereas George often makes the media out to be the bad guy, Kurtz shows how both sides were under a lot of stress as issues and positions kept changing.

The book does contains some surprises. On several occasions he compliments reporters, particularly Ann Devroy of the Washington Post, which is unusual in most political memoirs I’ve read. He explains that she is not one of those reporters so cut-throat not to have personal feelings at times for those being covered.

He also explains just how frustrated he and other handlers were with pollster Dick Morris and some of his dumb recommendations. And he details the times when Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore express their distrust of Stephanopoulos, suggesting he doesn’t full support them and is leaking damaging information to the media.

And he describes visits to a therapist to deal with the stress of the job which even led to rashes on his faces when times became tough. The biggest surprise to me is also the book’s biggest strength: his candor. The candor can be annoying when he uses the opportunity of the book to complain about this or that.

However, when detailing that he, like many who voted for Clinton, came to distrust the man at times and wish that Clinton the Policy Maker was more like Clinton the Campaigner the book sings and becomes particularly interesting.

In the book’s prologue he writes: “The Clinton I know is the Clinton I show in this book: the politician and president at work, a complicated man responding to the pressures and pleasures of public life in ways I found both awesome and appalling.

“As I wrote and rewrote, I came to see how Clinton’s shamelessness is a key to his political success, how his capacity for denial is tied to the optimism that is his greatest political strength.”

Since Clinton truly cares about society he could not believe that the allegations about Clinton’s philandering were true and was quick to put those rumors to rest. But as more and more rumors came along he began to wonder.

It was after he left office, and working as an news analyst, that the Monica Lewinsky allegations broke. He updated the book to include some thoughts.

It’s not giving anything away to reveal the final two sentences of the book, describing watching Clinton giving the State of the Union Speech in January 1999, which really say it all. “Now I watched from far away, enjoying the show but wondering too. Wondering what might have been – if only this good president had been a better man.”

Every political memoir is different. Some are fun, some are thoughtful, others reflective and still others self-promoting. This one is all of those things except fun because he takes himself too seriously. If you’re looking for insight into Clinton’s character, this isn’t really the book for you. If you want to know what life is like for one of his better known aides, though, than check this one out. Maybe you’ll like it more than I.

This review was originally printed at Mindjack: The Beat of Digital Culture

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Stephanopoulos’ career has really taken a hit with the continued ratings doldrums of that Sunday show. People expected a lot out of him when he took the job.

    He’s a smart guy (Rhodes scholar) with way more experience in politics than his competitors prior to their journalism careers, but he doesn’t seem to be able to make the show take off. The “In Memoriam” bit at the end seems forced and akward, especially coming off the “Funny Pages” segment where they show excerpts from talk show host monologues. George comes back from the last clip with a smile on his face, then goes all serious in the blink of an eye and says “We’ll be right back with all the dead people this week with black-and-white pictures with sad music in the background.” Well, not those words exactly, but you get the point.

    George F. Will is amusing on the roundtable because he’s such a pompous bastard. Fareed Zakaria is clearly well-informed and talks well, but he’s a little carried away with himself — he’s the Dr. Phil of pundits.

    I’ve never gotten through the book, but the stress rashes covered by the beard and his angst about dating washed-up 80s actress Jennifer Gray didn’t exactly elicit sympathy out of me.

    That is all.

  • Scott Butki

    Yeah his career has done a real nosedive.

  • Well, let’s think about this. Former altar boy convinces himself that he is throwing away his ideals for a greater good, when it’s really all about his growing obsession with Clinton and being close to power. If he had referred to himself as a “celebrity” one more time… grrr. So much of it showed him being ruthless and mean (I actually felt a wee bit sorry for Dick Morris, believe it or not). And then, he writes this while Clinton was still in office. Perhaps if he had waited until after BC’s second term had ended (and omitted all his personal crap; “Wa-a-a-a-h! I *need* to be in those meetings by Clinton’s side! Without access, I am nothing! Get me some Zoloft…”), but no, he couldn’t wait — but hey, the publisher offered him tons o’ cash… No wonder his former boss and colleagues considered him a traitor. Stephanopoulos admits he wanted to “do good and do well,” but ultimately, when he wasn’t whining, it was about doing well.

    That sounds so cynical, doesn’t it? I did and do like Stephanopoulos; he is a very intelligent human and does care about the little guy. But if he isn’t living proof that power corrupts absolutely, I don’t know who is.

    As for “This Week,” frankly, I think Stephanopoulos makes a better pundit/talking head than host. He’s no Russert or Schieffer. They’re journalists; George is a “celebrity.”

  • I’d agree with that assessment, especially the talking head vs host bit.

    Thanks for the excellent post.