All Too Humanby George Stephanopoulos, George Stephanopolous, George Stephanopolous
George Stephanopoulos tells the dramatic story of his five years on the campaign trail and in the White House, a tale that explains and foreshadows the dark events that have overtaken the Clinton Presidency.See more details below
George Stephanopoulos tells the dramatic story of his five years on the campaign trail and in the White House, a tale that explains and foreshadows the dark events that have overtaken the Clinton Presidency.
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Read an Excerpt
Days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, I had a dream about President Clinton: I had returned to the White House after a year away, and I was sitting in my usual chair just next to the presidents desk in the Oval Office, prepping him for an interview with CBS News. Seems like old times, I thought, its good to be back. But moments before the interview was scheduled to start, we got word of some vague but terrible tragedy. The whole country would soon know about it, and the president would need to respond. I pulled out my notepad and struggled to scratch out appropriate words of consolation and hope. Nothing came, but it didnt matter. Clinton did what he always seemed to do so well at times like this, saying exactly the right thing, in exactly the right way. He's still got it best politician I've ever seen. Then I walked across the Oval, opened a door, and found myself in a pocket-sized room windowless and bare, except for nude pinups of Monica pasted on its walls.
I was struggling in my dream with the Clinton I loved and the Clinton I feared, the president I served and the man I didnt want to see. As I write these words, a popular president presiding over an America prosperous and at peace has been impeached. Clinton's lawyers are skillfully defending him in a Senate trial against the charge that he committed perjury and obstructed justice to conceal his sexual affair with a twenty-two-year-old intern. The battle is all but over, and I'm still mystified by the Clinton paradox: How could a president so intelligent, so compassionate, so public-spirited, and so conscious of his place in history act in such a stupid, selfish, and self-destructive manner?
I dont know how to answer that question, and I never thought Id have to try. When I first considered writing about my time with President Clinton, I envisioned a political memoir shaped like a human comedy a story of good, talented but fallible people acting on Vaclav Havel's hope that politics "can be not only the art of the possible, especially if 'the possible' includes the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals, and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, namely, the art of improving ourselves and the world." I wanted to write a candid story that neither shied away from showing the "art of the possible" nor surrendered to the cynical notion that there is nothing more to know about politics. I hoped to explain how an ambitious and idealistic president of uncertain personal character grew in office how he outsmarted his enemies, out-hustled his adversaries, and overcame his failings and those of his team to help our country and achieve what no Democrat had done since Roosevelt two full terms in office and a successful presidency. I believed it would be a story with a happy ending.
But the plot took a turn.
The events of the last year have changed the shape of the story I set out to write. It can no longer have a truly happy ending. I have done my best to recount accurately my thoughts and feelings and the events as I perceived them at the time, but I couldnt avoid the filter of the presidents affair with Monica and its aftermath. Throughout 1998 and early 1999, I lived in two separate Clinton worlds: the past I had experienced from the inside, and the present I was observing from the outside. As the stories unfolded, one on my word processor and the other on the news, I came to see the connections more clearly, and was tempted at times to think of the Clinton story as a tragedy. That doesnt seem quite right either. For all his talent, Clinton lacks the grandeur of a tragic hero. His presidency, however, does have the momentum of classic drama. The roller-coaster ride from Clinton's improbable election in 1992 to his impeachment in 1998 is a narrative stocked with dozens of characters, hundreds of decisions, and a thousand coincidences all driving toward a conclusion that feels somehow, sadly, inevitable.
This book tells my part of the Clinton drama. It covers two presidential campaigns and four years in the White House. From the day I met him in September 1991 to the day I left the White House in December 1996, he was the dominant figure in my life. Our relationship was intense, intimate at times, but not a personal friendship. 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. He exploits the weaknesses of himself and those around him masterfully, but he taps his and their talents as well. I have not lost my conviction that President Clinton has done a great deal to advance our country, and that he has acted out of profound patriotism and concern for others. For every reckless and expedient act, there are others of leadership and vision. I don't know how President Clinton will react to the portrait presented here, but I have tried to provide a fair representation of his many-faceted personality.
I have also tried to show the modern White House at work. For most of my tenure, I held a relatively amorphous job that was an amalgam of political troubleshooter, public-relations adviser, policy expert, and crisis manager. Having vaguely defined responsibilities was often frustrating, but it allowed me to participate in a wide range of White House decisions: from preparing a budget to writing presidential jokes, from helping to choose a Supreme Court nominee to smothering another "bimbo eruption," from passing legislation to preparing for press conferences, from organizing a peace ceremony to advising on military action. So much of the excitement of being a White House aide comes from having the chance to be a witness to history, and to feel like you're making it. I hope my account will be a useful tool for presidential historians.
In the end, however, this is neither a biography of Clinton nor a comprehensive history of his first term. Its a more personal narrative, the story of what happened to me in the White House what I saw and did, how I felt and reacted to the pressures and pleasures of public life. Theodore White once wrote that "closeness to power heightens the dignity of all men." I now know thats not always true. I know how often I let my own ambition, insecurity, and immaturity get the best of me, and I have tried to be honest about that as well. But I also know that even having the chance to make the mistakes I made was a tremendous privilege. Because for all the compromises and disappointments, for all the days when my job felt like an exquisite jail sentence, working in the White House was the greatest adventure of my life.
January 31, 1999
On the Saturday before Christmas 1992, I was feeling lucky. A few weeks earlier, with my help, Bill Clinton had been elected president and soon I'd be working for him in the White House. But first I had to visit the Rose Law Firm. If you've read John Grisham, you've got a pretty good idea what Rose Law was like Little Rock's version of "The Firm." Not that anyone's ever been murdered there (as far as I know), but its pedigree, power, and aura of buttoned-down mystery had made it a force in Arkansas for more than a century. It was also Hillary Rodham Clinton's firm.
All that made me a little nervous as I walked through the empty streets of Little Rock. I knew my background check was just a formality and believed I had nothing to hide. Still, I couldn't help worrying as I crossed the parking lot and, as instructed, let myself in the back door.
Waiting for me in the conference room was Webster L. Hubbell, a Little Rock legend football star, former mayor, former judge, law partner of Hillary, golf partner of Bill. We had met only once before, and I thought of him as part of a pair. Webb and Vince. Hubbell and Foster. Vince Foster was Hillary's other close partner, and closer friend. Upright, quiet, and rail thin, Vince reminded me of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Webb looked more like the linebacker he once was. A massive man with a beefy grip and thick lips that made you forget there was a brain behind all that brawn.
I had often heard their names invoked by the Clintons, as in, "I spoke to Webb, and he thinks . . ." Or "Vince isn't sure about that. . . ." It was a way to end the argument. Webb and Vince meant influence, integrity, and judgment. We lived in parallel but separate worlds. They were Little Rock; I was Washington. They were lawyers; I was an operative. They were friends; I was staff.
"This shouldn't be too difficult," Hubbell assured me as we shook hands across the table. First, he asked the basics: where I went to school and whom I had worked for. Then more serious stuff: Had I ever been arrested? Any money problems potential conflicts or large debts? Unlike, say, Bob Rubin (the Wall Street investment banker and incoming head of the National Economic Council), who probably needed half a law firm to vet his portfolio, I had no stocks or bonds. My only investments were a mortgaged condo in the Adams Morgan section of Washington and a small 401K from my work on Capitol Hill. The financial review took about a minute.
"About what you'd expect," I replied. "A little marijuana in high school and college, but I haven't touched it in years. Nothing else."
Then came a couple of oblique questions about my "social life," designed to give me an opportunity if it were true to admit to being gay or the secret father of a small child. We both knew where Webb was going. He was circling in on the one big question. I had been summoned here so that this man, who symbolized probity and proximity to the next president, could lean over the table, look me in the eye, and say, "Now George, I want you to think hard about this. Is there anything at all, anywhere in your past, that could ever come back to embarrass the president?" From now on, everything I said or did would reflect on Clinton and affect our mission, even if it happened long ago. The president's welfare had to be my first concern; everything else came second. In return, I would get to be part of something bigger than I ever imagined.
"Well," I began, "you should know I'm the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI." Republican complaints had forced a probe to see if I had conspired with Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh to damage the Bush campaign. I hadn't, but maybe it would lead to something else like the time I tried to prove that Dan Quayle was a drug dealer.
In the fall of 1988, when the Dukakis campaign was going down the tubes, I was part of a "rapid response" team doing a remarkably ineffectual job of rebutting Republican attacks. But late in the race, a federal prisoner named Brett Kimberlin (aka the Speedway Bomber) was telling reporters he once sold drugs to Dan Quayle, and that Quayle might have sold some himself. A rumor reached me that years earlier, a grand jury examining the evidence had covered it up under pressure from prosecutors close to Quayle's family. If I could find the disgruntled grand jurors and convince them to talk, we'd win and I'd be a hero.
So I bought a plane ticket to Indianapolis and holed up in the airport Holiday Inn with photocopied courthouse records. After a day of cold-calling people who had no idea what I was talking about, I knew I was on a fool's errand. My sleuthing wasn't illegal, just criminally incompetent and a little slimy. I suppose we would have used the information if it were true, but how naive and desperate could I have been to believe that I would uncover a last-minute bombshell that every news organization in America had missed? That was embarrassing maybe not to President-elect Clinton, but certainly to me.
After racking my brain looking for trouble, I even told Webb about the night before I left for college, when I went out egging cars with my high school buddies one last time. Not much to report or worry about. Nothing in my background would keep me out of the White House.
I was born the second child of a solid Greek family in Fall River, Massachusetts, and baptized George after my grandfather, a missionary priest who left the Peloponnesian village of Neohorio in 1938 for Montana to minister to Greek immigrants scattered across America's west. His job was to make sure the members of the flock kept their faith as they sought their fortunes, to remind them of who they were and where they came from. More than a place of worship, the immigrant church was a piece of home. A year after his arrival, just before the war, my grandfather was joined by his family. The oldest was a five-year-old boy they called Lamby, Bobby, who would also grow up to be a priest and my father.
A boy when he sailed from Patras in 1912, my mother's father worked on the railroads from Ellis Island to Salt Lake City before settling in Rochester, Minnesota, where he opened a shoe repair shop. Only after he made his start did he return to his village, Kalithea, to bring the teen bride chosen for him back to America. When he died in 1974, his business was the oldest in town, and his fellow merchants marched down Main Street in his memory. But he was most proud of the fact that all five of his children, including my mom, Nikolitsa, had attended college.
My parents met at a church youth convention in Minneapolis, where my mom was studying public relations at the University of Minnesota. Dad was on a field trip from seminary, and there was probably no better place to meet a woman willing to become a presbytera, literally "priest's wife" a word that captures the idea that everybody in the family of a priest has a responsibility to the family of the church. The presbytera is a kind of first lady. She has an official role as hostess and helpmate but can't let people get the idea she's assuming authority that isn't hers. The daughters, like my sisters, Stacy and Marguarite, sing in the choir and teach Sunday school. The sons, like my brother, Andrew, and me, become altar boys.
I was only four when I first served. Going to the office with my dad meant going to church. He would slap a little Mennen on my cheeks after he shaved, and we would head to the place only men could go the altar, an inner sanctum separated from the rest of the congregation by a screen of icons. Often it was just the two of us back there. I would watch him whisper prayers as he vested himself in satin robes. Then I would hold out my own robe for him to bless, and the service would begin.
My first job was carrying a candle, making sure to hold it straight without staring at the flame. Once a year an altar boy forgot, hypnotizing himself and fainting to the floor. Responsibilities increased with age and size: Bigger boys took lanterns, and the biggest carried the cross. My favorite job was tending the censer. After placing a pebble of incense on the charcoal in its gold bowl, I got to walk backward, waving the perfumed smoke in my father's path as he carried the bread and wine around the altar.
I soon became a reader as well. When I was six, the bishop came to my father's new parish in Rye, New York, and placed his stole on my head before clipping a bit of my hair to symbolize my servitude to the church. "Axios," the bishop proclaimed. "He is worthy." Axios echoed back from the pews a word weighted with expectation, a word I would hear again if I were ordained. On Sundays after that I would read the Epistle or recite the creed, remembering to speak "loud and slow" the instructions my dad silently mouthed to me before I faced the congregation. At nine, I appeared on my biggest stage yet. Archbishop Iakovos opened our church convention with a liturgy at Lincoln Center, and I was chosen to stand by his side and hold his staff. Monday's New York Daily News ran a picture of the bearded prelate in a tall gold crown next to a small boy with bangs and hands clasped in front of him. For a day, I was a star.
But most of my work was backstage. Maybe one reason I've never been queasy about the grubby work of politics, the mechanics of running campaigns and making laws, is that I spent so many of my early days behind the altar screen, where mystery is rooted in the mundane, where faith and duty are one, where my father's prayers were my cues. Agios o Theos. . . . Get the candles. Wisdom, let us attend. . . . Lanterns and cross for the Gospel. No one who is bound by carnal desires is worthy to approach. . . . Light up the censer and line up the other boys. The doors, the doors . . . Read the creed. Our Father . . . Heat the water for Holy Communion. O Lord, who blesses those who bless thee . . . Cut the bread.
Behind the screen, I learned to stay composed in the presence of power and was swayed by the illusion of indispensability. After all, the miracle of transubstantiation couldn't happen that Sunday if I forgot to boil water on the hot plate in the room off the altar. Altar boys are as much like young operatives as little monks. We serve the priest so he can save everyone else, doing the little things that need to be done. Sometimes I got lost in the details, lost sight of the spiritual essence of the service we were producing, but I hoped that doing the right things in the right place at the right time would help do some good and save some souls, including my own, even when I was just doing my job.
All this was also preparation for what I would eventually do but not in the way I imagined. I assumed I would be a priest before I knew what it meant. That's what my father did, and my grandfather, and my godfather, and my uncle, and all their friends. When I recall summer barbecues, I see them lounging in plastic-webbed lawn chairs, highballs in hand, wearing the hot-weather uniform short-sleeved black dress shirts with detachable cleric's collars that flopped to the side when the top button was unfastened. By night's end, even our backyard became a kind of church. Smoldering briquettes and burnt-orange cigar butts served up the social equivalent of candlelight and earthy incense as my dad and his buddies sipped Greek brandy and sang Byzantine hymns.
As soon as I could talk, I knew how to answer the question of what I would be. At home, I would preside at play liturgies with a towel draped over my shoulders, or sneak through piles of books in my dad's office to suck on the sweet metallic stem of his pipe while tapping out a pretend sermon on his typewriter. When my father was finishing his doctorate in theology, I added a twist, telling dinner guests I would be "a priest and a theologian," relishing the weight of the big word as it rolled off my seven-year-old tongue. Everyone smiled at my use of a word I didn't really understand, while I basked in the attention that was my reward for carrying on a family tradition.
But sometimes an expectation nurtured through childhood can come undone in a single moment. In 1974, when I was thirteen, my final eighth-grade assignment was a paper on a potential career. As expected, I wrote on being a priest and brought home my A. But that autumn, after we moved from New York to Cleveland, I started high school, and it hit me. I was sitting in homeroom one morning shortly before eight, thinking about nothing in particular, when the idea that I wasn't meant to be a priest, that I wouldn't bear the family legacy into the next generation, revealed itself with an intensity others must feel when called to the priesthood. I hadn't lost my faith, just my vocation, but I knew the decision was final. I was growing up and growing away from the only future I had allowed myself to imagine. Now if only I could tell my father, and my grandfather. When asked about my future, I started to slip around the questions until they stopped. I didn't know yet what I wanted just what I didn't want, and that whatever career I chose had to be worthy.
I also felt a need to answer to my extended family. Greeks came to America from dozens of islands and hundreds of villages, but here they formed a single clan, united by heritage, language, and a need to achieve. Those of us in the second generation understood that honoring the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents the laborers, cobblers, waiters, and cooks meant getting a good education and putting it to good use as doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians. Assimilation for Greeks didn't mean blending in; it required standing out. If a Greek like Ike Pappas was on television, all of us watched; if another like Nick Gage wrote a book, all of us read it; when Congressman John Brademas missed his chance to be Speaker of the House, we all felt his loss; when Vice President Agnew resigned, we all felt ashamed a disgrace lessened only by the grumbled observation that he got what he deserved for changing his name and leaving his church. The rules were so clear they didn't need to be said: Make your name, and don't change it. Make us proud, and don't forget where you came from. Drilled into me were two awkwardly compatible ambitions: public service and professional success. Priests serve; immigrants succeed. I would try to do both.
But first I wanted to blend in. Here's where I'm my mother's son. As a boy, I would spend hours upstairs, lying on the floor with my feet pressed against the radiator, leafing through yearbooks to find pictures of my mom a pretty girl with dark hair and a wide smile whose American friends called her Gloria instead of her Greek name. Her picture was everywhere: Gloria at the newspaper, Gloria in the glee club, Gloria behind the wheel of an old jalopy filled with friends.
In high school, that's the life I wanted. I still served in the altar and studied enough to get good grades. But I wanted to be one of the guys. So I snuck onto the golf course next door, went to the track, and played poker on Friday nights with the money I earned on Saturdays as a caddie, dishwasher, and busboy. I noticed girls, but they didn't notice me.
Politics didn't interest me. Instead, I poured myself into sports. I was a chubby kid, pretty well coordinated, decent at soccer and softball, but no natural athlete. I was barely five feet tall, so instead of basketball, I tried out for wrestling. The first practice was murder. Afterward, I could barely drag myself to the car out front, where my mom was waiting for me. I got in and announced I was quitting. Then came a surprise. Usually my mom let me do what I wanted so long as I stayed out of trouble. This time she just said, "No. Stick it out."
I'm still grateful. Not that I became a champion, far from it. I lost my first match 19Ð2 and never caught up. I guess I never developed the killer instinct. Before a bout I would look up at the clock from the side of the mat and remind myself that win or lose, the ordeal would soon be over. You could pretty much sum up my high school wrestling career with an item from our local paper my sophomore year: "The agony of defeat is etched in the face of Orange High School's George Stephanopoulos," read the caption beneath a picture of me getting pinned.
Wrestling, in short, was more about what the sport did to me than what I did to my opponents. Cutting weight was an extreme exercise in self-control. I woke up extra early to run a mile or two before school; did sit-ups and push-ups while watching TV at night. I dieted on oranges and ran through the school hallways wrapped in plastic to sweat out that last pound. Even water had to be rationed in the hours before weigh-ins. To this day, when I put my mouth to a fountain I unconsciously count the sips. On Labor Day freshman year, I weighed 120 pounds. By November, I was wrestling at 98. My body showed me what it could take, which helped my mind turn around and instruct my body to take a little more. Though I wasn't a champion, what lingered for me was an addiction to exercise and a belief in the power of discipline.
But for all my desire to be one of the guys, I still wanted to excel and it wouldn't be as an athlete. Columbia University spoke to my ambition in a different way. It was in New York City. It offered a distinctive core curriculum based on the great books, music, and art of Western civilization, and no one from my high school had gone there in decades.
I thrived at Columbia, and junior year I had my first taste of Washington life, as a summer intern for our congresswoman, a Democrat named Mary Rose Oakar. The big legislative debate that summer was about Reagan's budget. I helped write speeches explaining how it would hurt Oakar's constituents in the working-class ethnic enclaves of Cleveland. Before that experience, I had considered volunteering for George Bush in 1979 and voted for John Anderson in 1980. But working against Reagan's budget made me a Democrat. I didn't think supply-side economics would work, and I didn't believe it was fair. Perhaps it wouldn't have happened had I had a different summer job, but unlike the millions of Democrats whom Reagan inspired to vote Republican, I was a Republican he pushed the other way.
By 1982, my senior year, I still didn't know what I would do with my life. Law school seemed like the natural choice: finishing school for ambitious liberal arts majors who didn't know exactly what they wanted to do. It would also meet the Greek standard for achievement. The only problem with law school was that when it was over I would be in real danger of becoming a lawyer.
I almost leaped in a completely different direction. As a volunteer Big Brother whose major was international politics, I was drawn to the Peace Corps and applied one day on an impulse. Around eight the next morning, I got a call from the on-campus recruiter: "George, you're in. We've got a spot, but you have to say yes right now." I did, and went back to sleep. An hour later, I made a pot of coffee and wondered what I had done. Teaching English in Tunisia seemed like good work, but it didn't speak to the part of me that wanted to play on a bigger stage, in a world where a single act could affect the lives of millions. It didn't satisfy my drive for secular success. After my second cup, I called back and said no.
I wanted to do good and do well. Returning to Washington offered the promise of both. At Columbia's work-study office, I saw an announcement for internships at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and won a job where I wrote book reviews and helped draft speeches about nuclear arms control, the subject of my senior thesis. The only problem was that the stipend ran out after six months. Unless I found something else, I had promised my parents that I would spend the next six months as a paralegal in Cleveland before starting law school in the fall.
I couldn't have planned what came next. Everyone needs a break or two to get ahead. Mine came the night Norman Mayer was shot.
Norman Mayer was an older man with a deep tan who wandered the streets of Washington in a nylon windbreaker, sunglasses, and a golf cap, looking like the caddie master at a country club gone to seed. He too was working on disarmament, but in his own peculiar way. If he caught your eye on the street, he would hand over a pamphlet that promised ten thousand dollars to anyone who could actually prove that nuclear weapons prevent nuclear war a pretty lucid point for a deranged person. Occasionally, Mayer walked into our offices off Dupont Circle to lobby for his proposal. Since I was the lowest person on the totem pole, he was my responsibility. I'd offer him a sandwich, and we'd chat uncomfortably until I could find a reason to excuse myself and usher him out the door. Not exactly what I had in mind when I imagined Washington power lunches, but Norman seemed harmless enough. Until December 8, 1982.
When I returned from lunch, my boss was waiting for me with a weak smile. "Your friend is holding the Washington Monument hostage," he said. "You'd better call the police."
Dressed in a homemade space suit, Norman Mayer had driven a van he said was loaded with dynamite up to the monument and threatened to blow it up unless he could broadcast his plan to prevent nuclear war. Washington was paralyzed, and the world was watching on live television. After I called the police, reporters started calling me.
So began my first foray into a media feeding frenzy one of those times when everyone in the country responsible for bringing "the news" to the rest of us focuses for a moment on a single event. TV bookers who fill the airwaves with talking heads work the phones to find anyone with even the most tangential connection to the event. That day, that someone was me: I was the guy who knew the guy who was holding Washington hostage. Nightline sent a limo. I actually said, "Well, Ted . . ." on national TV, before telling what little I knew about Norman. My parents made a video, and calls came in from friends all over the country. To top it all off, a newly elected congressman from Cleveland named Ed Feighan was watching one day after I had applied for an entry-level position in his office.
Feighan called the next day: "If you can get yourself on Nightline, maybe you can do some good for me." The job title was legislative assistant, which meant I would draft letters, memos, and speeches on whatever the congressman was working on. The salary was more than double my intern's stipend $14,500 a year.
I was thrilled with my new job but spooked by how I got it. Norman Mayer had been bluffing. There was no dynamite in his truck. But the police couldn't know that, so they shot him down near midnight when he tried to drive off the Mall. It's not my fault Norman got shot. I didn't drive the van or pull the trigger. Why couldn't he just surrender after making his point? Besides, I would have gotten the job anyway. I'm qualified, I'm from Cleveland, I'll work hard. Still . . . No, it wasn't my fault Norman got shot, but I couldn't escape the fact that his fate was my good fortune.
Around this time, one of my new friends, Eric Alterman, introduced me to his mentor, the legendary journalist I. F. Stone. Nearing eighty, Stone had spent the last fifty years covering Washington on his own in his own way, always exposing hypocrisy, always challenging power, never getting too close to it. Eric arranged for us to meet at the bagel bakery on Connecticut Avenue. I can still see Stone at a small table, picking at his late afternoon lunch of a toasted bagel, raisins, and a cup of tea. With his wispy curls and clear eyes, he looked like Yoda come to life in a fraying flannel suit.
"You've covered Washington so long," I asked, "weren't you ever tempted to go into politics yourself?"
"Once," he answered. Sixty-five years earlier, when Izzy was in high school, the political "boss" of his class had offered him a place on the editorial board of the school paper his dream job in return for campaign help. But whatever temptation Izzy felt was quickly overwhelmed by a wave of nausea and a vow never to approach active politics again.
I respected that sentiment, envied it, felt slightly shamed by it, but didn't share it. My new work seemed too thrilling to renounce, and I was a natural at the game of politics: at knowing who knew what I needed to know, at absorbing the rhythms of legislative life by walking the halls, at preparing committee hearing questions for my boss that might get picked up by the press, at learning to anticipate his political needs and to use his position to advance my issues too, at succumbing to the lure of the closed room and the subtle power rush that comes from hearing words I wrote come out of someone else's mouth.
A democracy needs people like Izzy on the outside to keep it honest, but it also needs people on the inside to make it work people who will play the game for the sake of getting good things done. But you have to be careful. Your first deal is like your first scotch. It burns, might make you feel nauseous. If you're like Izzy, once is enough. If you're like me, you get to like it. Then to need it.
In October 1983, two days after a terrorist attack on American marines in Beirut, President Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada. To me it seemed like a transparent diversion: Invade a tiny country in the Caribbean in order to keep people's minds off a terrible tragedy in the Middle East. I rushed into work that morning to write a speech for Feighan lambasting the president. "The whole country will see through this," I assured him, "and you should be leading the charge."
Feighan questioned the invasion from the floor of the House and he never let me forget it. Few other members of Congress joined him, and the public loved the pictures of those rescued medical students kissing American soil. I had made a tactical error in allowing my personal views to cloud my political judgment. Even if I believed I was right on the merits, I was wrong about the politics. I should have known enough to warn my boss that the invasion would be popular even as I advised him to speak out against it.
Would that have convinced him? Maybe not; maybe it was my passionate certainty that opposing the invasion was a political winner that made my case. Whatever the truth, I learned that day to separate what I thought was right from what I thought would work, a skill that would serve me well at a price. Judging how the world will judge what you do how a position will "play" is an essential political skill. If you can't predict what will work, you can't survive in office. If you don't keep your job, you can't achieve what you think is right. The danger is when you stop caring about the difference between being right and being employed, or fail to notice that you don't know what the difference is anymore.
That month I also applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, a second try after being rejected as a college senior. Studying at Oxford would give me the opportunity to spend more time thinking about what was right rather than what would work, and would reassure my parents about my future. Only half joking, my father asked, "When are you going to stop playing around in Washington and get a real job?" So I made a deal with him. If I got turned down again, I really would go to law school.
The selection committee saved me from that, and the scholarship offered the professional security of law school without the drudgery. The Rhodes is a passport to the Establishment. While it may not assure success, it guarantees opportunities to interview for great jobs. And the romantic vision of Oxford life passed down from scholars perched in the corridors of power is that while you're there, you get to read what you want, absorb the wisdom of brilliant tutors, argue into the night, and travel around the world. All this without a career penalty; it's an idyll off the fast track.
Unburdened for a time by the need to prove myself by getting good grades or impressing the boss, I had the chance at Oxford to learn and explore on my own. That fall a famine broke out in the Sudan. I went to volunteer in the camps and see the famine for myself to understand why it happens, what it does to people, and write about it if I could. Helping feed a few kids or keep the camps clean was worthwhile work, and the articles I intended to write might heighten awareness. But the return ticket zipped in my knapsack reminded me that I was no Albert Schweitzer. This trip was as much about adventure as altruism, and I knew it.
While I was in Sudan, the general who'd ruled for a generation with CIA backing was overthrown. On the day of the coup, I found myself in the middle of a silent riot. Mobs were milling about, but the only sound you heard was the squeak of sneakers on pavement. Then the radio announced that the general was gone, and the crowds started to race through the streets with joyful screams.
The rest of the day I wandered through Khartoum wondering if this was what a real revolution was like. The air was charged with happiness and hope, energized by the belief that everything would be better now that the bad guy was out and the new guys could govern. But I was struck by the sight of a dazed old woman who was observing the celebration from her cardboard home by the side of the road. What does she think of all this? Will her life be any better tomorrow than it is today? Or is some human misery beyond the reach of any revolution? Is it possible things will get worse?
Years later, that image sticks with me not as a counsel of despair or an excuse for cynicism, but as a reminder to be humble about the promise of politics and the potential of government. Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I'm capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I understand that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government a government that forces us to care for the common good even when we don't feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones. But I also believe in containing government and tempering the claims we make for it. I don't think government is good, just necessary. I'm a liberal who accepts limits.
My second year at Oxford was an attempt to reinforce my intellectual instincts with systematic study of Christian ethics. Back to basics. I wanted to build a better foundation for my political views, to ground my personal beliefs and partisan experience in philosophy and theology another way of reconciling the life I was leading with the life I had imagined as a boy. I knew a lot about the "how" and "what" of politics. Now I wanted to think more about the "why." So I read Augustine and Aquinas, Martin Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr, analyzing the fundamental questions of politics war and peace, life and liberty from the perspective of what was right rather than what would work. This would offer me a guide to which questions to ask and a reminder of where I was going wrong when I got too caught up in the game.
And I still loved the game. After my Rhodes I went back to Washington, where Congressman Feighan made me his chief of staff. The next year I signed on with the Dukakis-for-President campaign. This was a no-brainer: a Greek American liberal from Massachusetts was running for president. How could I not work for him? After volunteering in the primaries, I moved to Boston for what I thought would be a short, happy hiatus before returning to Washington with a new president.
When I arrived, we had a seventeen-point lead. Then came the summer assault. The Bush campaign, led by Lee Atwater, opened up a disciplined, ruthless, and sustained series of attacks on Governor Dukakis's record and character. Flags, furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance. Willie Horton became a household name, and President Reagan even joked that Dukakis was an "invalid." This "joke" was a calculated effort to ignite the false rumor spread around Washington by Republican operatives that Dukakis had been treated for depression and, politically, it worked. Though the allegation was false, Dukakis was forced to call a press conference with his doctor to deny it. By August's Republican convention, our lead was gone, our candidate was a caricature, and our campaign was effectively over.
A few months after the election, I left politics to become the assistant to Father Tim Healy, the new president of the New York Public Library. Father Healy, a brilliant Jesuit with the bearing of Jackie Gleason, wanted to rebuild the branch libraries that had meant so much to him when he was a kid growing up in the Bronx. I wanted to learn how to manage a major institution and to be part of that educational effort and, with the Republicans still controlling Washington, Manhattan seemed like a good place to be.
But just after I found an apartment, Newt Gingrich's campaign to topple Speaker Jim Wright succeeded, and the shake-up in the Democratic congressional leadership that ensued ended with Tom Foley as Speaker, Richard Gephardt as majority leader and my getting a call from Kirk O'Donnell. A veteran of former Speaker Tip O'Neill's operation, Kirk had been my boss in the Dukakis campaign and was now a Washington lawyer scouting talent on the side for Dick Gephardt.
Kirk called my office overlooking the library lions on Fifth Avenue and got right to the point: "I know you just started with Father Healy, George, but would you consider coming back to Washington to be Dick Gephardt's floor man?"
Consider? Are you kidding? Kirk was offering me a starting job in the Democratic Party's major league the House leadership. The majority leader was one step away from the Speaker, who was two steps away from the president. As executive floor assistant to Gephardt, I would be his shadow, his surrogate, his eyes and ears. In my old job with Feighan, our successes had been satisfying but small, like successfully petitioning for the release of a political prisoner or sneaking an amendment onto the foreign-aid bill to create microloans for third-world farmers. With Gephardt, I would get the chance to help set a national agenda for the Democratic Party, to figure out how to blunt Bush initiatives and force Bush vetoes. With Feighan, I couldn't get my phone call returned by the majority leader's floor man. With Gephardt, I would be that guy. Although I had never met the man, I knew Gephardt was a good Democrat, and there was a bonus: In 1992, he was planning to run again for president. So much for getting out of politics.
My new job was as exciting as I expected, even though I couldn't explain exactly what it was. Someone once compared it to being an air traffic controller at a busy airport on a foggy night; and as I stood near the Speaker's chair on late nights at the end of session and tried to explain to frustrated legislators why they had to stay for the last vote even though they had nonrefundable tickets for Florida with their families, I knew exactly what he meant. But most of the time, being the floor guy was a more substantive mix of policy and politics. It boiled down to two central tasks: knowing what was going on and getting things done.
I spent my days in perpetual motion, walking the marble halls from meeting to meeting, member to member, getting information and giving it out. Members would grab me by the tricep if they had a message for the leadership or wanted to know what was going on. Reporters slipped around the columns in search of news. Everything you needed to know had to be in your head, in your pocket, or no more than a phone call away.
But it wasn't enough to know the rules, or the fine points of policy. In the House, the personal is political and the political is personal. To know the House you have to know the members their home districts, their pet projects, their big contributors. You have to know what votes they'll throw away and which lines they'll never cross. You have to listen for the message in a throwaway line and laugh at the joke you've heard a thousand times. A personal feud might persist for decades, or an alliance could shift in a moment. The most fascinating part of the job was following those patterns, figuring out who held the key votes or which amendment would lock in a majority, watching the coalitions form, crack apart, and come together again.
I felt justified in my work, and that we were making a difference. The budget fight of 1990 was the best. We Democrats saw ourselves as fighting to reverse the Reagan-era priorities by pushing for tax increases for the wealthy and protecting programs for the working class, and we forced Bush to eat his words on "Read my lips," sweet revenge for what he'd done to Dukakis two years earlier. We spent weeks at Andrews Air Force Base, wrestling with the numbers and the Republicans. Late at night, Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski broke out a bottle of gin and told stories of all the presidents he'd known up close. By day we'd make charts out of the Republican proposals, showing how they would benefit the wealthy and burden ordinary workers. Then we'd feed them to the press to build public support for our side.
Our efforts strengthened the budget and weakened Bush politically, but as when I first came to Washington, ten summers earlier, a Republican president was still running the show and setting the agenda. All we Democrats could do was play defense, defining ourselves more by what we could prevent than by anything we hoped to create. We could block a capital gains tax cut, but not enact a tax credit for the working poor. We could stop cuts in Head Start or Medicare, but not expand student loans or pass national health care. We could piece together a bare majority to pass a gun control bill, but never get enough votes to override the inevitable veto. We could make a lot of noise about a Supreme Court appointment maybe even block the president's top choice but conservative judges would control the federal courts for another generation. We could win moral victories on Capitol Hill, but we couldn't make history.
It didn't look as if we'd have the chance soon, either. By the summer of 1991, America had won the Gulf War and President Bush was being rewarded with 90 percent approval ratings. Another election was on the horizon, but no one I knew believed Bush could be beat.
Gephardt was still looking at the 1992 presidential race, commissioning polls, testing the waters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Although my job was legislative work, he took me aside in the early summer to ask me what I thought. Should he seek the Democratic nomination in 1992?
"Absolutely," I told him. "You're well known, and you've run before. You can beat anyone else in the race." (Only Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts had announced.) "Even though Bush is popular," I continued, "someone has to take on this fight. It will be good for the party and the country."
Nice little speech. Sincere too as far as it went. But I was also motivated by something I couldn't say: I hope you'll run, if only for my sake. I've always wanted to be at the heart of a campaign, right by the candidate's side. You could win the nomination, and if you do, who knows? Bush stumbles, and I'm working for a president of the United States.
But Gephardt had voted for Bush's unpopular tax increase and against his popular war, and he was coming from a Congress that had raised its own pay and been bogged down in a check-cashing scandal. It seemed as if the only voters not angry at Congress in 1991 were the ones too alienated from politics to care at all. In an outsider's year, the majority leader was Mr. Inside. Knowing that, he wisely decided to stay where he was.
But I didn't want to stay. Restrained idealism and raw ambition the pistons of my character were powering up again, pushing me to find someone new.
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