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ALL TOO HUMAN: A Political Education; \o7 By George Stephanopoulos; (Little, Brown: 456 pp., $27.95)\f7

April 11, 1999|JOHANNA NEUMAN | Johanna Neuman is a projects editor in The Times' Washington bureau. She is the author of "Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics?"

When George Stephanopoulos was 4, he began serving as an altar boy at his father's church. Clearly, he enjoyed the rituals--the candles, the sacrament, the incense. "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 my father's prayers were my cues," he writes in "All Too Human," a memoir of the young aide's travails in the Clinton White House. When the father said "Agios o Theos," George knew to get the candles. When the priest intoned, "Wisdom, let us attend," the son obediently got the cross. When the father praised the Father, the altar boy heated the water for Holy Communion. "Behind the screen, I learned to stay composed in the presence of power and was swayed by the illusion of indispensability."

Years later, when his rivals were trying to limit his influence at the White House, Stephanopoulos was slow to see their machinations behind the scenes. He learned from the Washington Post, while drinking his coffee one morning in September 1994, that a small plane piloted by a depressed veteran had crashed into the White House. That no one had notified him at the time was evidence of lost power. Still, he clung to the "illusion of indispensability." "No way," he thought. "How could this happen? How come nobody called me?" How, indeed?

The only real disclosure in this sad memoir is that a bright, handsome young man, full of ambition and confidence, made his way to power with partisan tactics and a tin ear for diplomacy, both personal and political. That is hardly a novel theme, as both Shakespeare and Hollywood long ago discovered. What is trite, in fact, is how familiar the themes of this self-described "political education" seem: an idealist who gravitated toward politics instead of the priesthood, a liberal who chose to join forces with a pragmatist, an enthusiast who grew depressed in the proximity of power. And the only White House secrets betrayed here are of Stephanopolous' many mistakes. As Clinton says to Stephanopoulos, "We hired too many young people in this White House who are smart but not wise."

Stephanopoulos' judgment was so often wrong that it is a wonder he lasted four years. Repeatedly, as rival Dick Morris steered Clinton toward the political center in ways that boosted the president's sagging popularity, Stephanopoulos clung to a partisan liberal profile, attaining the look of a shrill obstructionist. He urged Clinton not to recommend a balanced budget, as that would be too much of a sop to Republicans. And when Clinton, in a moment of calculated theater, told a Texas audience that he thought he had raised their taxes too much--arguably the single most important contribution to Clinton's political rehabilitation--Stephanopoulos wanted him to retract it.

Even on tactical political decisions--the kind for which Stephanopoulos had been groomed as a key aide to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.)--the tally of miscalls is impressive. He encouraged Clinton to campaign hard in mid-term elections in 1994, not appreciating that given Clinton's low standing in the polls, this was one year to keep him home in a Rose Garden strategy. Hoping to protect Clinton, Stephanopoulos told him on a trip to Indonesia to duck a question on school prayer instead of sticking to his usual formulation that he supported voluntary prayer in the schools. "It made it look like he was flip-flopping on a matter of bedrock political principle," Stephanopoulos writes on the impact of that bad advice. "It took us two days to clean up the mess of stories about how Clinton had lost his political and moral compass." And, the worse sin of all from the Clintons' viewpoint, Stephanopoulos was a primary source for Bob Woodward's book, "The Agenda," which showcased an undisciplined White House decision-making process. Woodward quoted Stephanopoulos as saying of Clinton, "The worst thing about him is that he never makes a decision." Neither Clinton nor his wife, Hillary, much trusted him after that, and he admits to the crime of naively--and vainly--thinking he could spin Woodward. An old Washington tale: the seducer and the seduced.

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