Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“All Too Human: A Political Education”, George Stephanopoulos

July 13th, 2009 · No Comments · biography, Politics

GeorgeSynopsis: One time choir boy, Rhodes Scholar and Dukakis operative pens a first person account of the experience of being a senior staffer for the Clinton campaign and subsequently presidency. Honest, insightful and controversial.

My Take: The best book ever written by a political insider. Odds are, that if you ask someone who has spent any real amount of time working in politics, they will nominate this book as the most real account of what it’s really like. It’s a bit of a cult classic for political hacks the world around.

What sets ‘All Too Human’ apart from most other political tomes is its revealing honesty and self-analysis. Stephanopolous’ book is not an insider’s account of the Clinton candidacy and Presidency. It’s a first-hand account of the experience of being a senior political staffer. Stephanopolous perfectly captures the pressure, lack of control and resulting stress of political work, but most candidly, he freely reveals and reflects on his motivations during this period. Stephanopolous is honest enough to admit that often, he was as much driven by the desire for power and influence as he was by public service. As he notes:

“I believe in original sin … I know that I’m capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids … I understand that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion …”

Stephanopolous laments not only the compromises that he made in the pursuit of these selfish ends, but also his failures to achieve these personal ambitions. This theme is especially prominent when Stephanopolous is forced to confront his eventual exclusion from Clinton’s inner circle (and the usurpation of Dick Morris) – a personal setback that triggers a downward spiral into depression and eventually resignation. It was fairly clear to me on reading Stephanopolous’ account of this period that the cause of this depression was not the feeling that Clinton would be less able to serve the public interest without his advice, but more the personal disappointment of losing recognition and therefore influence. As Stephanopolous frankly states:

”I was excluded, which was killing me and my pride.”

As a result, Stephanopolous fell into a deep depression – and felt unable to seek treatment for fear that his situation would be exposed in the media. His situation became so physically dire that his face broke out into permanent hives and he was forced to grow a thick beard to hide the effects. Much of the book feels like an honest personal reflection on this period and a genuine attempt to understand what brought him to this point – in particular his conflagration of personal success in politics and his sense of self-worth.

This honest recognition of the personal interest in public service generated substantial vitriol amongst the journalists who reviewed Stephanopolous’ book. For instance the New York Times scathingly wrote:

It is a positive recommendation of Clinton that he took less advice from Stephanopoulos as time went on. It was this exclusion, not any moral repugnance at power, that made Stephanopoulos a nervous wreck.

What we are offered in this book is a little moral homily on the way a good Greek Orthodox altar boy was almost corrupted by power, but finally escaped.

….

But he was not corrupted by power. He was corrupted by the fear of losing it, a fear he brought with him to the White House, not one he picked up there. He tells us himself that he did not choose Clinton as his candidate because he admired him. He admired Mario Cuomo, had ties with Richard Gephardt and was urged by his family to support Paul Tsongas because he was Greek. He went with Clinton instead, since he thought he could win, and his famous funk over the Gennifer Flowers revelation was less an expression of moral repugnance than a frustration that his winner might be a loser after all.

Equally viciously, Salon commented that:

The dish immediately takes on the tone of a spurned lover … the president turns out to be a cad, so his confidences are betrayed, on page after page, with an air of righteousness. The betrayer comes across as shallow, deluded, naive, appallingly star struck and disgustingly ambitious — qualities that, combined with all the stress the roguish Clinton causes, eventually necessitate therapy and psychotropic drugs.

…. a tour de force of self-loathing and self-promotion, “All Too Human: A Political Education.” A poorly written fable about an arrogant young Greek who flies too close to the sun and crashes to the ground — call it the tragedy of Prickarus — it’s recommended mainly to those who already loathe Stephanopoulos and desire more evidence to back their feelings up.

….

Not unlike Monica Lewinsky, he seems to bear more than a touch of unrequited love for the man who now refuses to let aides mention his name in his presence. However pathetic that seems, it’s actually one of Stephanopoulos’ more endearing qualities.

Ouch. This kind of viciousness towards those working in politics from the media is a bit of a personal bug-bear of mine. It’s true that this book was released at a time when the association between depression and the pressures of political life was less well understood (Alastair Campbell, John Brogden, Geoff Gallop etc). However, I do think it reflects a common view in the media that those who work in politics should not only be treated with a healthy scepticism, but with a genuine contempt. The fact that those working in politics are human and subject to human foibles is rarely recognised, and almost never accepted as a reason not to personally vilify those working in public life. Journalists are justified in holding political operatives to account – but not holding them in contempt.

At the end of the day, I have to agree with the sentiments of an Amazon reviewer who commented that:

I praise his frank recounting of how he was working for himself as well as for the president and his agenda. Those who chide Stephanoulos for striving for personal success, and telling us how he pursued it, need to reevaluate their own career motives before they pass judgement.

I think most political staffers who’ve read ‘All Too Human’ appreciated the anxieties that Stephanopolous recounts in this book.  While those who work in political life ought to be primarily motivated by a sense of public service, it’s unreasonable to hold them to a standard in which all self-interested actions are grounds for vilification. Stephanopolous’ honesty in recognising these personal motivations, rather than portraying himself as purely publicly minded saint was a refreshing change for a political memoir.  This kind of candor should be the subject for congratulations, not contempt.

Highlight:

On having realised that that the TelePrompTer had been misloaded for Clinton’s health-care address to Congress:

“The thought of the president trying to concentrate on his delivery as gobbledygook whirred by his eyes made me sick with worry — for him and me. This screwup might not have been my fault, but it was my responsibility. ‘This is the worst thing that’s ever happened,’ I muttered. ‘I dunno,’ replied Mike Feldman, the vice president’s aide, ‘the Holocaust was pretty bad.’ Very funny.”

Yep – I know that feeling well.

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