Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 13, 1995

Odyssey Course Attracts Presidential Adviser:
Stephanopoulos Reflects on the Spinning Life

Steve Libowitz

     After nearly three years in the White House, former
presidential spokesman and communications director George
Stephanopoulos has come to appreciate some basic truths about
dealing with the Washington press corps: you can't go around
them, you can't hide from them and you can't beat them.

     A rather candid Stephanopoulos joined Washington Post
reporter Dave Maraniss (author of the 1995 Clinton biography
in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton) and Hopkins political 
science professor Benjamin Ginsberg in Shriver Hall as part of
School of Continuing Studies' Odyssey course on press and

     Quoting Oscar Wilde, Stephanopoulos began by saying, "In
America the president rules for four years, but the press reigns
for ever and ever. It took me about five minutes in the press
briefing room on [inauguration day] to realize how true that
was," he said.

     Only hours into his job as Clinton's press secretary,
Stephanopoulos found himself defending the president's nomination
of Zoe Baird for attorney general. "About an hour and 15 minutes
into the briefing I made the ultimate press secretary error. I
came up with the great phrase, 'mistakes were made,' and I could
hear all the air let out of that briefing room. That was the
first afternoon of the first day, and it didn't get much better
after that."

     During the 1992 presidential campaign, Stephanopoulos
emerged as the darling of the Clinton campaign. The campaign went
well. Stephanopoulos and his colleagues, particularly campaign
director James Carville, became stars in the campaign documentary
The War Room, and the press seemed favorably inclined toward the
baby boom president-elect and his youthful staff.  Although
Carville had boasted after the election that Clinton no longer
needed the press, the Washington press corps seemed ready to give
the new president the traditional honeymoon most new chief
executives enjoy. 

     But that would not be the case, and Stephanopoulos blames
himself as much as he does the press.

     He acknowledged he had made a mistake when soon after coming
to the White House he banished the press corps from its
traditional office space near the Oval Office.

     Maranis, whose book details Clinton's years as Arkansas'
governor, provided a possible rationale for the move, maintaining
Clinton never liked the press, was always hostile toward them and
had always tried to reach beyond the mainstream news outlets well
before he ever appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show, MTV or with
Larry King. 

     "This surprised me because Clinton and the press are so much
alike," he said. "Clinton, like much of the press, is a baby
boomer, and he's engaging, intelligent, interested in everything.
But the rapport has always been missing."

     Within a few months, Stephanopoulos was involved in the
firing of five employees of the White House travel office. Even
though some reporters acknowledged the office was mismanaged, it
does provide first-class creature comforts to reporters on
presidential trips.

     "I learned you get in trouble when you hurt the Washington
press corps," Stephanopoulos said. 

     He admitted the mistakes he and the communications team had
made stemmed, in part, from their basic misunderstanding of the
difference between working for a candidate and working for the
president. But he also tried to make the case--assuredly, if
gently--that running the government and making policy are a
transparent process, covered practically 24 hours a day by the

     "[The relationship is] mostly a struggle for information,"
he said. "The press wants as much access to the president as
possible, and the president has a need to limit access. We have a
story we're trying to get out and then there's the hidden story
they think must be there, and we're not telling," he said.

     Although he understands that the confrontational posture of
the press dates back to Vietnam and Watergate, he expressed
frustration that so often politics is rising to the top of policy
stories, and content is buried. He bristled when a student asked
why Clinton was not doing more for education reform.

     "If the president was here right now, he'd jump off this
stage and sit next to you for hours, telling you everything he's
done," Stephanopoulos said. "That's my point. It's hard to get
that message out."

     Perhaps more disturbing than not getting the president's
message out is having to defend a wrong story. "Every president
gets sucked into a fake scandal that the press and public then
believe provides a real window on the presidency," he said. 

     He cited the coverage of George Bush's campaign visit to the
grocery store, in which the press wrote how the president was
shocked to see a checkout scanner. 

     "We used that in the campaign to our advantage to point out
that the president was out of touch with the American people,"
Stephanopoulos laughed, "but the story was untrue." The
president, he said, was watching a demonstration of a new type of
scanner that subtracted each purchase directly from the shopper's
bank account. "If they showed that to me I'd have been
surprised," he said. 

     Stephanopoulos felt the sting of inaccurate reporting when
the press swarmed on the story that the president's $200 haircut
had stacked up planes at Los Angeles airport.

     "It was a week of news," Stephanopoulos said, "but when
Newsday reported some time later that there was absolutely no
disruption of regular airport traffic, only the 55,000 people who
read that paper got the story."

     In June 1993, amid cries of incompetence ("a bigger sin in
Washington than criminality," wrote Newsweek's Stanley Cloud)
Stephanopoulos was bumped out of the communications office, in
favor of David Gergen, and into the president's circle of
advisers. The ring of fire slipped from around him, and two years
later, he appears relaxed, open and reflective about the
relationship between the president and the press.

     "I liken [the relationship] to that of parents and kids," he
said. "I think of what it's like to be a White House
correspondent, and it's horrible. They have structured feeding
times ...  one at at 9:15 and one at 1 o' clock ... they're kept
down in their rooms and not allowed to leave, and most of the
time they're being told no they can't have that. And like any
kid, they want what they can't have."

     It's also like a marriage, he said. "Both sides are insecure
about the other, they're obsessed with each other and prone to
look for signs of inattentiveness or insults."

     Ginsberg brought the conversation to a close with his
remembrance of growing up in the Chicago of Mayor Richard Daley,
in which there was "a different relationship between the press
and politicians." 

     "One year Daley came under media attack because it was
exposed ...  there was corruption in Chicago politics," he said,
bringing the audience to laughter. "One interpid reporter did an
ambush interview with the mayor ... and said, 'All the media is
endorsing your opponnent. What do you say to that?' And Daley
said, 'When you have the people behind ya, you don't need the
media. In fact, the media can kiss my ass.'

     "No modern politician--although he might think it--would
ever say the media can kiss my you-know-what," Ginsberg said.

     Stephanopoulos smiled broadly.

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