How Stephanopolous Tried to Save Hillary in 2008
Like Philip Carey, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Clinton aide and current ABC grandee, George Stephanopoulos, has repeatedly sought the love and approval of a woman who simply does not have love in her bag of tricks.
That woman, of course, would be Hillary Clinton. In the film version of Maugham’s novel, Bette Davis played the cold-heated temptress Milldred. She would have been great in the role of Hillary. For that matter, Leslie Howard would have done a bang up job as the love-sick, weak-kneed Stephanopoulos.
For all his fecklessness, Stephanopoulos made a bold attempt to save Hillary’s candidacy when he “moderated” a primary debate in April 2008, and he might even have succeeded had his media buddies not already decided their job was to elect Barack Obama.
In the way of background, Stephanopolous served as a top advisor to Bill Clinton both on the campaign trail in 1992 and during the first term of the Clinton administration. Those who insist on thinking Clinton an otherwise solid president with a disabling libido problem have not read the books by Stephanopolous and others with the inside skinny.
In fact, the Clinton White House was a mess. In his 1999 memoir, All Too Human, A Political Education, Stephanopolous called its atmosphere “dysfunctional.” Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich talked about a “chronically undisciplined president” and a “wildly disorganized White House.” In his book, The Choice, Robert Woodward described a White House that “teetered on the edge of management chaos.”
What troubled the proudly liberal Stephanopolous most was Clinton’s move to the center in 1996 to save his presidency, a move engineered by the ever-calculating Dick Morris. “I hated him,” Stephanopolous wrote bluntly of Morris. “I wanted him gone.” To Stephanopoulos, “triangulation” was little more than a “fancy word for betrayal.”
Morris clearly understood the president’s character, or lack of the same, better than Stephanopolous did. “All that mattered was his survival,” Stephanopoulos finally came to realize. “Everyone else had to fall in line: his staff, his cabinet, the country, even his wife.”
Likely for reasons of the heart, Stephanopoulos failed to see Hillary as an equal partner in the couple’s duplicity. When she did show flashes of cruel calculation, it hurt him personally. After one tongue lashing, for instance, he “walked the few steps to my office, closed the door behind me, and broke down.” Or as Maugham wrote of Carey, “He tried to force a love which was not in her nature . . . [and] was angry with himself for showing so little dignity.”
As Stephanopoulos later reported, he managed to put behind him all the “the stresses and threats and resentments.” Upon leaving the White House after Clinton’s reelection in 1996, Hillary told him, "I love you, George Stephanopoulos." Said George, "I love you too."
That the Obama camp allowed this man to moderate a primary debate on ABC was one of their few tactical failures during the 2008 campaign. Stephanopoulos might as well have worn an “I heart Hillary” button. At one point, in fact, he threw Barack Obama a curve that had the potential to derail the senator’s campaign.
While addressing the “general theme of patriotism,” Stephanopoulos asked Obama about Bill Ayers. “He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s,” Stephanopoulos reminded the audience. “They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that.” He then asked Obama, “Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?”
If Obama was caught off guard, there was a good reason why. David Axelrod thought he had retired the Ayers issue two months earlier. In February, Ben Smith, then with Politico, had reported as fact Axelrod’s claim that the Obama-Ayers relationship went no deeper than the happenstance that their children “attend the same school.”
True, upon learning that Obama’s oldest child was born 18 years after Ayers’s youngest, Smith later added a comically circuitous “update,” but the media shied from chasing the story or even chiding Axelrod. It was clear they wanted no part of Ayers.
The Stephanopoulos question put Obama on the spot. “I know not the man,” he replied—no, excuse me, that was Peter on the subject of Jesus. On the subject of Ayers, Obama proved only slightly more straightforward. “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” said Obama for the ages. “He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from (sic) on a regular basis.”
Obama then went on to scold Stephanopoulos for daring to ask a question about a man who “engaged in detestable acts forty years ago, when I was eight years old.” To suggest that this relationship somehow reflected on him and his values, huffed Obama, “doesn't make much sense.”
Following the debate, just about every chatterbox in the chattering class fueled what the L.A. Times called a “storm of criticism.” The rage was not, however, directed not at Obama for his evasiveness. No one even bothered to point out, for instance, the obvious that Ayers may have begun his “detestable” career when Obama was eight, but he continued it until Obama was eighteen.
No, the media rage was directed at Stephanopoulos for his effrontery. How dare he confront Obama with "such tired tripe,” said the Washington Post's Tom Shales. How dare he ask Obama about an "obscure sixties radical," said Michael Grunwald of Time.
A Huffington Post blogger likened Stephanopoulos to the inevitable Joe McCarthy. He was one of many to do so. In the unkindest of cuts, several pundits accused him of conspiring with Sean Hannity. “The real story of this debate,” snarled MSNBC’s inimitable Keith Olbermann, may be “where one of the moderators found his questions.”
If Ayers was marginally in play before the debate, he was clearly out-of-bounds afterwards, at least in the mainstream arena. Obama had established his distance from this guy in the neighborhood, and God help the reporter or vice-presidential candidate who imagined them palling around together, let alone collaborating on Obama’s memoir.
Always more an activist than a journalist, once Hillary was knocked out of the campaign Stephanopoulos joined his pals in their quest to get Obama elected. He got a chance to prove his loyalty in September of that year when interviewing the senator on ABC’s This Week.
“You are absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith,” said Obama carelessly. Stephanopoulos quickly corrected him with a sotto voce “Christian faith,” and Obama affirmed the correction. The rest is history.
Were it not for “reporters” like Stephanopolous the comically inept and hopelessly corrupt Ms. Clinton would not dare run for mayor of Chappaqua. As it is, she could well be the next president of the United States.