Presidential tell-alls, by confidants or traitors?
Stephanopoulos's insider book hits stores this week, fueling privacydebate.
WASHINGTON — To some in the White House, he's a once-trusted colleague they now call the "Commentraitor," because of his candid and sometimes unflattering portrayals of President Clinton.
To others, now that George Stephanopoulos no longer works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he's well within his rights to reflect in print on his days of glory - and make millions of dollars in the process.
The controversy stems from Mr. Stephanopoulos's political tell-all book, which is arriving on shelves this week - sometimes displayed prominently next to the Monica Lewinsky tome.
"All Too Human: A Political Education" is netting the former Clinton political adviser and aide millions. But the first-person narrative is also fomenting debate over how much a member of a president's inside circle should reveal, and how soon presidential secrets should be told to the outside world.
"The big difference is, when the president is in office, it's criticism. If he's out, it's history," says former White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who served both Presidents Reagan and Bush, and believes reflective books should be written at the end of an administration - not during.
Given the extensive amount of information the public already knows about Mr. Clinton and his personal affairs, there are few, if any, shocking revelations.
But critics decry the Stephanopoulos book as the latest example of erosion of the walls that once stood firm between presidents and the outside world.
Mr. Fitzwater, for example, not only advises former staffers against writing a book while the president they served is still in office, he also urges them not to talk to authors looking for information during that sensitive time.
Fitzwater believes it was a mistake for Stephanopoulos and former adviser David Gergan to talk to author Elizabeth Drew during Clinton's first term.
"If you write or help write, it holds the president up to ridicule or examination," he says. "After he leaves, it's legitimate."
Others say it's important to hold book publishers at bay because it can hinder communication inside the Oval Office.
Talking out of school alters the trust of a president in soliciting advice from his inner circle of advisers and stifles the freewheeling dialogue that sometimes proves useful in solving complex problems, they say.
Some believe it's appropriate for a president to ask top aides and Cabinet members for a vow of silence while he or she is in office. Call it an administrative prenuptial agreement.
Even that might not be enough. "I think you have to go into public office today assuming everything you say and action you take may end up in a book or on the front page," says James Rosebush, former chief of staff to Nancy Reagan and adviser to her husband. "So you have to be circumspect and weigh the consequences."
"All Too Human" is not the first time a staffer has written about a former boss still in the White House.
The Reagan administration, for example, witnessed a wave of books. One, written by former chief of staff Donald Regan, revealed that Mrs. Reagan consulted astrologers. Top aide Larry Speakes wrote an insider account as did one of Mr. Reagan's chief economic advisers, David Stockman, who depicted his boss's supply-side economic theories as "voodoo."
"Stockman's book was perhaps the most damaging because it hit squarely on economic policies and the direction of the country," Mr. Rosebush says.
A matter of reputation
While tell-alls against a former boss may net millions, it can take a toll on the writer's reputation and career.
"It destroyed Larry Speakes's career," believes a Reagan administration source. "I remember going to see him at his office in New York at Merrill Lynch after we left Washington. He had 30-foot ceilings in his office.... You'd think you had gone to see God."
After leaving the White House, Mr. Speakes made a great transition from government to the private sector, the source says. "But after his book, he was called in and fired."
Fitzwater predicts the same for Stephanopoulos. "My guess is George will be hurt by this," he says.
But the allure of passing on inside details while the president is still in office is the essence of what makes these books readable, according to some that have written them.
"It's while the president is still in office that people want to know the information," says former Clinton confidant and tell-all author Dick Morris.
Why we read
"This stuff is of great interest to the public since we don't know what goes on inside the White House," points out Roger Hartley, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
According to White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, the president hasn't read the Stephanopoulos book and has no strong reactions to the disclosures.
"He had sort of a shrugged-shoulders reaction," he says.
But privately, Clinton feels anger and betrayal toward his one time confidant and friend, according to a White House source.
"Believe me, he's mad about it," the staff member says.