Clinton and Morris revisited

Sometimes it is possible to put a couple of Monitor breakfasts together and come up with something more than a lot of scrambled eggs. Some pairings can be quite enlightening. Like recently, when two longtime close aides of the president were breakfast guests - pollster Stan Greenberg one day and top economic adviser Gene Sperling (no relation) the next.

Both were asked the same first question - what they thought of George Stephanopoulos's new book, "All Too Human," which critiques the president's first term. They both indicated they thought the book, which is of the "kiss-and-tell" variety, should not have been written, at least at this time. And both firmly asserted that the book would not break up their close friendship with Mr. Stephanopoulos.

But on Stephanopoulos's allegation that from December 1994 through August 1996 "no single person more influenced the president of the US than Dick Morris," these two breakfast guests parted company with Stephanopoulos.

Mr. Greenberg was appalled by the seriousness of this allegation - even more than by the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He, like all of Clinton's top aides, simply didn't have any use for Morris, nor did he trust his advice.

Likewise, Sperling, from his White House desk, rejects this Stephanopoulos charge that for months and months Morris was steering the presidency. He thinks Clinton during that period was listening to several advisers - Leon Panetta, Harold Ickes, the Joint Chiefs, and others - and "then somehow found a balance that worked for him."

"It's the president who then makes the call," he said.

Sperling described Clinton's balanced-budget amendment as a "good example" of this process where the president listened to a "combination of advisers" and to "spirited debate" before making his decision.

Sperling told us that "for a long time" he had had "strong disagreements" with Stephanopoulos "about comments he had made about the president." But, he added, the former Clinton aide "has been a close personal friend. I've said that this strong friendship can survive this strong disagreement."

I'm particularly obliged to Sperling for providing his rebuttal to the Stephanopoulos book. I gave George's comments about Clinton much play in a recent column. It's therefore helpful to me to know that another key player saw things differently - and to be able to point this out now.

I only question whether Sperling's White House seat was close enough to the Oval Office for him to always see what was going on.

It's also important to note that neither Greenberg nor Sperling was challenging the credibility of Stephanopoulos's book. It's clear that both of these men worked closely with George and liked him very much. And they aren't denying that he's a truthful fellow who has told a truthful story from a vantage point of almost moment-by-moment closeness to the president.

Indeed, only Stephanopoulos was so close to the president's side that he was in a position to write: " 'Charlie' was Dick's [Morris's] code name. The president had engaged him to run a covert coup against the colonels. The two of them plotted in secret - at night, on the phone, by fax.... No single person more influenced the president of the US than Dick Morris."

I've yet to hear from anyone in the White House - certainly, there has been no denial from the president - that Morris didn't have the ear of Clinton from "December 1994 through August 1996."

And Morris certainly claims this relationship.

I kept reminding myself - as I read Stephanopoulos's book -how particularly well-positioned he had been to observe and assess the president. He had that great view of Clinton from the catbird seat.

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