The most startling allegation coming out of George Stephanopoulos' inside look at President Clinton's first term was this: "From December 1994 through August 1996, Leon Panetta managed the official White House staff, the Joint Chiefs commanded the military, the Cabinet administered the government, but no single person more influenced the president of the United States than Dick Morris."
Of the Clinton-Morris relationship, Mr. Stephanopolous tells us in his new book, "All Too Human - A Political Education": "The two of them plotted in secret - at night, on the phone, by fax."
Dick Morris? He's the gun-for-hire political consultant-pollster who was giving some of his daily advice to Mr. Clinton while visiting a prostitute. That scandal came to light during the 1996 Democratic convention. He's the fellow who ran a poll on whether the public would tolerate the Lewinsky relationship. And when these findings showed the president couldn't own up to perjury and survive politically, Clinton said, "Well, then, we just must win."
Stephanopoulos, from a seat just outside the Oval Office and with frequent daily meetings with the president, tells us that Mr. Morris's influence on the president came from Clinton's dark side - the part that let only winning, or survival, control his thinking. Morris had been brought on board back in Arkansas when Governor Clinton needed political rehabilitation. And so it was that Dick Morris - whose only approach to an issue is, "Can it help us win?" - was brought back to guide President Clinton when he plunged in popularity in mid-first term. Indeed, it was Mrs. Clinton who asked Morris to rescue the president.
There's far more than this tale about Morris in a book that some observers are condemning as an unfair kiss-and-tell report. But it's not really a kiss-and-kill book, the worst of this genre.
Actually, the author says he never has lost his conviction that Clinton is always trying to create a better, more compassionate world. And his final terse judgment on the first four Clinton years is this: "A rocky but fundamentally righteous journey."
Stephanopoulos tells us that when he was asked to join the Clinton campaign in 1992, he held back, having heard rumors about the candidate's "women problems." He wondered whether this might disqualify Clinton with the voters - la Gary Hart.
At that point Stephanopoulos was reassured by hearing what Clinton had just said at a Monitor breakfast.
"Toward the end of the hour," he writes, "[Clinton] acknowledged that his marriage had 'not been perfect or free of difficulties,' but assured the room that he and Hillary had worked it out and expected to be together forever. The message was clear: The past wasn't prologue."
Stephanopoulos tells us that later, when many Whitewater-related questions were flying at the president, Clinton responded to his young aide, who was pressing him to be more forthcoming with information: "No, you're wrong, George. The questions won't stop. At the Sperling breakfast, I answered more questions about my private life than any candidate ever, and what did that get me? They'll always want more. No president has ever been treated like I've been treated."
Stephanopoulos sympathized with the president at the time. But he had no sympathy for what he later saw as the "recklessness" of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Out of the White House by this time and a TV commentator, Stephanopoulos went on the air within a few hours after that scandal surfaced. Here is how he writes about his historic broadcast as the first Clinton insider to deliver a harsh verdict on the president's conduct and the penalty that might lie ahead:
"While the technicians fiddled with my microphone and earpiece, I reminded myself to stay balanced, to control both my anger at Clinton and my instinct to spin for him. Don't accuse. Don't defend. Analyze."
And then Stephanopoulos uttered these words, words that rocked Clinton and his hold on the presidency:
"These are probably the most serious allegations yet leveled against the president. If they're true, they're not only politically damaging, but it could lead to impeachment proceedings."