The risk of telling all before it's over

From George Stephanopoulos, the presidential counselor recently described by pollster Dick Morris as Bill Clinton's former ankle bracelet, comes a tell-all that inadvertently portrays the author more as ankle-biter.

For all the book's promised sound and fury, it discloses little more than mildly embarrassing revelations and the often serendipitous style of a chief executive the public has already seen laid bare time after time by the Lewinsky scandal, other tell-alls, even the fictional account of cinema in "Primary Colors."

Stephanopoulos is clearly a talented political strategist, and his "All Too Human: a Political Education" paints an insider's account of the Clinton camp in a blizzard of personal pronouns and self-doubt about his ability to move from presidential campaigning to advising.

No doubt anecdotally significant to historians, the book for present day news junkies will be interesting reading about a political adviser who succeeded in getting his guy into the Oval Office - and then what? Chapter after chapter is like watching the dog that manages to catch the car it's chasing.

From his surprise at gun-toting Secret Service agents appearing after Mr. Clinton won the '92 Democratic primary to hoping the president would mistake him for a piece of furniture and not seek his opinion the first time the president bombed Iraq, Stephanopoulos's account is one of a modern Icarus. His father warned him against pride, but in the end, the job drove him to anxiety and depression.

In fairness, Stephanopoulos discloses embarrassing details about himself, his devotion, and his sometimes fragile mind-set through various periods of service to the Clintons, as in this passage about the hurly-burly '92 campaign: "All through the fall I had a recurring fantasy about wrestling a gunman to the ground to save Clinton."

He also fesses up to some of the pettiest of office politics, detailing how he strategized with Clinton friend Vernon Jordan and adviser David Gergen in his bid to get West Wing office space next to the president.

His relief when learning that he had scored prized digs near the Oval is palpable.

"All Too Human" also overlaps and picks up where "The War Room" left off. The documentary drama used hand-held camcorder footage and news reels to showcase the madcap, behind-the-scenes world of the '92 campaign. Stephanopoulos takes the same fly-on-the-wall perspective into the West Wing of the White House with revelations that include how Clinton and others resorted to searching randomly through congressional directories for a new attorney general candidate when Zoe Baird and a second nominee tanked following controversy.

Inappropriate, gossipy asides gratuitously exploit Stephanopoulos's close relationship with the Clintons, developed in the high-pressure atmosphere of decisionmaking. Letting the reader in on the president's private phone calls, for example as he does with a conversation the president had with Sen. Robert Kerry during the budget cliffhanger of his first term, shows Clinton's legendary hot temper, and, unnecessarily, his biting profanity.

The larger message the book conveys is a lukewarm scolding to a gifted and idealistic president whom Stephanopoulos believes wasted a golden opportunity. But even at the harshest moments, he takes the sting out of most of the scolding with prefaces of explanation or excuse.

*James N. Thurman covers the White House for the Monitor.

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