Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Confessions of the Master of Spin

Stephen Lazarus


March 29, 1999

The White House is filled with overworked do-gooders engaged in evasive tactics and some pretty dirty politics. That's the portrayal of Clintonian government as usual in All Too Human, the new memoir by George Stephanopoulos.

But as disheartening and disgusting as all this is, it is hardly noteworthy unless you happen to be one of those who believe that the earth is flat and that all such stories about the Clintonistas are inventions of the vast right-wing conspiracy. What is noteworthy, instead, is the glimmer the book gives of the redemption of crass politics.

You remember Stephanopoulos, Clinton's wunderkind, the boyish Ivy League short-stuff who served as senior policy wonk and political strategist during Clinton's first term. He and James Carville, the Cajun attack dog, ran the campaign's War Room in Clinton's successful 1992 bid to unseat President Bush. Once a major operative behind Clinton's spin machine, Stephanopoulos left the White House for TV and teaching and eventually became Clinton's most outspoken former advisor, criticizing his former boss for recklessness and irresponsibility.

Before hitching his wagon to Clinton's rising star back in 1992, Stephanopoulos says he set a few goals for himself. He intended to do well and do good: to outmaneuver the other side and get to the top, while also advancing justice and improving the world. He would promote the President's glory and advance his own political beliefs. He would help Clinton push through his initiatives, but keep his personal integrity. A tall order.

The strategist's strategy didn't always work. Statecraft became stagecraft. Truth was twisted into "spin". "Advancing the administration's agenda" became saving Clinton's butt and quashing sexual allegations. Stephanopoulos admits he got swept up in the self-importance of being Clinton's man. He was unable to resist being seduced by the President's charm. Against his Orthodox upbringing, he was swayed by the belief that the ends really did justify the means.

Nevertheless, surprising as it may seem, international and domestic crises were somehow managed, budget deals were negotiated, laws were proposed and signed. The business of governing the nation carried on. There's the surprise of Stephanopoulos' book: despite all the scheming and spinning, all the immoralities and corruption, governing still took place. Welfare reform and Charitable Choice passed; two small signs that government can advance justice.

This two-sided portrayal of politics challenges the naive idealist, who believes that politics can be a straightforward process of implementing some pristine vision of what is right and good without opposition and conflict. It must also confound the desire some have for "purity"—to withdraw and remain outside the rough and tumble world of politics with its compromises and bargaining.

Justice is not a matter of fine theories or long prayers. Real people must enact justice through the real world of politics. Politics is a necessary part of government. Opposing views (which otherwise would be stamped out) go head to head. When properly limited and directed, government does what no other institution in society can do. It resolves public conflict, makes and enforces laws, and promotes the public good. By God's grace, government restrains evil, preserves order and freedom, and makes for a better world.

This picture of politics as a mix of virtue and vice contradicts the jaded cynic who is convinced that politics is only Machiavelli's arena of petty ambition and self-interest. Politicians are flawed humans, some strikingly so. Yet the work of politicians is never simply the sum of the manipulation and deceit that gives governing a bad name.

Thus even as Stephanopoulos' tale of life in the big leagues of power exposes the dark side of the administration he used to serve, his subtle condemnation of its evils and his uneasy conscience suggest this key point: nothing in our politics lies outside God's judgment or beyond redemption. 

—Stephen Lazarus, Policy Research Associate
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”