Odyssey Course Attracts Presidential Adviser: Stephanopoulos Reflects on the Spinning Life Steve Libowitz --------------------- Editor After nearly three years in the White House, former presidential spokesman and communications director George Stephanopoulos has come to appreciate some basic truths about dealing with the Washington press corps: you can't go around them, you can't hide from them and you can't beat them. A rather candid Stephanopoulos joined Washington Post reporter Dave Maraniss (author of the 1995 Clinton biography First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton) and Hopkins political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg in Shriver Hall as part of the School of Continuing Studies' Odyssey course on press and presidents. Quoting Oscar Wilde, Stephanopoulos began by saying, "In America the president rules for four years, but the press reigns for ever and ever. It took me about five minutes in the press briefing room on [inauguration day] to realize how true that was," he said. Only hours into his job as Clinton's press secretary, Stephanopoulos found himself defending the president's nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general. "About an hour and 15 minutes into the briefing I made the ultimate press secretary error. I came up with the great phrase, 'mistakes were made,' and I could hear all the air let out of that briefing room. That was the first afternoon of the first day, and it didn't get much better after that." During the 1992 presidential campaign, Stephanopoulos emerged as the darling of the Clinton campaign. The campaign went well. Stephanopoulos and his colleagues, particularly campaign director James Carville, became stars in the campaign documentary The War Room, and the press seemed favorably inclined toward the baby boom president-elect and his youthful staff. Although Carville had boasted after the election that Clinton no longer needed the press, the Washington press corps seemed ready to give the new president the traditional honeymoon most new chief executives enjoy. But that would not be the case, and Stephanopoulos blames himself as much as he does the press. He acknowledged he had made a mistake when soon after coming to the White House he banished the press corps from its traditional office space near the Oval Office. Maranis, whose book details Clinton's years as Arkansas' governor, provided a possible rationale for the move, maintaining Clinton never liked the press, was always hostile toward them and had always tried to reach beyond the mainstream news outlets well before he ever appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show, MTV or with Larry King. "This surprised me because Clinton and the press are so much alike," he said. "Clinton, like much of the press, is a baby boomer, and he's engaging, intelligent, interested in everything. But the rapport has always been missing." Within a few months, Stephanopoulos was involved in the firing of five employees of the White House travel office. Even though some reporters acknowledged the office was mismanaged, it does provide first-class creature comforts to reporters on presidential trips. "I learned you get in trouble when you hurt the Washington press corps," Stephanopoulos said. He admitted the mistakes he and the communications team had made stemmed, in part, from their basic misunderstanding of the difference between working for a candidate and working for the president. But he also tried to make the case--assuredly, if gently--that running the government and making policy are a transparent process, covered practically 24 hours a day by the media. "[The relationship is] mostly a struggle for information," he said. "The press wants as much access to the president as possible, and the president has a need to limit access. We have a story we're trying to get out and then there's the hidden story they think must be there, and we're not telling," he said. Although he understands that the confrontational posture of the press dates back to Vietnam and Watergate, he expressed frustration that so often politics is rising to the top of policy stories, and content is buried. He bristled when a student asked why Clinton was not doing more for education reform. "If the president was here right now, he'd jump off this stage and sit next to you for hours, telling you everything he's done," Stephanopoulos said. "That's my point. It's hard to get that message out." Perhaps more disturbing than not getting the president's message out is having to defend a wrong story. "Every president gets sucked into a fake scandal that the press and public then believe provides a real window on the presidency," he said. He cited the coverage of George Bush's campaign visit to the grocery store, in which the press wrote how the president was shocked to see a checkout scanner. "We used that in the campaign to our advantage to point out that the president was out of touch with the American people," Stephanopoulos laughed, "but the story was untrue." The president, he said, was watching a demonstration of a new type of scanner that subtracted each purchase directly from the shopper's bank account. "If they showed that to me I'd have been surprised," he said. Stephanopoulos felt the sting of inaccurate reporting when the press swarmed on the story that the president's $200 haircut had stacked up planes at Los Angeles airport. "It was a week of news," Stephanopoulos said, "but when Newsday reported some time later that there was absolutely no disruption of regular airport traffic, only the 55,000 people who read that paper got the story." In June 1993, amid cries of incompetence ("a bigger sin in Washington than criminality," wrote Newsweek's Stanley Cloud) Stephanopoulos was bumped out of the communications office, in favor of David Gergen, and into the president's circle of advisers. The ring of fire slipped from around him, and two years later, he appears relaxed, open and reflective about the relationship between the president and the press. "I liken [the relationship] to that of parents and kids," he said. "I think of what it's like to be a White House correspondent, and it's horrible. They have structured feeding times ... one at at 9:15 and one at 1 o' clock ... they're kept down in their rooms and not allowed to leave, and most of the time they're being told no they can't have that. And like any kid, they want what they can't have." It's also like a marriage, he said. "Both sides are insecure about the other, they're obsessed with each other and prone to look for signs of inattentiveness or insults." Ginsberg brought the conversation to a close with his remembrance of growing up in the Chicago of Mayor Richard Daley, in which there was "a different relationship between the press and politicians." "One year Daley came under media attack because it was exposed ... there was corruption in Chicago politics," he said, bringing the audience to laughter. "One interpid reporter did an ambush interview with the mayor ... and said, 'All the media is endorsing your opponnent. What do you say to that?' And Daley said, 'When you have the people behind ya, you don't need the media. In fact, the media can kiss my ass.' "No modern politician--although he might think it--would ever say the media can kiss my you-know-what," Ginsberg said. Stephanopoulos smiled broadly.
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