WORLD

Socks, underwear, action!

A new spokesman takes the media’s heat

HILARY MACKENZIE February 8 1993
WORLD

Socks, underwear, action!

A new spokesman takes the media’s heat

HILARY MACKENZIE February 8 1993

Socks, underwear, action!

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

A new spokesman takes the media’s heat

HILARY MACKENZIE

In the first days of the Clinton administration, his altar-boy face has appeared around the world in daily televised White House briefings. But if anyone can help the 31year-old George Stephanopoulos, President Bill Clinton’s boyish young communications director, to put his new position into perspective, it is his parents, Rev. Robert and Nikki Stephanopoulos. “Power is corrupting,” says his father, Dean of New York City’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral, “and it can lead to arrogance.” But, added the priest, who slips from the cathedral to his apartment next door and joins his wife to watch his son’s briefings live on television: “We try to keep George mindful of where he came from—and who he is.”

Last week, after Stephanopoulos faced several gruelling days jousting with members of the media on issues as diverse as allowing gays and lesbians into the military and the arrival of the Clinton family cat, Socks, at the White House, his parents’ advice was down to earth. “We told him he should shave more,” said his father. “We suggested early in the morning and again in mid-afternoon if he is going on TV.” In a brief telephone conversation, they asked the spokesman for the world’s most powerful leader if he was comfortable in his book-lined apartment in downtown Washington, and if he was sleeping well, eating properly and working out. They mailed new socks and underwear to their son, who presents himself to the world in Italian-cut suits and is now one of Washington’s most eligible men—despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Finally, to wish him luck, his parents sent a Greek icon of St. George, his patron saint.

In his new position at the White House, Stephanopoulos may need all the good fortune he can get. He is one of only a handful of aides with direct access to the President, a privilege that brings with it heavy responsibilities. “It is almost an existential job,” said Bill Moyers, former press secretary to president Lyndon Johnson. “You have to be the president’s alter ego, sense his intuition, his tensions and his options.” Added Hodding Carter, State Department spokesman during Jimmy Carter’s presidency: “He is the person out there carry-

ing the spear for the administration and doing daily combat. He is a shorthand version of the president.”

Stephanopoulos has already run afoul of the White House press corps by limiting access to his West-wing office and threatening to move presidential pool reporters from their White House quarters to the Old Executive Office

building next door. The perils of office have swiftly become clear. Journalists who had lauded the incoming Democrats, said Moyers, are now “lighting bonfires under their feet”—and Stephanopoulos takes most of the heat. After one particularly abrasive exchange in a media briefing, veteran correspondent Helen Thomas, who has covered every president since John Kennedy, told Stephanopoulos: “Welcome to the big leagues.”

But some of the pressures come from within the administration, as it attempts to settle into power. In the first week, there were apparent miscues as Clinton’s nominee for attorney gen-

eral, Zoë Baird, withdrew because of revelations that she had hired illegal immigrants as household help. Even as Stephanopoulos was trying to distance the President from the fiasco, press secretary Dee Dee Myers stated baldly that Clinton knew of Baird’s illegal hiring all along. The President himself then stepped forward and took full responsibility only after Stephanopoulos had been handling the issue for several days.

People who know Stephanopoulos well say that he has the strength of character to deal with his new challenges. He grew up in the suburbs of New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. According to his mother, Stephanopoulos, who was the second of four children, was a studious youth who preferred reading to playing with toys, and TV news programs to cartoons. Nikki Stephanopoulos said that George, his brother and two sisters were raised to respect and honor their elders. Said Father George Papanneiou, a family friend and pastor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Md.: “He has such a solid character and Christian upbringing that he will not be tempted by the pressures of office or by the arrogance of power.”

Despite his youth, Stephanopoulos has been stalking the corridors of power for a decade. A graduate of New York City’s Columbia University, where he studied international politics, and Oxford University, where he studied theology and ethics on a Rhodes Scholarship, Stephanopoulos abandoned an earlier ambition to become a priest in favor of a political career. “I don’t think it was politics so much as public service,” said his mother. In 1983, Stephanopoulos went to work as an assistant to Democratic Representative Edward Feighan of Ohio. During the 1988 presidential election campaign, Stephanopoulos worked as a communications adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the unsuccessful Democratic contender. After the election, he became an executive assistant to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

As the 1992 presidential campaign neared, Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey and Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, both sought Stephanopoulos’s services. According to Stephanopoulos, he was instantly attracted to the Clinton campaign and, after taking a job as its communications director, developed an easy rapport with the Democratic candidate. Early in January, Clinton named him to his current position.

Now Stephanopoulos faces reporters eager to exploit any misstep or miscalculation and turn the fledgling Clinton presidency into a floundering one. Stephanopoulos’s father says that he has pointedly reminded his son of the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew with waxen wings, but perished in the Aegean Sea after soaring too close to the sun. Over the coming months the ability of Clinton’s young spokesman to handle the pressures and pleasures of power will be severely tested in the combative atmosphere of the White House press briefing room—and beyond it.