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Defending George Stephanopoulos (seriously!)

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Far be it for me to justify last night's debate performance by ABC hosts Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. (I was an early and loud critic!)

But a YouTube that Obama supporters are circulating surely takes reasonable criticism too far.

It's a parody of "In Memoriam," a recurring feature on ABC's "This Week" (the show Stephanopoulos hosts). In the segment, ABC acknolwedges recent deaths--of celebrities as well as American soldiers fighting abroad--by showing their names and playing mournful music in the background.

In this Youtube version, though, the "deceased" is George Stephanopoulos. As pictures of him flash across the screen, the text reads

George Stephanopoulos, Political Hack, 1992-2008...Was a Leading Member of Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential Campaign...Worked for Bill Clinton in Both of HIs Terms In Office...Despite His Partisan Background, He Was Chosen to Host a Sunday Morning News Program on ABC...Where He Would Later Make a Fool of Himself...And Lose Forever Any Meager Credibility He May Have Had as a Journalist...By, In a Stunning Conflict of Interest, Presiding Over the Worst Debate of the Primary Season...And Asking Frivolous, Politically Motivated Tabloid Questions...Some of Which Were Planted by Sean Hannity and Possibly the Clinton Campaign Itself.

You can see the full video (via Marc Ambinder) here:

Put aside, just for the moment, the tastefulness (or lack thereof) of spoofing a memorial to dead soldiers in order to make a political point. I gather the implication here is that Stephanopoulos, a top adviser to former President Clinton, threw trivial--but politically damaging--questions at Obama in order to help his old boss (or, at least, his old boss's wife).

I can see why people would think that. But there may be less here than meets the eye. In his memoir, All Too Human, Stephanopoulos describes a complex relationship between himself and the then-First Family. He was close to them, undoubtedly, and broadly sympathetic to them and their political interests. But the relationship with both Clinton was tempestuous, characterized by repeated clashes in which, generally, Bill or Hillary did a lot of screaming and Stephanopoulos had to quietly take it.

After one such episode, when Hillary accused Stephanopoulos of insufficient loyalty dating all the way to Clinton's infidelity scandals during the 1992 campaign, Stephanopoulos recalls thinking

How could she say that? Nobody's fought harder for them. I'm the most loyal staffer they've ever had. ... Fuck her.

Of course, he goes on to consider that maybe she was right, maybe he really had given up on them for a while during the 1992 campaign. (For those who don't remember, Bill Clinton's candidacy was widely thought to be dead after the first of his many womanizing stories broke.) Also, near the end of the memoir, Stephanopoulos and Hillary do share a hug and say they love one another.

But it's also no secret that Bill Clinton and, presumably, Hillary were furious with Stephanopoulos over the publication of his book, which was candid--and, as a result, frequently harsh--about what actually went on in the notoriously dysfunctional Clinton White House.

As for the argument that Stephanopoulos is just a partisan hack masquerading as a journalist, his biography obviously lends the argument some credence. But keep in mind that, at least among television pundits, his professional trajectory is pretty common. Chris Matthews first made a name for himself as a speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and later the right-hand man to legendary House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Tim Russert worked for New York Govenror Mario Cuomo and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan before moving to television. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough is a former Congressman. Tony Snow started in journalism, left to work for the first President Bush, came back to journalism, then left again to work for the second President Bush.

Argue, if you want, that this revolving door between journalism and politics is problematic. I might even agree. But it's also the reality nowadays. And, at least among these five, I would suggest Stephanopoulos has worked hardest to be fair and put his political sympathies aside (although, like Hendrik Hertzberg, I think Scarborough has turned into a pretty good host, as well). As the host of "This Week," he's really been the anti-Russert, asking questions in order to illuminate what the candidates think or how they might govern, rather than trap them in some two-bit contradiction or push some personal issue obsession.

I say all of this somewhat ruefully, since--among his peers--Stephanopoulos' political inclinations are probably closest to mine. And, again, last night's performance obviously didn't live up to those standards. But while it's possible the reason was Stephaopoulos' latent sympathy for the Clintons, I think it's more likely he just had a bad day. He's earned a little slack.

Update: A friend reminds me that Stephanopoulos was a particularly harsh critic of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Two more friends, Michael Tomasky and Matthew Yglesias, weigh in with their own, similar assessments. Mike's theory, that ABC corporate heads were pushing for fireworks, seems particularly plausible to me.

--Jonathan Cohn

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