Friday, March 26, 1999

Bill and his 'boy' hash things over

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The eyelids flickered at midnight. George Stephanopoulos' best-seller on the inner shenanigans of the Clinton administration, All Too Human, had put me to sleep. Again.

        The book begins with a dream. George Stephanopoulos is back in the White House, working as Bill Clinton's adviser and yes-man. He opens a door off the Oval Office and finds a hidden room whose walls are papered with photos of Monica Lewinsky in her birthday suit.

        I had a dream, too.

        Late at night, in a sullen Midwestern town, George Stephanopoulos suffered a Big Mac attack while on the book-signing tour that brings him to Joseph-Beth Booksellers tonight.

        Finding the nearest set of golden arches, he stumbled through the doors and placed his order.

        The restaurant was empty, except for one diner at a back booth.

        Leaning on the counter as he waited for his order, George glanced back at the solitary diner. Who should it be, feasting on burgers and fries while working a crossword puzzle, but his old boss, William Jefferson Clinton, the first popularly elected president of the United States to sit through an impeachment trial.

        In my dream, they struck up a conversation. The president's comments came from All Too Human and my imagination. George Stephanopoulos spoke through quotes from his book.

        The president's eyes met George's red-rimmed peepers. Bill Clinton looked up from a row of Big Macs, put down his puzzle and took off his reading glasses.

        George recognized those “old-fashioned half bifocals that we always encouraged Clinton to wear for photographs because they gave him a fatherly air.”

        Clinton beckoned to his former adviser turned critic but did not utter his name.

        “As far as Clinton was concerned, I was now a nonperson — my name was not to be mentioned in his presence.”

        The president laid in to Stephanopoulos about All Too Human. He did not like the dream sequence that opened the book. No pinups are pasted on the walls of some hidden chamber just off the Oval Office.

        Paste, the leader of the free world explained, would ruin the paint job on the walls, and the White House belongs to the people.

        The president huffed and puffed over the book's name-calling. He was Mr. Lucky. Bulky. Butter-cheeked. Overgrown Boy. His staff worked on smothering “bimbo eruptions.” And there was “Clinton's craziness.”

        “I may be a fat old man,” the president said, “but ...”

        George cut him off. He could feel Clinton's pain, but he felt “like a dupe.” And he was mad. Real mad.

        The former aide was angry with the man he once admired for “selfishly risking his presidency on a foolish dalliance and arrogantly trying to fix it himself, for lying about it and sending others out to lie for him.”

        Now it was time for George to feel some pain. The president refreshed his memory of an early-morning pit stop. Years ago, as they stood at adjoining urinals on the campaign trail, the then-candidate told his youthful adviser: “You're smart, but you're a boy.”

        Building up a head of steam, the president issued this warning: “Don't make my mistakes. You get too wrapped up in what you do.”

        George turned as red as a McDonald's fries package. He was ashamed. Still at heart a preacher's son, he looked down at the president of the United States gulping a Value Meal and saw his own failures.

        “I let my own ambition, insecurity and immaturity get the best of me,” George said, more by way of explanation than apology, “and I have tried to be honest about that.”

        Honest, schmonest, the president said, waving him off with a fist of fries.

        George wished Hillary were here. “She kept an eye on his intake of fries,” he said to himself.

        It was time to go. Off to another book-signing. More smiles and autographs, interviews and explanations. Time to leave his old boss behind.

        “Mr. President ... you've been through tough times before. You can weather this storm if you ... answer all the questions.”

        The president looked up at the best-selling author. Bill Clinton had a question that begged an answer.

        “Want some dessert?”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.