I assume that George Stephanopoulos felt that one of the benefits of leaving the White House was to get away from thorny questions. But it didn't work out that way.
On St. Patrick's Day, the former assistant to President Clinton was asked these two by students at the University of Southern California:
Is the Clintons' marriage a family business or a truly loving and caring relationship?
How could you be so disloyal to the man, Bill Clinton, who made you what you are today: famous and getting rich?
"Good question," he said after the second one. "I think a lot about that these days."
He was, along with Michael Parks, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Jerry Nachman, the former editor of the New York Post, part of a panel put together by Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's former press secretary and a visiting scholar at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
Stephanopoulos, who has several jobs now -- teaching at Columbia University, writing a book and dispensing wisdom for ABC News, did not flinch and did not duck.
On the marriage, he said: "Both. They have a deep relationship brought together by their love, by their daughter and by the work they do. . . . No one knows what they say to each other when they're cleaning out the closet. But is she going to suddenly walk out on him? I don't see how she can do anything other than what she's doing."
Then he added a comment on public opinion polls that suggest Americans think the closet talk is the Clintons' private business: "I think the public is dead wrong. . . . This is a public matter."
"Yes," said Nachman, now a writer for the television show "Politically Incorrect." "What's happening in Washington is not about character; it is about judgment, the president's judgment."
The second question was put in the context of an article by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New Yorker, dated March 9. The title was "The End of Loyalty" and it was keyed to a Stephanopoulos appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" the morning after the name of Monica Lewinsky became public. On the TV show, the former assistant said that if such stories were true, they could lead to the I-word, "Impeachment." From that moment on, he was a marked man.
But at USC, Stephanopoulos said: "Loyalty is a two-way street. When you are inside, you defend as strongly as you can -- or you leave. On the outside, you have an obligation not to gratuitously divulge hurtful information you received on a confidential basis.
". . . I don't think loyalty should require you to lie. I don't think loyalty is required if he knowingly asks you to say things he realizes are not credible. He's saying, 'Believe me, but I'm not going to tell why you should believe me' . . . Demanding that everyone take responsibility -- corporate officials, labor unions, welfare mothers -- that was at the heart of the 1992 Clinton platform. By his own standard, there (has been) a terrible lapse in judgment and responsibility. In my mind, that means he broke the loyalty contract."
In Gates' piece, James Carville, Clinton's sometime campaign manager and full-time loyalist, is quoted as saying, "A loyal person is seen as a cross between a sycophant and a fool."
Part of that, as Dee Dee Myers said after Stephanopoulos' second answer, is that the press does reward disloyalty. More important, though, in the American generation Clinton represents, individual truth, to the point of confession, is seen as more admirable than loyalty.
The press and the nation, too, do not easily accept men or women who can defend what they do and say only by saying they were doing what they were told to do, following orders.
Stephanopoulos, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, has redefined loyalty according to new mores and the Old Testament. Even if you're the leader of the free world, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Universal Press Syndicate