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An Interview With

George Stephanolpous
February 8, 2007

 

 



Introduction:

George Stephanopoulos was a senior political advisor to President Clinton from 1991 through 1994. After leaving the Clinton administration, he became a political analyst for ABC.  Currently, Mr. Stephanopoulos hosts the ABC Sunday morning news broadcast “This Week” and is the chief Washington correspondent for ABC news.

"Politics are also personal. You have to accept the strengths and weaknesses of everyone involved."- George Stephanopoulos

 

Spencer:


Your book, All Too Human, is a great read.  Why did you choose this title?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Even in the White House when you’re dealing with the greatest matters of State, politics are also personal.  And I was trying to reflect that in the title and give a sense that when you’re engaged in politics you have to accept the strengths and the weaknesses of everyone involved, whether it’s me, whether my colleagues, the President, his opponents, everyone.

Spencer:


In your book, you say that learning to separate what is right from what will work is an essential political skill.  Recently on your broadcast, This Week, the roundtable agreed that for the Republican field for 2008, including McCain, Romney, Giuliani, and Congressman Hunter, all still support the Bush policy in Iraq.  Is this political suicide?  Should politicians say what they feel is morally right, even if it is at price?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Well, it’s too early to say whether it’s political suicide or not.  Clearly, the war in Iraq right now is a drag on President Bush, and I think it’s a political drag on everyone who supports it, including Senator McCain and the others you mentioned on the Republican side right now.  It’s also proving tricky for many on Democratic side as well. 

But now, listen, if the President’s policy works, if this increase in troops does bring the violence down, does get Iraq, at least for a time, out of the headlines, this might be less of a pressing issue in November.  But right now, it is tough for them.  And basically, if a politician is convinced that what they’re saying is morally right, I think it’s morally wrong to advocate a policy that contradicts it. 

Now not every single issue rises to that level, but clearly, for John McCain, he said that he would have felt compelled, if the President had not decided to increase troops in Iraq, to come out completely against the policy, because he thought it was a recipe for failure.  Now he believes he has to stick by it and give it a chance to succeed.


Spencer:


In his new book, The Way to Win, Mark Halperin writes about freak show politics, and the deterioration of Old Media filters.  The New Media, including Internet, bloggers, instant cable news reporting, with the lack of referee and editorial sensibility, favors the freak show and conservative values.  Do you agree, and how will this play in the 2008 election?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Well, I think there’s no question that the rise of New Media has changed our politics. There used to be no more than two news cycles a day.  Now we’re in a constant 24-hour news cycle.. 

We’ve seen the influence of bloggers in the last campaign, and blogs are what brought the errors in Dan Rather’s reporting and brought to light President Bush’s draft record. All the candidates this time around feel the need to embed their campaigns in the New Media.  You’re seeing every candidate has obviously a web page, but also a webcast.  John Edwards has video blogs.  Both Barack Obama and John Edwards and Senator Clinton, all announced their campaigns with web videos.

So this is just part of the landscape right now.  Whether, over time, it is going to consistently favor conservative values, I think, is an open question because I think you’re seeing a lot of competition now on the web between the right and the left.  And I think that what it does do is create even more of a need for those of us in the broadcast media to try to make sure that we’re reporting as objectively as we can and providing analysis in a way that those blogs can’t.


Spencer:


Senator Hagel said, “There is soon to be a great transformation in American politics.”  David Brooks of the Washington Post said, “The American people are looking for competency and honesty, and do not want to be consumed with ideology.”  Are we going to see a change in 2008?

 

Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Well, that’s one of the messages coming out of the 2006 election.   Both parties took away the message that the voters were saying we want to see you all work together in a better way.

Clearly, Barack Obama is trying to tap into that feeling with the rhetoric of his campaign.  And you’re seeing more and more rumbling about the possibility of a third party candidate, an independent candidacy. Some speculate that  Senator Hagel will be a part of that.  He didn’t rule it out on my show. There is also some speculation that Mayor Blumberg of New York might try to run as an independent at some point.  He certainly has the money to spend.  If he wanted to do it, he could spend a billion dollars and be a force in this campaign.  Whether a third party candidate can win is more of an open question.  The hurdles are very, very high.  But there is a lot of hunger for that, I think, in the electoral as you head into 2008.


Spencer:


While at Oxford, you had an opportunity to visit Sudan and observe the suffering and famine.  Over twenty years have passed, and the situation in Darfur is worse than ever.  Is there anything more we can do, and why is our current administration not more involved?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


While the Administration would argue they have been involved, especially over the last year and a half, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell was one of first to label these happenings in Darfur as genocide, but – but you’re right.  Critics have said that we could be doing more, perhaps as Tony Blair has suggested, we could be instituting a no-fly zone, maybe helping to assemble an  African Peacekeeping Force – that would take on the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government.  The Sudanese government, as you know, has been very reluctant to discuss this in any way. 

But I think the pressure is building for tougher action on the part of the Administration.  I should say that when I was back in Sudan in late ’84 and 1985, it was very different.  This was a famine in the eastern part of Sudan on the border of Ethiopia, and there was more tension then between Sudan and Ethiopia. 


Spencer:


Former President Carter’s new book, Palestine:  Peace not Apartheid, has received much criticism.  Furthermore, last month, in the L.A. Times, Carter said, “It is political suicide for a politician to advocate a balanced position on the crisis in the Middle East.”  I would be interested in your opinion.


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


I haven’t read President Carter’s book, but no, I don’t believe it’s political suicide for politicians to speak out on Middle East policy.


Spencer:


Wolf Blitzer had a very tense interview with Vice President Chaney after the State of the Union Address.  Topics ranged from sensitive issues, such as the Scooter Libby trial, Iraq, and even the Vice President’s daughter’s pregnancy.  The Vice President reacted harshly, often refusing to answer.  He also criticized Wolf personally by saying, “I think you are out of line with that question.”  Wolf had trouble resurging after Chaney’s responses.  Were the questions fair, and how should a reporter react when the person who is being interviewed is displeased with the questions?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Stand your ground.  If you think the questions are fair, stand your ground; come back, and engage that argument.  I didn’t think the questions were unfair.


Spencer:


President Ahmadinejad invited President Bush to a televised debate to try to work out their differences.  Bush publicly denied his request.  What do you think is the best way to solve a conflict between the U.S. and Iran?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Well, I think there’s a lot of responsibility that has to be taken on both sides. I do think the Iranians, if they are sincere about their claims that they don’t want to produce a nuclear weapon with their nuclear program, would open up to inspectors again.  And I also believe that at some point, the United States is going to have to engage Iran diplomatically as the Baker commission has suggested.  They’re just too big a force in the region to ignore. 

But the conflict is not going to get solved until we see an Iranian change of heart on the nuclear program, and I believe, until there is more stabilization in Iraq.  For instance, the chicken and an egg problem, some would say you can’t get more stability in Iraq unless you deal with Iranians.

Spencer:


In 2005, former FBI agent, W. Mark Felt revealed himself as Deep Throat from the Watergate scandal.  Use of anonymous sources has been increasingly criticized.  Under what circumstances do you and modern day newscasters use anonymous sources?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


I generally use them when it’s the only way to get the information, although I try to characterize the officials as best I can in my own reporting.  And I have a personal rule, and I think other organizations follow this as well, that you not allow people to launch attacks under when they’re anonymous. 

 

Spencer:


Currently in its sixth season, 24 is one of the most popular shows on network television.  Is this the right time to being showing nuclear weapons being deployed by terrorists, resulting in widespread casualties and mass chaos?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


I’ve actually never seen 24, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.  I’m sorry, but they can entertain however they see fit.  If people watch it, great.  If they don’t want to watch it, fine.


Spencer:


In school we discuss the Great Depression:  President Roosevelt’s weekly radio fireside chats were known to be very personal.  Some historians think this helped our country rise out of the Depression.  Our current President and his administration seem not to unite personally with the nation.  Last week, Senator Clinton had live conversations on her website.  During these conversations, she answered questions that were emailed to her.  She has also established a campaign blog.  Could this political strategy, which worked during the 1930’s, still be effective today?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Well, I think that’s what Senator Clinton and Senator Obama and Senator Edwards, and the other candidates that have used this web strategy, are reaching for.  They’re trying to speak to people in the most intimate manner possible right now, right on their computer screens.  Is that enough to overcome big differences in policy, any kind of personal prejudices voters may have?  I don’t think so.

And I don’t think that the current president is having trouble uniting personally because of failing to do fireside chats or web chats.  I think it’s about much bigger issues, front and center, the War in Iraq.

 

Spencer:


Former Vice President Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, shocked millions. Why is the current administration soft on global warming?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


I think that you’ve seen a shift.  I think for the first time, in the State of the Union this year, the President mentioned the problem of climate change.  He went on to argue that the United States has done more to reduce carbon emissions in the last five or six years than a lot of our economic competitors.  But I think where you’re right is that the administration has been slow to acknowledge forcefully the fact that climate change is being accelerated by human activity. And they have been unwilling to impose any kind of stricter cap on carbon emissions.

 

Spencer:


When you signed out of the Clinton campaign in ’91, you felt, at first, uncertain.  In your book, you compared yourself to Dustin Hoffman in the closing scene of The Graduate, having no idea what you’ve done or where you’re going.  Now 15 years have passed, and you’ve accomplished so much.  You know what you have done.  Can you tell me where you’re going to go from here?  If you had the chance, would you ever consider returning to work in a Democratic White House?


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Oh, I think I’m committed to what I’m doing right now.  I love what I’m doing.  Where it will take me – I’ve never had a five-year plan.  I just hope I can do this for as long as I’m doing it well. 


Spencer:


Thank you very much for meeting with me.


Mr. Stephanopoulos:


Thank you.  Good luck.  Nice to meet you. Good questions.