HIGH NOON ON A RAINY SATURDAY IN Little Rock, Ark. George Stephanopoulos, 31, has been behind the huge wooden desk in his messy third-door office since dawn. In an orange T-shirt and khakis—his black, bushy hair gone wild—he looks like a college kid who has sneaked into his father’s office to make long-distance phone calls, not Bill Clinton’s communications director and unofficial chief of staff. He takes calls from two banks of phones, OKs a news release on the economy and gives an interview—all at the same time. But his principal focus this day—a week before he leaves Little Rock to spin-doctor the debates for his boss—is rebutting attacks by George Bush. Today the subject is taxes. “They’re making these numbers up!” he tells a television producer at the other end of the phone line. “We’ll beat back their attack on this.”
Spoken like the dogged, swift and deft counter puncher Stephanopoulos is known to be. The first campaign staffer hired by Clinton, Stephanopoulos has risen in just one year from a deputy campaign director to Super Handler—the Little Big Man of the Clinton-Gore campaign—managing press coverage, speech writing, advertising, polling, research and issues. Says Bill Clinton: “No matter how hard George works, no matter how much pressure he is under, he is always cool under fire.” And there is every expectation that if Clinton wins the election, Stephanopoulos will become While House Communications Director or Deputy Chief of Staff. Says one Clinton insider: “For all those people in Washington who are our new best friends and want to know who they should befriend in this campaign to be a part of a new Administration—his would be the ass to kiss.”
Quiet in manner and boyishly lithe—he’s 5’7″ and about 130 lbs.—Stephanopoulos does not obviously possess either the vocal force or the physical presence to lead Clinton’s rapid-response team. But he’s smart. James Carville, Clinton’s political strategist, says of his colleague, “If George’s IQ could be converted to Fahrenheit, the boy could boil water.” He’s shown his strength time and again, ready with faxes and press releases during the Gennifer Flowers controversy in New Hampshire and the “bimbo eruption” eruption engineered by Mary Matalin, Bush’s campaign political director (who picked up on a phrase used by Betsey Wright, Clinton’s own aide). He also handled the Hillary attacks of the GOP convention and the “draft wars” of recent weeks. In fact it seems as if he has been on TV—becoming a fixture on the morning news shows, CNN and Nightline—almost as much as his boss. “I think in this campaign we have learned that you can’t underestimate any attack,” Stephanopoulos says. But, he points out, “you don’t have to respond to everything. The difference between this and 1988 is that we are learning to stay focused and to stay on the economy.”
An intuitive grasp of both management and politics, as well as a courteous sense of discretion, is what got Stephanopoulos where lie is today. “He is a one-man brain trust, and his advice is invaluable,” says Rep. Edward F. Feighan, an Ohio Democrat who in 1983 gave Stephanopoulos, then a 22-year-old Columbia University graduate, his first job, as a Capitol Hill legislative assistant. A few years later, Stephanopoulos was hired by incoming House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt to be his executive floor assistant, a job not unlike that of an air-traffic controller at a busy airport on a foggy night.
“People liked him instantly,” Gephardt recall. “There are lots of people up here who are good on the issues but sometimes lack diplomacy. George is good at both.” He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, keeping track of floor legislation and, most important, massaging the egos of 435 members of Congress. David Dreyer, a fellow member of Gephardt’s staff, comments, “George is as smart as they come. He was a preacher’s kid, and he treated all the members like they were one of his dad’s congregation.” Stephanopoulos is himself modest, saying he “just built up” his political skills over the years.
The son and grandson of Greek Orthodox priests, Stephanopoulos once thought he would follow the family vocation. He changed his mind in high school but, he says, “religion is still part of my whole life, my whole culture.” He grew up in Rye, N.Y., and the Cleveland suburb of Orange Village, but his parents now live in New York City, where his father, Robert, 57, is dean of the Greek Orthodox Arehdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The second of four children, George was introspective, like his older sister Anastasia—now 33 and a Greek Orthodox nun. “They never played with toys,” says their mother, Nikki. “They were always very involved with what was going on; they read newspapers and magazines.”
In high school in Ohio, Stephanopoulos was on the wrestling team in the 105-lb. weight class. “Wrestling disciplined him and focused him,” his mother says. He was a Truman Scholar at Columbia (a bust of the former President sits on the desk in his book-lined Washington, D.C., apartment), but when he didn’t get a Rhodes scholarship, he joined Feighan’s staff. A year later, on his second try, he won a Rhodes to Oxford, where for two years he studied ethics and political thought. (See page 38 for the story of Bill Clinton’s scholarship years at Oxford.) During a student break in 1985, Stephanopoulos traveled to famine-stricken Sudan as a freelance journalist working for CBS News and found himself caught up in a coup. “It was the most surreal thing I have ever been in,” he says. “It was wild. There were demonstrations in the streets for a couple of days. We were in the middle of it.”
After Oxford he returned to Feighan’s office, this time as chief of staff. Then in 1988, Michael Dukakis entered the presidential race. “I had to work for Michael Dukakis,” he says. “The whole Greek community was so very proud of him, and he was a Democrat. It really looked like he was going to do it early on.” Dukakis didn’t, of course—in part, most political observers believe, because he was reluctant to engage in just the sort of counterattacks Stephanopoulos now handles for the Clinton campaign and had been hired for during the ’88 campaign as well. Stephanopoulos now says of his experience working for Dukakis, “I think all of us in that campaign underestimated the emotional power of Bush’s attacks.”
In 1991, after two years on Gephardt’s staff, Stephanopoulos went looking for a presidential candidate to work for. He met with Bob Kerrey, hut the two didn’t click. He and Clinton hit it off immediately. “He was focusing on exactly the same kinds of problems we had been working on in the Congress,” Stephanopoulos says. “We have had this decade where Americans became more divided economically—the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and everyone else got squeezed—and that’s exactly what he was focusing on.”
Not surprisingly, Stephanopoulos’ high visibility—and unmarried status—have begun to attract attention from sonic women with interests that range beyond mere politics. “George gets letters and signed photographs from women asking if he is married or has a girlfriend, saying he seems like the perfect man,” says his assistant Heather Beckel. Female volunteers in the Clinton campaign confide in thick Arkansas accents that they “just love him to death.” And his picture even graces an admirer’s wall at Bush-Quayle headquarters in Washington. Stephanopoulos will not discuss the subject, but it does make him blush. He does admit, under intense cross-examination, to having a steady girlfriend in Philadelphia, but he won’t disclose any details.
Besides, he’s very busy. He works about 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Part of the job is keeping various competing personalities—the staffs of Clinton and Gore, hired political guns and Arkansas friends of the Governor—focused on winning the election. And then? “I’m much too superstitious,” he says diplomatically, “to think about the day after.”
GARRY CLIFFORD in Little Rock and ALLISON LYNN in New York City