Clinton's chief spokesman dominates with a whisper Stephanopoulos manages message

February 01, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- White House communications chief George Stephanopoulos is such a master of control that when he gets annoyed, he lowers his already faint voice to a near whisper. As he gets angrier and angrier, the voice gets gentler and gentler, and the listener must get closer and closer to hear him out.

It is a sort of reverse bludgeoning, a psyche-out played pianissimo.

"It allows him to dominate in a very unusual way," says one of his friends.

It is much like the way the White House spokesman, who has become one of the celebrities of the Clinton crowd with his boyish features and GQ look, is trying to command the message sent out by the new administration each day: with measured words and measured access and a supremely controlled hand.

At 31, Mr. Stephanopoulos, the son and grandson of Greek Orthodox priests, has the intensity, seriousness and, say his admirers, the wisdom of a man well beyond his years. One of Mr. Clinton's most trusted advisers and a fellow Rhodes scholar, he has proven himself glib, sure-footed and unflappable -- and so pleased with his position that some who have watched his rapid rise have started referring to him privately as "King George."

He is also so guarded a person, so intent on privacy that, as chief of staff to former Ohio Rep. Edward F. Feighan in the late '80s, he had his desk facing into a wall so his phone conversations could be more discreet.

Now, his desk, in one of the few large offices in the West Wing -- with a fireplace, built-in bookshelves and, at this point, only a plant and a photograph of John F. Kennedy as decor -- faces out toward the Oval Office.

And now his slight voice, the voice of the Clinton administration, booms out to a worldwide audience.

One of the prime craftsmen of the Clinton media strategy, Mr. Stephanopoulos, a New York native raised in Cleveland, has said he plans to continue the techniques that proved so successful in the campaign. Those involve having the candidate, and now president, speak directly to the public as much as possible -- through such venues as talk shows, C-SPAN and televised summits and town halls -- in many cases, bypassing traditional media.

On Friday, for instance, Mr. Clinton made a cross-country conference call to people who were forced to choose between family and job demands to dramatize the need for family leave legislation.

"Once you understand that there's a huge audience out there that doesn't read the New York Times or watch the evening news -- and that you can reach them and they do care -- you're going to try to reach out to them," says Mandy Grunwald, one of the media architects of the campaign.

Tighter control

At the White House, that has translated into a tighter control of the information flow to the press than any administration in recent history has exerted, say veteran White House reporters.

"We thought the Reagan era was the state of the art for how you keep the press at bay," muses United Press International's Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps.

Already, the Clinton team has broken with decades of tradition in several ways. Provoking the ire of many reporters on Day 1, Mr. Stephanopoulos closed off to the media the upper press suite in the West Wing, where he and his deputies have offices. Mr. Stephanopoulos, who failed to respond to both verbal and written requests for an interview for this article, has said he doesn't want journalists "loitering" in such a small area where people are trying to work.

He also opened up the White House briefings to television cameras, giving the public access to the daily question-and-answer sessions with reporters, which have been running live on CNN. Although TV and radio journalists are happy with the change, some reporters feel the cameras change the dynamics of the forum.

And in yet another unorthodox move, it is Mr. Stephanopoulos who holds those televised briefings, performing what would ordinarily be the primary task of press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Rocky start

It could be argued that for all of his attempts to control the message, Mr. Stephanopoulos -- and the Clinton administration -- have gotten off to a rocky start.

The theme of the first 10 days has been one of controversy -- first over the Zoe Baird nomination, then the explosive gays in the military issue -- rather than one of decisive action.

Michael K. Deaver, media wizard of the Reagan administration, says he no longer sees the attention to detail in the images of Mr. Clinton that he saw during the campaign, perhaps because the director of communications is spending most of his time preparing for briefings rather than developing marketing strategies.

Although Mr. Stephanopoulos had lobbied for a more policy-oriented position -- and has said he will still have a hand in policy-making -- few involved with the campaign and transition were surprised that, whatever his title, he would serve as chief spokesman.

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