Time For The Political Pre-Nup!

06/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Matt Miller Author, columnist, radio host, television commentator and consultant

A classic from the archive (March 1999) brought to mind by Scott McClellan's current choices

As bombs fall in Belgrade and George Stephanopoulus' memoir hits number one on bestseller lists, President Clinton has to be wondering who in the room is taking notes for the next kiss-and-tell. Unfortunately, he's got more cause to fret than ever, because if anyone still wondered how integrity stacks up against buzz in today's moral code, respectable reaction to George's book is the clincher.

Here we have one of the handful of advisers closest to a president trading confidential conversations for millions while the president is still in office. It was bad enough when disgraced toe-nibbler Dick Morris was rewarded for these sins with berths at the New York Post and Fox television. Decent people, at least, kept him at arms length. With ex-altar boy Stephanoupoulus, however, something has changed. Maybe its the Rhodes scholarship, or the seat with Sam and Cokie, or his progressive politics, or Clinton's own deep dishonor. Whatever the reason, the tut-tuts of luminaries have been half-hearted.

Instead, the general air has been one of resignation to the times. The speed of history is now faster, we're told, and book deals so rich it would be superhuman to resist. The few who blast Stephanopoulus without caveat (like ex-LBJ aide Richard Goodwin) are written off as quaint, cranks, or jealous. Stephanopoulus' own defense has been a diversion. His "test," he told the New York Times, was to ask, "was what I had to say relevant, fair and accurate?" But this is the question a disinterested journalist asks. The right question for a presidential adviser was, "is this a breach of the trust that came with the position I was privileged to hold?" To ask this is to answer it, and Stephanopoulus plainly calculated that the cash and career benefits outweighed any potential taint. The man knew his age. The twenty-five city book tour, the toasts from establishment heavies, even the obligatory, fleeting and publicity-generating 'debate' over George's ethics -- all send a message to aides on the make: there's no real price to pay for betrayal. Its all basically upside.

Remember, this wasn't Peggy Noonan off in the basement rhapsodizing harmlessly on the trivia of White House life. No, the fact that someone as close in as Stephanopoulus can pull this off, relatively unscorned, dooms future presidents to seemingly awful choices. They can hide their true thoughts from their inner circle, a weird and self-defeating notion, to say the least. They can stock this inner circle with people whose loyalty is truly beyond question, leaving us regrettably ruled by a brain trust of kindergarten pals like Mack McLarty, and presidential spouses. Or, as conventional wisdom seems to suggest, presidents can simply accept that betrayal from intimates comes with the territory, and helplessly await the knife.

Well, nonsense. Just as mergers and marriages that flourished on handshakes and vows had to turn to coarser arrangements once the stakes of breakup became high, the politician-aide relationship now needs its contract. Time, in other words, for the political pre-nuptial. Every president (and presidential candidate) should simply require key advisors and officials to sign a binding contract of confidentiality as a condition of employment. Aides would pledge not to disclose anything they see until, say, five years after their boss leaves office. The legitimate claims of history would thus be honored, along with the rightful expectations of presidents.

Its a shame, of course, that integrity now has to be assured rather than assumed, but can anyone deny that's where we are? Given this, its hard to object. True, one path from White House service to riches will be foreclosed, leaving future Stephanopouluses to make do on celebrity alone. And publishers will doubtless raise a fuss because betrayal is good business.

But the political pre-nup could become Stephanopoulus' legacy. Hollywood celebrities have required such contracts forever, from every cook, nanny and "personal assistant" they hire. And as politicians who think about it for a moment will realize, there's no downside to a pre-nup, and, after George, no shame in insisting on one. "Of course I trust you," Elizabeth Dole or George W. Bush can say lovingly into their aides' eyes, "but look what happened with George." Its routine adoption, even by politicians whose secrets seem unmarketable, could represent the establishment's late but lasting verdict on Stephanopoulus' crime. It offers lawyers a corner of public life where they can finally do something constructive. And it leaves presidential paranoia where it belongs -- not centered on aides, but on mistresses.