By Jacob Weisberg
On the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I woke to the news that presidential adviser Dick Morris was about to resign over reports that he had been consorting with a $200-an-hour prostitute. I was, of course, amazed. But then I thought: “Why should anyone be surprised? Morris is a $200-an-hour prostitute.” Things have changed since then. Morris has raised his prices.
Now a normal person would be offended by what I’ve just written. In Morris’ case, though, I’m afraid he may use it as a blurb for the paperback edition of his book, Behind the Oval Office. The current version includes this blurb from a brutal demolition job in Vanity Fair: “He never stops. Somehow, each shocking thing he does tops the shocking thing he did last year, or last month, or even last week.” Morris’ career has developed the curious quality of a plea bargain in reverse. If you say he’s guilty of a misdemeanor, he will try to persuade you he’s actually committed a felony.
In reality, he’s not fit to stand trial. Morris discusses right and wrong as if those concepts were as remote from his own experience as lunar geology. “I wanted to address the values agenda three or four times a week,” he writes at one point in the book. “First, though, we had to identify through polls which values were important to Americans.” Blind people often have highly developed powers of hearing and smell, but in Morris’ case, he does not seem to have compensated for an attenuated moral sense with any other heightened abilities–not intelligence, not political savvy, and certainly not literary acumen. Despite being rotten to the core, Dick Morris demonstrates in his book that he has nothing else to offer.
Morris casts himself, of course, as the man who brought Bill Clinton back from calamity and got him re-elected in 1996. Most of the press fell for this hype during the campaign. But Morris’ own account undermines the myth. By claiming credit for absolutely everything, Morris leaves you wondering whether he deserves credit for anything at all. To call his recollections “unreliable” would be a massive understatement. There is hardly anything he says in the book that he does not contradict at some other point in the book. Usually, the mutually contradictory statements fall within a few pages of each other. Here are just a few subjects where Morris leaves the reader absolutely mystified about his views and his role:
Negative advertising: On page 60, Morris swears off it. “As Eileen [Morris’ wife, who is now divorcing him] and my therapist, Dr. Elizabeth Hauser, softened my rage and brought me inner peace for the first time in my life, I decided to abandon negative advertising as a métier.” On page 63, Morris boasts about an ad he had produced for Clinton, attacking an opponent, in the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial primary: “Don’t let McRae build a wall around Arkansas.” Five pages after that, Morris brags about his script for an ad in the general election of that year. It culminated in this assertion: “You can’t trust Sheffield Nelson.”
Foreign intervention: “Noninvolvement in Bosnia had been a central element in my advice,” he writes on page 253. But just a few pages earlier, Morris was taking credit for Clinton’s brave decision to send troops to Bosnia. And a few pages later, he’s telling the president to bomb the Serbs back to the Stone Age. “I don’t mean the current stuff … where NATO sends in only a few planes,” he counsels. “I mean an air strike that continues until they give up.”
Press leaks: “Throughout my tenure at the White House, I never leaked information unless I was told to,” Morris writes on page 171. On the same page: “I called David Broder of the Washington Post to give him background on the strategic implications of the speech and he ran a story.” The call wasn’t authorized–in fact, Morris got in trouble for it, he says.
Budget cuts: On page 93, Morris advises Clinton: “Medicare cuts are your single biggest weapon against the Republicans. They are hated by the public, old and young.” Three pages later, he writes: “I argued that as long as we lined up with the congressional Democrats and just sniped at cuts in school lunches and Medicare, we would get nowhere.”
This last contradiction is central, because it goes to the heart of Morris’ claim to have got Clinton re-elected. The conventional understanding at the time was that it was Morris’ liberal enemies–George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes, and Leon Panetta–who were arguing in favor of fiercely resisting Republican cuts in social spending, while Morris was telling Clinton to distance himself from the intransigent congressional Democrats. According to my sources at the time, Morris was desperately pushing for a budget deal and making the kind of hilariously precise electoral promises for which he was legendary: If he compromised with Gingrich, Clinton would win by a 14-point margin, take back Congress, and so forth.
In reality, both plans were in play in the re-election effort: Morris’ “triangulation” and the Ickes-Panetta-Stephanopoulos tactic of standing firmly against Republican cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. Both strategies were crucial. Clinton recovered his lost popularity by resisting domestic budget cuts, while his centrist “values” agenda helped to solidify his electoral gains. In retrospect, Clinton appears to have shrewdly pitted the Ickes group against Morris as an exercise in the management style FDR called “creative tension.” Clinton needed Ickes to help him shore up his liberal base and prevent a Democratic-primary challenge. He used Morris to help him move to the center. Morris tries to take credit for both strategies. But if there was a great political mind behind this synthesis, it was that of the candidate himself.
Getting the president re-elected is only one of the many, many accomplishments claimed by Morris, who plays both Boswell and Johnson in his memoirs. You may not have known that it was Morris who had suggested Al Gore for vice president in 1992, and that it was Morris who had recommended James Carville as strategist in that campaign. Through secret back channels to other political consultants, Morris tells us that he managed relations between Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. It was none other than Morris who played a pivotal role in the Dayton Peace Accords. (Richard Holbrooke to Morris: “Without those words of the president’s that you passed to me, I would never have been able to get it done.”) And it was Morris’ ideas that kept Clinton on track even after his–Morris’–downfall. (Clinton to Morris: “We’re basically following your game plan. It’s working well.”)
But, even as he emulates the rooster that thinks the sun rises because it crows, Morris demonstrates how right Panetta and the others were to be terrified about his running amok in the White House. Among the Morris microinitiatives that didn’t quite make it were a 33-cent postage stamp, with a penny going to your favorite charity, and a plan to force banks to meet new anti-mugging standards for ATM machines. Morris’ “small-bore” ideas, as he calls them, made the presidency look somewhat ridiculous in 1995 and 1996. The ones that were killed in the crib would have turned neo-Clintonism into a full-scale self-parody.
Through it all, Morris maintains that what he was doing was really very high-minded. “I don’t spin anything,” he writes huffily. “I put new substance and ideas before the voters.” Even as we see him fighting to reduce governing to the most trivial micro-pandering, Morris asserts the primacy of principle. “Some reporters seem to think that the real story is never the candidate’s idea, but always the motivation to improve his or her political status,” he writes. A few pages later, of course, he’s explaining why Clinton had to sign a welfare bill that no one liked in order to get re-elected (a veto would have meant a “three-point loss”).
By the end of his book, Morris has cast himself as a modest egomaniac, a shy publicity hound, a principled manipulator, a loyal traitor, and a truthful liar. He isn’t just confused, he’s the dialectic incarnate. He aims for evil, but only manages to look ridiculous.