It shouldn’t have been a complete surprise when I walked into the elevator in my Washington office building and came upon Dick Morris clutching a book by the late Cardinal Bernardin. If you’ve been revealed as a moral degenerate, the natural course in American political life as it has evolved in our times is to come back as a newly enlightened spiritual spokesman–St. Augustine for the klieg light age.
Last fall, Morris gave an interview to the Door, the world’s funniest evangelical humor magazine, in which he traced the arc of this sort of spiritual/professional recovery. “In the last year, the whole focus on career, work, and money making has declined significantly as part of my life. They’re not the things that I think about constantly,” Morris said with beguiling innocence. “At some point I would very much like to be able to have a national talk radio show and a national television show and a national column to be able to bring my views to those Americans who would care to hear them. I don’t believe that I should really do this until I am further along my own personal growth and evolution.”
America, the wait is over. Over the past three months, Morris has emerged from his long weeks in the wilderness and come to the point at which he can stop thinking about his career and start thinking about getting a national radio show, TV show, and column. Rising above his careerist mentality, Morris now spends more time in the studios of our second-tier TV networks than William Ginsburg. And it’s working. On April 13, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reported Morris is close to signing a deal with Fox. And he is writing a provocative column for the New York Post and the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He is succeeding as a political pundit in part because of his interesting vantage point–he hates Hillary but loves Bill–and in part because he is the Michael Milken of the attention economy. Everything he says–Hillary’s a lesbian, there are seven stages to the television age and he’s got them all figured out, the Republicans are going to sweep the November elections–is clever and provocative. Not all these positions have great substantive thought behind them, but nobody gets punished in the pundit games for being too ephemeral.
The great sorrow of Morris’ second life is that the corrupt world wants to drag him back into the arena of politics. Morris’ real focus, as he lets you know before you have a chance to ask, is the Higher Realms. Morris has been doing some polling on spiritual issues, and he has discovered that morality is big. For example, a few months ago, he had his pollsters read the following statement to a survey group:
Look into our own bodies, with billions of cells which must work together or we die. When a cell does its own thing, that’s called cancer. So it is with people of the earth. Unless we work for our planet, we will die of the global cancer of pollution, war and disease. He found 66 percent of the people supported that statement, and only 28 percent opposed it (who the hell are they?). He concluded in a Hill column, “Idealism is, I believe, the new force in our politics. Cynicism is on its way out.”
The odd thing is that Morris himself is not cynical, at least not self-consciously so. He is genuinely excited about this new spiritual stuff he has discovered, and sincere–painfully sincere–when he gives you his ideas about his plan to renew American morality. His tone at these times is a mixture of consultant-omniscience and saintly humility–as if Gandhi had become one of those guys you hear on the management channels of the airplane audio system. When Morris talks about his spiritual platform, his eyes lower. He reiterates he is not qualified to speak on these issues. He is to humility what Louis XIV was to gilt-edged furniture. He has built a palace to house his own unworthiness, and if you talk to him, he takes you on an extended tour to show off all his rooms. But he can’t not talk about these things, he implies, because he has come up with a unique message that simply must be heard.
Morris calls his spiritual platform “Transactionalism.” It’s not based on a specific organized religion. “Those who fear hell are religious; those who’ve been there are spiritual,” Morris told the Door, echoing a sentiment he learned from the addiction movement (he is a recovering sex addict). Transactionalism is instead a series of policy ideas that would improve America’s spiritual indicators. As he talks about them, you realize that if America followed his advice, God’s favorable/unfavorable ratings would go through the roof.
Some of the ideas are a little mushy, though not entirely unworthy. Morris wants to set up a series of redemption centers where ex-cons could get a certificate proving they are redeemed and therefore employable. He would like to see a private association create a certification symbol that clothing manufacturers could put on their labels to show the products were made by well treated workers. He says he has dozens of ideas like these.
If the Almighty had properly focus-grouped the Old Testament, it would be chock-full of this stuff. There’s lots of noble praise for the civil society movement wrapped around a series of small, feel-good ideas that elicit warm and pleasant-feeling grunts of approval. If you remember the issues floated by the Clinton re-election campaign–gun control for deadbeat dads, for example–the tone will be familiar. What is striking about Transactionalism, and about Morris’ whole approach to spirituality, is how much it is a continuation of his political style. Morris is still manipulating images and spinning, but now he is spinning for souls, not votes. He seems genuinely repentant of his personal sins. But he evidently sees no contradiction between the amoral spinmeistering of the political consultant and his new vocation. He recently recalled a problem he faced a few years ago, when a congressional candidate he was working for was caught with a series of transsexual prostitutes. Morris proudly noted that he solved the problem and got the guy elected. When asked if the guy was guilty, Morris seemed taken aback by the question. He said he guessed the guy was guilty, since a few years later he was caught again and had to resign in disgrace.
America has always had a spiritual self-help literature that reconciles redemption with résumé-building. For example, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, a best seller in 1925-26, portrays Jesus as the ultimate businessman. “He picked 12 men from the bottom ranks of the business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world,” reads a typical Barton sentence. But in truth, the yuppie spiritualism of the moment is the perfect breeding ground for Morris’ style of rebirth. It takes religion, removes all the dark images that drive up its negatives–like judgment, obligation, or anything that might not be career enhancing–and replaces them with self-esteem and moral medals of honor. No wonder so many find this market-tested spiritualism so cool. Morris’ book, Behind the Oval Office, ends with a conversation between him and Bill Clinton on why the forgiving St. Patrick is better than the stern St. Paul.
I had another glimpse of Morris’ oddly naive spiritual self-enhancement while working on this article. After a meeting with Morris, I mentioned his new vocation to a Slate editor, who suggested I do a piece. I called Morris to set up an interview about his ideas and left a message. Then I ran into him at a party. I had a pleasant conversation with him and his wife. Morris was excited to talk about Transactionalism and promised to call. He did, and we set up a time to talk more. But then he called back and said that since he was now a pundit, he should write the piece about his ideas, rather than have me write about him. Morris’ ambitions are all on the surface, and you could see that he wanted to crack into Slate and control the piece. I confess I’ve never had the subject of a piece try to replace me as author, but I figured it was up to the editors; so I gave Morris my editor’s number. But 30 minutes later, Morris called on his way to church (it was Good Friday), sounding contrite and saying that he would “back off” and would call at 2:30 to talk. He never called, and now he has stopped returning my messages. I figure he made three or four false promises to me during our preliminary conversations as he tried to figure out how to play this to his advantage. None was serious, obviously, and one suspects the new Morris wouldn’t lie about a big thing. But it is the web of easy evasions that is the essence of Morrisism, both in his politico past and in his Augustinian present.
Dostoyevsky wrote a book called The Idiot about a guy who is unprepossessing and naturally holy. Morris is more of an idiot savant. He seems sincerely interested in understanding holiness. But he can’t stop spinning ideas, images, and sound bites, can’t stop playing everything to his advantage. Watching him, you can see why some of those monks felt it necessary to take vows of silence.