CHICAGO -- Dick Morris, the controversial strategist who engineered President Clinton's resurgence -- partly by having him stress family values -- abruptly resigned yesterday after a tabloid reported that he allowed a prostitute to eavesdrop on a conversation with the president.
The woman, identified as a $200-an-hour call girl from Northern Virginia named Sherry Rowlands, is quoted as saying that Morris once let her listen to the president when he called the consultant at his suite in Washington's posh Jefferson Hotel.
Morris also showed her drafts of White House speeches and told her various White House secrets, according to the report.
"I will not subject my wife, family or friends to the sadistic vitriol of yellow journalism," Morris said in a written statement.
"I will not dignify such journalism with a reply or an answer. I never will."
Attempts to reach Rowlands for comment were unsuccessful.
The resignation was clearly a blow to the president -- and came at one of the worst possible times, hours before he was to deliver his acceptance speech at the convention.
Instead of spending yesterday morning polishing his speech, Clinton huddled with top aides -- including James Carville, his 1992 guru and the man displaced by Morris -- as the White House worked on damage control.
"All of you are preoccupied with this matter," White House press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters in the frenzied atmosphere at the Sheraton Chicago, the Clinton headquarters hotel. "We're trying not to be preoccupied with it."
But Clinton's own prepared statement -- written, aides said, in his own hand -- hinted at his anguish for his longtime confidant: "Dick Morris is my friend, and he is a superb political strategist. I am and always will be grateful for the great contributions he has made to my campaigns, and for the invaluable work he has done for me over the last two years."
Not everyone was equally troubled by it, however.
Some Democratic liberals in Chicago -- including some White House staffers -- were clearly delighted.
Just the day before, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson had called Morris "amoral," and all week there had been sniping at him in various news accounts from anonymous administration aides.
Since early 1995, Morris has helped nudge Clinton to the political center, urging him to speak out against television violence, pushing him to adopt a balanced budget and helping persuade him to sign the Republican-passed welfare reform law.
The Dole camp responds
Asked about the resignation, Republican challenger Bob Dole predicted Clinton would "revert to the liberal Democrat he really is." Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield said Republicans greeted Morris' troubles with "no euphoria."
Tony Blankely, a spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said, "It's bad news for the president on his biggest day here, coming two days after they were talking about family values. He's lost his Bonaparte immediately before the campaign begins."
White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, who had clashed with Morris, took pains to portray Morris as one adviser among many. Added campaign manager Peter Knight: "He will be missed, but we have many talented people who are able to take his place."
But even Morris' enemies say privately that Clinton felt almost mystically comfortable around Morris and that replacing him won't be an easy matter.
Their bond, formed around politics, was solidified six years ago during Clinton's last campaign for governor of Arkansas, say two sources close to both men. One night, while arguing over tactics, Clinton punched Morris in the face. Morris never talked about that episode -- going so far as to deny it when asked about it by reporters during the 1992 campaign.
Clinton, in turn, stood by Morris this year when Republicans criticized him for moonlighting as a jury consultant for the defense in a notorious New England rape case.
But this scandal couldn't be finessed, White House officials believed.
Clinton got wind of the imminent tabloid expose Wednesday night and asked friend and former administration official Erskine Bowles to look into it. Then, McCurry said, the president went to bed.
Bowles tracked down Morris, got his side of it -- and apparently both realized Morris should fall on his sword to spare Clinton.
He fell swiftly. Just this week, Morris was on the cover of Time magazine, pictured on Clinton's shoulder, pouring advice into his ear.
During the convention, Morris, often accompanied by his wife, has basked in the spotlight of being the man who helped put Clinton on the right track after the 1994 midterm elections that were so disastrous to the Democrats.
Last night, Morris would have exulted in the glow of a speech that he helped shape as he celebrated a personal political journey that began as a liberal Democrat, entailed working for a host of conservative Republicans, and led to a post as chief strategist for a centrist Democratic president.
Instead, he left the Sheraton Chicago hotel holding the hand of his wife, lawyer Eileen McGann, about 10: 30 a.m. and headed for their home in Connecticut.
"While I served I sought to avoid the limelight because I did not want to become the message," said Morris in a written statement. "Now, I resign so I will not become the issue."
Neither Morris nor Clinton officials were willing to address the accuracy of the lurid tabloid allegations against the consultant, although McCurry urged reporters to "consider the source."
The source is the New York Post, a newspaper owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Post based its account on a story in the next issue of Star magazine, a supermarket tabloid that broke the Gennifer Flowers story four years ago.
Trappings of a set-up
This time around, the Star is said to have pictures of Morris and Rowlands that purport to have been taken in the Jefferson Hotel. As in the Flowers case, the episode had the trappings of a sting operation as Rowlands, the Post said, cooperated with the Star for some time in setting Morris up for a fall.
She alleges, according to the Post, that Morris showed her drafts the convention speeches of Vice President Al Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton several days before they were delivered and that Morris told her about the news that life might have been discovered on Mars -- a week before the White House consented to tell the nation.
Asked about those allegations, McCurry declined to comment except to say that if a violation of federal law had occurred, "it would be a matter for local law enforcement." Morris did not have a security clearance, McCurry said.
Embarrassed Democratic Party officials admitted that the expensive room in the Jefferson where Morris stayed when he was in Washington was paid for by the Democratic National Committee, which also had a contract with Morris that had been paying him an estimated $1 million a year.
That contract is now void, McCurry said. Knight said party accountants will carefully examine Morris' expense accounts.
Pub Date: 8/30/96