What does it tell us when a man seemingly lacking in normal human attachments has stunningly shrewd insights about the American people, our president and our political system?
After wading through the disgraced political consultant Dick Morris' story of his stint as strategist for President Clinton's re-election campaign in "Behind the Oval Office," (Random House 359 pages $25.95) the reader may conclude that Morris' mind - unencumbered by ordinary commitments and convictions is uniquely capable of tapping into our collective subconscious.
From this simultaneously self-revealing, self-promoting and thought-provoking memoir two images remain in the readers mind:
The first is the political consultant alone in his room late at night, as his fax machine spews forth the findings of his latest survey of Americans' social anxieties and political attitudes.
The second is Morris meeting secretly with Clinton in the residential quarters of the White House. Sometimes, the
consultant would shout at, even grab and shake, the president, as he urged him to "Get your nerve back" and find courage to chart a centrist course between the conservative Republicans and the liberals in his own party.
To be sure, some readers may scour it, almost in vain, for the sex scandals that catapulted Morris out of the White House and onto the covers of supermarket tabloids. But, apart from apologies to his wife and alibis stressing his sickly and lonely childhood, Morris offers little for readers whose interest is prurient, not political.
What is chilling is Morris' detached, almost clinical, attitude to the disorder in his personal life, compared to the passion he displays during the ups and downs of his professional relationship with Clinton, whose role in the consultant's career Morris compares to "the elusive Rochester in the in the life of Jane Eyre." Morris' stunted emotional life should confirm the common view that political operatives are a breed apart from ordinary humanity.
So should Morris' evident lack of lasting political, as well as personal, commitments.
With little explanation and less embaressment, he writes that he has worked for candidates across the political spectrum, from former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) on the Left to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on the Right. While admitting that his service to Helms was a "mistake," he says he saw working for this race-baiting extremist as "an initiation ritual" for a once-and-future Democrat hiring himself out to Republicans. Indeed, he boasts that during his recent stint with Clinton he served as a back channel to another longtime client, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss).
All this may make it too easy to dismiss Morris' book as ramblings better suited for a psychiatrist's couch than a national forum. But, in fact, Morris offers astute, if frequently wrongheaded, explanations for how Clinton won re-election just two years after the voters ousted the Congressional Democratic majority in a humiliating defeat that seemed a repudiation of the president as well.
Morris situates his own work in an analysis of the Clinton administration that is by now familiar to readers of instant histories by Bob Woodward, Elizabeth Drew, Ron Brownstein and other chronicles of the president's first term. According to this view, Clinton was elected in 1992 as a "New Democrat" sensitive to middle-class social anxieties and skepticism of government. Then, in 1993 and 1994, he sold his soul to congressional Democrats in return for a mess of liberal legislative victories and the chance to reform the health care system. Defeated on health care and rejected by the voters in 1994, Clinton returned to his centrist roots in 1995 and triumphed in 1996.
In this memoir, Morris presents himself as the secret hero of this history, a longtime intellectual partner of the president who helped him formulate his centrist philosophy during his years as Governor of Arkansas. Called in by Clinton to serve as a secret adviser after the 1994 election debacle, Morris helped liberate the president from a White House staff who the consultant writes "marched to the beat of the liberal Democrats in Congress" and interest groups such as ethnic minorities and labor unions. Not satisfied with claiming credit for victory, Morris also maintains that he helped Clinton formulate a new political philosophy, perched at the top of a "triangle" between conventional liberalism and conversatism and articulating a new national consensus on social issues.
For all Morris' self-centered, self-serving spinning of recent events, his account isn't entirely wrong. Over the past two years, Clinton did find a voice that expressed his own views and experiences, rose above the rhetoric of both parties, and struck a responsive chord with the American people. While derided as "small-bore" by policy experts and political observers, many of the social initiatives Clinton introduced - from school uniforms and v-chips to campaigns against school violence and teen smoking - spoke to people's sense that society is losing its moral bearings and coming apart at the seams.
A president should lead the nation as well as manage the government, and Clinton is serving the national interest as well as his own political interests by articulating commonly held views on social issues that too often drive Americans apart. He is
helping to heal racial, religious and cultural divisions by reminding Americans that we all want to build strong communities and teach our children the difference between right and wrong.
But Morris' frame of reference is purely political, the product of claustrophobic rooms where he communes alone with the president or his polling data. Unlike Clinton, who is admirably concerned with the impact of public policies on actual people, Morris says nothing about whether any of these policies he promoted improved American lives as well as the president's favorability ratings. And Morris assumes that his critics within the administration were similarly motivated by political considerations rather than human concerns, when they opposed welfare reform that may dump women and children on the streets or a balanced budget that might put a crimp on social programs for the middle class and the poor.
Morris alternately downplays and claims credit for responding to the role of economic insecurity in electing Clinton, generating a discontent with his presidency, and eventually contributing to his re-election against adversaries who wanted to shred the social safety net. Morris claims Clinton's January 1996 State of the Union address, with its emphasis on social issues and its declaration that "The era of big government is over," was the event that "changed everything" for his re-election chances.
In fact, Clinton had rebounded several months earlier when - quite likely against Morris' advice - he took a firm stand against Republican efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid, educational and environmental programs. Clinton's defense of popular governmental programs - and not his social initiatives, important as they were - marked the turning point in his political fortunes. And his post-election surveys show he was re-elected with a coalition remarkably similiar to the supporters who elected him in 1992: middle- and low-income wage earners concerned about lifting their living standards, as well as restoring American values.
In fact, the distinction Morris draws between "values" and "economics" may be a false one. In spite of the cyclical upturn in the economy, most Americans still have a hard time earning secure livelihoods and finding the hours to spend with their families and contribute to their communities. Clinton spoke directly to these concerns in 1992. He tried to respond to them in 1993 and 1994. And, in the years ahead he will still find that these challenges are the ultimate test of his presidency and his ++ place in history.
Has Morris ever spoken with hard pressed working families as intimately as he has advised the president or pondered polling statistics? As Morris writes, while apologizing for his dalliances: "Walls close in on me when I'm alone. I don't do well." This man, his memoir and the political system he personifies would all benefit from some fresh air.
David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton fro 1992 through 1994, before Dick Morris emerged as chief strategist for Clinton. Kusnet is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties."
Pub Date: 1/19/97