the first wave of stories about “l’Affaire Dick Morris” assumed he was
finished. In interviews, Morris, who takes credit for every good and smart thing President Clinton has ever done, insists he will not be calling plays, even from the locker room. But as we have learned from the resurrections of GOP master strategist Ed Rollins, political consultants can only be killed off with a stake through the heart.
Just four days after Morris’ resignation, The New York Times reported that Morris
expected to continue to play a prominent role in American politics. It quoted
Al Gore as declining to rule out a Morris role in the fall
campaign. Other observers predicted the President would continue to consult
with him informally by telephone. Morris was also defended by prominent Newsweek
columnists Joe Klein and Jonathan Alter.
Will or won’t he? The question of Morris’ future seems to come down to two basic issues: (1)
sex and (2) public policy.
Birds do it. Bees do it. And, according to writer Gail Sheehy in recent Vanity Fair articles, Republicans Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich have done it — along with such Democrats as Bill Clinton,
Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy, and a very high percentage of America’s male population. That is, become involved with women other than their wives.
But sexual promiscuity becomes a problem for political figures because, unlike bees and ordinary mortals, they are caught in a vice of public expectation and celebrity. On the one hand, we insist that they behave themselves. On the other, they are presented with opportunities
that would tempt Gandhi himself. And like Gandhi, they often succumb — with
their indiscretions flashed around the world when caught.
Despite appearances to the contrary, political figures have been permitted increasing latitude in recent years. They can be divorced these days, for example, whereas Nelson Rockefeller’s 1968 divorce meant he could not run for President. They are allowed past indiscretions, e.g. a Gennifer
Flowers, as long as it is over and their wives stand loyally by them.
Just when we get a handle on the new norms, however, something new happens
to push the envelope. Dick Morris may have been forgiven a fling or affair.
But a $200 an hour prostitute? Sharing secrets about Mars rocks?
Toe-sucking on video? Listening in on Hillary and Al Gore?
For many, such transgressions rule out any future publicly political
role for Dick Morris. For others who value privacy, it shouldn’t. To them trumpeting the private
details of Morris’ sex-life for monetary gain is far more repugnant than
anything he is alleged to have done. As Joe Klein wrote in this week’s Newsweek,
“if we lived in an even vaguely humane public environment, Dick Morris’
private tragedy would be strictly off-limits: he did it — if,
indeed, he did do it — on his own time and, most likely, with his own money.
But we live in a public sewer. Stories’ are bought and sold. There are no
limits.” Whatever the propriety of Joe Klein saying this, given the criticism that he violated Clinton’s privacy in his thinly veiled fictional account of the president’s supposed indiscretions, the point remains.
Sexual misbehavior, of course, involves judgment. The basic rule in Washington is don’t get caught. Political figures may be reluctant to deal with Morris, not out of distaste for his sexual appetites, but for fear that his indiscreet, childlike desire to impress some other bought-and-paid for paramour will once again ricochet, to their intense public embarrassment.
Jesse Jackson has chastised Dick Morris for being “amoral”: a mercenary who
serves both far-right Republicans like Jesse Helms and Democrats like
Clinton. He blames Morris for pushing the President to sign the welfare
reform bill on political grounds, arguing that it will push more than one
million children into poverty.
Jonathan Alter, however, writes that “Morris is brilliant–when he’s
not being stupid. The ideas just pour out of him … The ones that the president adopted are not only fueling his campaign, they are changing the country. Morris performed a major public service, says Alter, by pushing issues like parental leave or teenage smoking, which affect people far more than typical “Washington” issues. “Dick Morris looks like a fool, or worse, but if Clinton wins, history will be kinder. He helped the president find a way to campaign and govern closer to where people really live.”
So the question is: if the President decides that he needs Morris’ advice, for the sake of good government, should he refrain from seeking it because of the latter’s peccadillos? Many of us, this writer included, are happy to see Morris gone because we disagree with his politics. But while it is one thing to repudiate Morris’ politics on principle, it is quite another to see them
defeated because of personal foibles. Such is the fate of banana republics,
Maoist China and countries like Iraq, not a proud democracy like the U.S.
Others would argue, “Yes, but there are offenses to public propriety so serious that they rule a person out. Bill Clinton would be making a mockery of ‘family values’ to consult Dick Morris, and doing so would raise questions about his own character. NBC’s Washington chief, Tim Russert, says he would not put Morris on “Meet The Press,” despite admiring his political skills, because he believes in “shame.”
Tell that to G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, both of whom have risen to new heights of fame despite the shame they brought to our political system. But then our politics, like our culture, has become celebrity-obsessed; and Dick Morris, like Liddy and North, is nothing now if not a celebrity.
Fred Branfman was the director of research for Gary Hart’s think tank, 1985-1987, until Hart’s presidential campaign crashed and burned over Hart’s alleged affair with Donna Rice. He is a regular contributor to Salon.
Quote of the day
Calling all dentists
“Once again we say to the ungodly Americans in a loud voice…(that) from today there are no more imaginary parallel lines…from today there will be no (part) of Iraqi territory off limits to us whether in the north or the south. We shall defend our sovereignty with our nails and teeth.”
– From a front page editorial Wednesday in the Iraqi newspaper, Babel, as quoted by Reuters news agency.