Witness for the prosecution?

Dick Morris, conspiracy theorist, could find a way to hurt the president again.


Nicholas Confessore
January 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Two days after the House managers of President Clinton's impeachment trial "interviewed" potential witnesses at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington (translation: Relax, we're wearing sweaters. It's all off the record. Try the clam dip), the big story is that Monica Lewinsky "gave them nothing." But what did Dick Morris -- pundit, prognosticator, political consultant extraordinaire and Witness No. 2 -- give them?

Try this: a secretive network of sleazy private investigators, vengeful politicians, shadowy financiers and partisan journalists working to bring down perfectly respectable public figures. That's right: It's the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, according to Dick Morris.

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In the last six months, Morris has become one of the major purveyors of the notion that there is indeed a conspiracy behind the nation's current crisis. But whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton sees her husband as the victim, Morris says the targets are congressional Republicans Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton, who've had sexual indiscretions revealed. Instead of lambasting gossipy dirt-digger Lucianne Goldberg, Morris sets his sights on Terry Lenzner, an investigator with the firm IGI and putative White House enforcer. In place of shadowy right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, we get libertine Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

If Morris sticks to his charges, he could be the perfect witness for the prosecution: a source from within the Clinton White House who testifies to a corrupt operation to obstruct justice -- based on absolutely no evidence.

Morris fired his first salvo in an October New York Post column. He revealed how the 1992 Clinton campaign had "maintained a staff of detectives to dig up dirt on women" and how "Paula Jones' husband [was] dismissed from his decades-long job with Northwest Airlines just as the CEO of the airline [sought] the Democratic nomination for governor of California." Morris named the dark forces responsible "the Clinton Secret Police," and wrote that they were probably the same miscreants who tried to silence Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey by stealing her cat and slashing her car tires.

Then, in a Dec. 8 column, Morris theorized that Clinton aides had hired Jack Palladino to investigate members of the White House's own Travel Office staff, "presumably to get material to tarnish their reputations." Two weeks later Morris wrote: "Can anyone seriously believe that the 'outing' of incoming House Speaker Robert Livingston's extra-marital affairs is not the work of the White House Secret Police?"

And so it goes. According to Morris, the secret police dig the dirt, White House staffers like Sidney Blumenthal and communications director Ann Lewis quietly shop the goods and compliant White House propagandists in the media publish the salacious details.

It sounded faintly paranoid when Hillary Clinton accused the president's enemies of belonging to a vast, right-wing conspiracy. But whereas the first lady was mocked -- despite the evidence that a coterie of right-wing lawyers has been behind efforts to smear the president all along -- media figures can't get enough of Dick Morris. Because of his longtime proximity to President Clinton, anything Morris says is automatically assumed to have some basis in fact. And because Morris was formerly a Friend of Bill, the usual standard of neutrality is reversed: Morris actually becomes more credible as he gets more vitriolic. Fox News and various talk shows have rushed to bring Morris on the air to explain the machinations of the White House secret police. And although the White House has vigorously denied the accusations, Republicans have become increasingly emboldened in accusing Clinton of being responsible for the revelations about House Republicans.

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It should be noted that Salon itself has been the victim of repeated Morris smears. He wrote in two December columns that the White House was certainly behind the story of Henry Hyde's "youthful indiscretion" with married hairstylist Cherie Snodgrass, and cited as proof the fact that the magazine featured an interview with President Clinton in an early issue -- which isn't true. He attacked investigative journalist Russ Baker's meticulously documented exposi of Dan Burton, writing that Ann Lewis "has her fingerprints all over" Baker's story, and that "the likelihood is that Lewis was involved in the decision to give Baker the green light to publish." Morris politely refused to be interviewed for this article. "I don't feel comfortable talking to Salon," he said when we contacted him in the green room at Fox News. "I don't like it, I think it's an administration mouthpiece -- at least it was when I was there. Goodbye."

It's been just two years since Morris, at what should have been his moment of triumph -- Clinton's imminent reelection -- was forced to resign, after his long-term affair with call girl Sherry Rowlands was revealed. Newspapers jumped on his tale of toe-sucking and sharing presidential secrets with this woman who was not his wife, and Morris resigned in disgrace. But not too much disgrace. The release of his bestselling political memoir, "Behind the Oval Office," less than a year later marked Morris' makeover. He began writing his weekly column in the Post last April. Around the same time, Morris signed on to Fox News as a political analyst and quickly joined the same punditocracy that, two years earlier, had declared him finished.

All in all, Morris has moved from punch line to pundit with head-spinning speed. But Morris is not without his skills. Even his detractors concede his knowledge, experience and political acumen. Until August 1996, he was known for being relentlessly low-profile and serious about his work. Time once called him "the most influential private citizen in America," a title that -- at least while he was running Clinton's 1996 campaign -- may have been appropriate. After all, Morris is credited with almost single-handedly putting a Democratic incumbent president back in office at a time when Republican ascendancy was practically taken for granted. Morris is articulate, brash, knowledgeable and -- thanks to Sherry Rowlands -- infamous. In other words, he's perfect for both Fox and the Post.

True, his 1998 election predictions were wildly off-base ("a likely GOP gain of 30-40 seats"), but in the pundit world, this puts him in excellent company. At the very least, Morris' two-decade relationship with Clinton and two-year stint as his chief strategist were adequate credentials, if credentials were necessary, to appear on "Larry King Live" and take viewers inside the mind of Bill Clinton.

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Dick Morris is, in other words, a consummate insider. There's just one problem: Despite his insider status, he has offered not a single shred of evidence that a White House secret police exists or that such a group has had anything to do with the "outing" of Republicans' marital infidelities. A look at Morris' work in the Post reveals a columnist inordinately fond of such words and phrases as "likely," "probably" and "almost certainly." "In fact" is frequently followed by someone else's opinion. Morris relies heavily on unspecified "published reports," other people's unnamed, loosely described sources -- never does he cite his own -- and the ever-judicious Matt Drudge. And the reporting of many of the more creditable sources he cites specifically, such as Cokie Roberts and the Washington Post, frequently suffers from the same drawbacks. What exactly is a "source close to the White House," anyway?

The most recent example is the now-discredited "Clinton love child" story, in which tabloid newspaper the Star financed DNA testing for Danny Williams, a boy whose mother claimed he had been fathered by Clinton during her days as a prostitute. Most of the nation's papers of record ignored the story, but Matt Drudge reported it, after which not just the Post, but the Boston Herald and the Washington Times all followed. Then Fox News and MSNBC immediately jumped on-board. When asked by Fox's Bill O'Reilly whether he thought the allegations where true, Morris responded, "I have no idea, and there's no point in speculating." Good so far, but Morris couldn't help himself. "But if you're working for Bill Clinton," he went on, "you have to wonder. The country's not going to permit another impeachment trial. So that his hope is that he has to wind this thing down before there is conclusive evidence as to whether that boy is his child, if he is ... I think that therefore, his handlers want to close this thing down before the DNA test comes out, because once the impeachment is over, it's never going to be restarted ... and that's why the White House wants it closed down before any other shoes drop." In other words, decline to speculate, then speculate. And implicitly confirm the notion that there are more "shoes" -- tales of Clinton sexual misconduct -- to drop.

It's not that Morris' claims are always bereft of fact. White House counsel David Kendall is indeed an attorney for the National Enquirer. Information about Henry Hyde's and Dan Burton's affairs did come out just as the GOP was preparing to open impeachment proceedings. And yes, Sidney Blumenthal was a Clinton apologist even before he went to work for the White House -- where, after all, one would expect him to be one -- and once wrote a nasty article about Republican political consultant Ed Rollins.

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And the president is certainly no angel. It seems likely, for instance, that Clinton has used Terry Lenzner's services to investigate Paula Jones and other women claiming to have had affairs with him. But this is standard practice for such cases, especially high-profile ones. Kenneth Starr, for instance, has hired private eyes to do investigative work for the OIC. But a vast, left-wing conspiracy to uncover Republican sexual indiscretions, masterminded by a woman -- Ann Lewis -- who Morris frequently describes as incompetent?

For all the attention devoted to Morris' accusations, he has offered no evidence of anything that could be called a White House conspiracy. No transcripts. No memos or other written documents, signed or unsigned, about a secret police. No tapes. No photographs. Not even quotes from unnamed, ill-defined sources. Nothing but an elaborate sequence of suppositions, claims, coincidences and factoids that would make Fox Mulder wince. For a man who spent two years as Clinton's chief strategist and many more as a key advisor, who, according to his own book, was once the most important player in the White House after Clinton himself, Dick Morris has remarkably little to show.

And yet the existence of a White House secret police is now increasingly taken for granted. Just as the mainstream press reported as fact unsubstantiated allegations from tabloid outlets throughout the Lewinsky affair, reputable newspapers and less-reputable talk shows have taken on Morris' ruminations as a matter for serious public discussion. Echo-chamber sourcing -- where mainstream papers use tabloid speculation as the basis for news stories, then pundits like Morris use those news articles as their own "reputable" sources -- has become the norm.

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Now Morris is himself the reputable source. Congressmen who publicly scoffed at the notion of a right-wing conspiracy have repeated Morris' charges as mantra. Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, R-Calif., for instance, said in December that "anyone who is perceived as a threat to the administration is immediately attacked" as part of the White House's "scorched earth strategy." During the same conference, when asked whether he thought the White House had planted the Livingston story, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., replied, "Do you think the sun will come up in the morning?" House whip Tom DeLay has, as usual, called for an FBI investigation.

There's a real danger here, and not just to Dick Morris' credibility. For weeks, DeLay has been inviting Republican senators -- and only Republicans -- over to the Ford Office Building to look at supposed further evidence of presidential wrongdoing, including "actual forcible rape." Officially, the impeachment managers have decided to ignore these charges. But it would not be cynical to wonder whether resolute Clinton-haters like Rep. Bill McCollum might try to use the trial as an occasion to air Morris' and DeLay's accusations in a public and credibility-lending forum like the Senate.

Moderate Republicans seem to be losing enthusiasm for an extended, wide-ranging trial with witnesses, but the moderates have never really been in charge. The witness issue is still up for grabs, and it's not exactly clear what the House managers want from Dick Morris. One possibility is that they wish to "clear up" the matter of the Lewinsky-trashing press conference that, according to his testimony, Morris had been planning to call until he was dissuaded by Clinton, who was eager not to alienate Lewinsky.

Morris' grand jury testimony confirmed that the idea for the press conference came from him, not Clinton. But his testimony that Clinton had vetoed the idea so as not to alienate Lewinsky intrigues House managers, who see it as possible evidence that Clinton was trying to get Lewinsky to lie about their affair. He could also be useful if the House managers decide to call Kathleen Willey as a witness. Rep. James Rogan told MSNBC on Monday that he and his colleagues are more interested in White House attempts to silence Willey -- such as those described by Morris in the Post -- than in her sexual harassment allegations themselves.

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Morris himself says that he and the managers discussed two other topics: the gifts Lewinsky gave Clinton that were later retrieved by Betty Currie, and Clinton's telling Morris, "We just have to win" -- which again could be used to bolster the notion that Clinton waged a no-holds-barred crusade to suppress the story, known in impeachment trial parlance as "obstruction of justice."

As the perjury charge in Article One begins to seem less of an impeachable offense, even if proven, the House managers are leaning hard on the obstruction-of-justice case. They'd like to paint a sordid tale of heavy-handed, White House-orchestrated conspiracy. Dick Morris is the perfect man for the job.


Nicholas Confessore

Nicholas Confessore is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.

MORE FROM Nicholas Confessore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Dick Morris Tom Delay

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