The Real Scandal

Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties

by Dick Morris
Random House, 359 pp., $25.95

Dick Morris
Dick Morris; drawing by David Levine

By Dick Morris’s own account, he represents President Clinton’s dark side.

When Clinton faces political adversity, he switches into his politician mode. In this mind-set, he doesn’t spurn the process; he tries to win. While still faithful to his basic principles, he becomes an astute and acute political warrior. I used to sense that he dislikes himself in this mode and didn’t like me much, either, for embodying it…. (Psychiatrists call it splitting when someone fails to integrate good and bad in a unified, coherent personality.)

After he helped Clinton win the Arkansas governorship in 1978, Morris was fired: “In the trenches, I was a necessary evil. But once Clinton had been elected governor, my style seemed undignified.”

It is easy to see, from this book, why Morris was considered evil—he is a lickspittle to those above him, arrogant and abrasive to those around or below him. But why has he so often seemed necessary? In the role of political-consultant-as-hired-gun, he resembles Lee Atwater or Roger Ailes in the past, Frank Luntz or James Carville in the present, in his ferocious concentration only and always on the political presentation of his client. When others think a candidate cannot win, these people tirelessly invent new ways of making the candidate win. They are willing to do whatever it takes, and they subordinate other considerations to the electoral appeal of their client. Morris boasts that he coached Clinton, or tried to coach him, on everything he said or did, everything he advocated or avoided, with a view to his standing in the polls. It is also clear that he tried to shove away from the President all those with competing claims (all but Clinton’s wife, whom Morris cultivated as shamelessly as he denigrated others).

Clinton tried to put buffers between Morris and the rest of his aides, so they would not expend their energies in battles over turf. That is one reason he kept Morris’s role secret for so long, even from his staff. If Morris was made to feel important because of this mystery, it would limit his efforts to feel important by disruptive attempts at domineering his rivals. Yet this put a great burden on the braggart side of Morris. He took whatever occasions were left him to show off his connection with the President—boasting to Republican ex-clients, to hotel keepers (the President of the United States would be calling), and even to the poor prostitute who had to listen to his phone calls with Clinton (her importance to his ego may have lain as much in her purchasable ear as in her shapely toe).

What Morris calls the lack of a “coherent personality” in Clinton, one that would unite his good and his dark sides, was seen at first as a split between campaigning and governing. Morris, at that time known for his negative advertising (he admits “I…

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