As the presidential election of 1996 got under way, the press began to report that Bill Clinton’s campaign strategy was heavily influenced by the advice of a shadowy figure who had no title in either the campaign or the White House, the pollster and consultant Dick Morris. His emergence at the time was reminiscent of the equally sudden appearance in 1986 of Oliver North, the mastermind of the Iran/contra doings in Reagan’s White House. Both men had been working in secrecy and were all but unknown to the public. Both were considered charlatans by many of those they worked with, yet each gave authentic expression to a deep-rooted proclivity of the President he served. Each was hidden from public view by his President for as long as possible. (Morris aptly called himself a “bird perched on the President’s left shoulder”–though in truth, right shoulder would have been more like it.) Both were deeply suspect to the public, yet both possessed a keen intuitive feeling for the public mood. Both turned out to wield power greatly out of proportion to their formal roles. Both were enveloped in scandal and forced to leave the White House.
We are now in a position to know that of the two secret operatives, Morris was by far the more powerful. There appears to be no major area of policy that escaped his influence. The first clear evidence of the true extent of this influence came in his memoir Behind the Oval Office, in which he reports that at times he browbeat and bullied the President himself. Consider the scene in which, according to him, he upbraids Clinton for failing to take his advice sufficiently:
I put my hands on his upper arms and squeezed them. Then I looked straight at him and shook him harshly, violently. I said through clenched teeth, “Get your nerve back. Get your fucking nerve back.” He looked at me through bloodshot, weary eyes and with his face downcast solemnly nodded yes.
Or consider the scene in which Morris, having straightened out the White House, is next seen ruling the waves at the Senate, where, using a back channel to newly elected Republican majority leader Trent Lott, he solicits Lott’s agreement to commit the legislative and executive branches to a program of cooperation on all major upcoming legislation:
“Well, I’ve got my end [the White House] under control, and it looks like you’ve got yours [the Senate],” I said.
“So what do we do with it?” Lott asked.
“Let’s pass everything,” I answered.
“Sounds good to me. Let’s get started,” the Senator replied.
Lott had taken to calling me Mr. Prime Minister….
The picture of Morris’s influence suggested by these stories could be taken as runaway egomania were not its substance confirmed both by documentary evidence and other accounts that have now become available. One source is All Too Human, the memoir of the political adviser and counsel to the President, George Stephanopoulos, whom Morris in a way supplanted when Clinton hired him. Morris’s and Stephanopoulos’s memoirs both portray, consciously and unconsciously, the “intoxicating” (Stephanopoulos), “addictive” (Morris), metabolism-ruining, conscience-bending influence of derivative power, with its capacity to play havoc with its possessors’ personal lives, wreck their health and gut their principles. Both writers make creditable postbinge attempts to turn a cold eye on their recent performances, but these, perhaps inevitably, are only partially persuasive. (The distorting and reductive influence of power on the inner life of human beings, flattening them to a boring and predictable sameness, is perhaps the reason that no truly first-rate novel has ever been written about a politician–though plays, of course, are another story.)
Stephanopoulos, whose book appeared after Behind the Oval Office and who had every reason to deflate Morris’s boasting, instead essentially confirms it. “As Dick’s power grew, mine receded,” he candidly observes, and he goes on to recount Morris’s remarkable string of victories in the White House battles over policy and strategy. Stephanopoulos, who is often said to look like a choirboy and who in fact once was a choirboy, was disgusted by Morris’s advice to Clinton. Soon, however, he understood that the President backed Morris. What’s a choirboy to do when the head priest has made his will known? Stephanopoulos joined forces with Morris in what he calls a “pact with the devil.”