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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | November 20, 2003
The Two Sides of Dick Morris
Book Reviews

By Ed Kilgore

Table of Contents

POWER PLAYS: Win or Lose -- How History's Great Political Leaders Play the Game
by Dick Morris
Regan Books, 384 pp, $13.95

OFF WITH THEIR HEADS: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business
by Dick Morris
Regan Books, 368 pp, $24.95

My first personal exposure to Dick Morris was in the summer of 1996, when, as President Clinton's top political strategist, he was in the season of his greatest ascent to power and his imminent fall from grace. At an issues seminar for Democratic elected officials, Morris performed much like a rock star: showing up late, launching a high-speed rap on where Democrats should position themselves on a wide range of issues, and then leaving as quickly as he arrived. Morris' impact was unforgettable and unmistakable, in good and bad respects.

Even though I agreed with much of what Morris told this audience of Democrats, when he left, I turned to the person next to me and said: "Can you smell the brimstone?"

That turned out to be a fairly representative reaction, among New Democrats and Clinton loyalists, to Dick Morris' role in the Clinton political saga. There's no question that Morris played a key role in Clinton's response to the 1994 Republican Revolution. He pivoted from a defensive reaction to an aggressive centrist political agenda that addressed voters' concerns about the Democratic Party on crime, welfare, the federal budget, and other values issues. This strategy painted the GOP into an extremist corner and helped pave the way for Clinton's smashing re-election in 1996.

But media accounts of Morris' doctrine of "triangulation" (urging Clinton to distinguish himself from congressional Democrats as well as congressional Republicans) portrayed him as arrogant and cynical. That image helped both Republicans and Democratic leftists dismiss the New Democrat movement and its international Third Way counterparts as purveyors of a deceptive marketing strategy rather than a principled new progressive ideology.

Morris' post-Clinton resurrection as a political pundit for Rupert Murdoch's media empire (Fox News commentator and New York Post columnist) has not done much for the balance between brilliance and brimstone in Morris' arsenal. Two books by Morris illustrate his two sides and his apparent sad devolution from strategist to schlockmeister.

Power Plays (first published in 2002 and now out in paperback) is a sweeping review of key moments in American (and occasionally European and Japanese) presidential politics. It is organized around Morris' assessment of successful and unsuccessful examples of six perennial strategies: Stand on Principle; Triangulate; Divide and Conquer; Reform Your Own Party; Use a New Technology; and Mobilizing the Nation in Times of Crisis.

In the course of this book, Morris manages to make extensive comments, always substantive and occasionally very insightful, about the political strategies of American politicians from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush. Lincoln, for example, is treated as a successful example of two strategies: Stand on Principle and Divide and Conquer. Woodrow Wilson is shown as a failure in pursuing the former strategy, and Thomas Dewey as an unsuccessful example of the latter. Roosevelt is a successful example of Use a New Technology, Nixon of Divide and Conquer, Reagan of Stand on Principle. Examples of unsuccessful strategies are Johnson on Mobilizing the Nation, McGovern on Stand on Principle, and Rockefeller on Triangulate.

I could offer many quibbles about Morris' analysis of political events, especially his overemphasis on the importance of television in the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections. But Power Plays is good and informative reading, with relatively little of the famous Morris overstatement and arrogance. In advancing his most questionable hypothesis -- that Lincoln deliberately sacrificed his 1858 Senate race to Stephen Douglas in order to engineer a national Democratic split over slavery in 1860 -- Morris acknowledges and weighs evidence to the contrary.

For New Democrats, the most gratifying section of Power Plays involves his discussion of Clinton's approach to triangulation, where Morris makes it clear that the strategy does not involve appropriation of the other party's policies. "The essence of triangulation is to use your party's solutions to solve the other side's problems. Use your tools to fix their car." Clinton, Morris shows, adopted the longstanding conservative goal of welfare reform as a top item on the Democratic agenda, but developed progressive policies, including higher funding for child care and stronger financial support for working families, to pursue that goal.

Perhaps the least perceptive piece of Power Plays is Morris' prediction that George W. Bush would be a successful triangulator as well. Morris' bullish assessment of Bush in Power Plays provides a nice transition to his new book, Off With Their Heads. This dubious work has clearly been packaged to tap into the lucrative right-wing political book market, despite content that occasionally strays into criticism of Republicans and their corporate constituencies.

The incoherence of Off With Their Heads is fully illustrated by Morris' introduction. First, it tells us the book is about those American "political, journalistic and cultural leaders who have mounted a campaign to oppose and impede the war on terror." Then it says "we must be equally alert to threats that may seem secondary to the war on terror." Finally and more accurately, the introduction concludes that the book will target "people, forces, and institutions that make me mad."

This last category ranges all over the lot, from a tedious and moot indictment of the deposed Howell Raines regime at The New York Times, to a shooting-fish-in-the-barrel attack on stupid things said by Hollywood figures about 9/11 and Iraq. It includes a jingoistic attack on the French and waltzes over to completely non-germane assaults on greedy nursing home operators and state government misappropriations of tobacco settlement funds.

The best chapter of Off With Their Heads is on the protect-the-incumbent redistricting trend that has made the House of Representatives so unrepresentative. The most offensive feature of the book is the tone of moral high dudgeon Morris incongruously adopts toward his targets. It's about as credible as a book by Madonna attacking entertainment figures for exploiting sex and trendy fashions. And that's why the worst chapter of this book is Morris' extended argument that Clinton deliberately avoided action against the terrorist networks that struck America on 9/11, a conscious contribution to the ongoing right-wing effort to exculpate Bush and the Republican Party for its own shortcomings in the war on terror. Aside from the breathtaking ingratitude of Morris toward the man whose campaign made him rich and famous, the author has the temerity to judge Clinton morally. He writes:

"At his core, Bill Clinton is a moral relativist. Things are not black and white to the former president; nor do they easily divide into good and evil. Whether facing partisan adversaries or foreign opponents, Clinton could always see the other side's point of view and make allowances for its conduct. Where George W. Bush sees absolutes, Clinton sees complexity."

And Dick Morris sees dollar signs.

Can you smell the brimstone?

Ed Kilgore is policy director of the DLC and a senior editor of Blueprint.