HONORS 195: Rhetoric of Impeachment; Fall, 1999, John Dewey Honors Program, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Vermont
Alfred C. Snider, Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics
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On the turntable of American politics Dick Morris has established himself as a masterful disk jockey. However, his ability to artistically mix campaign messages has earned him a scratched personal reputation. The rhetoric of Dick Morris transcends partisan boundaries to such a degree that it lacks foundation. His career has earned him praise but at the expense of intense scorn. His political strategy and poll based campaigning have earned him a reputation as both a genius and amoral. In many ways the controversial aspects of his messages reflect contemporary discussion of American politics. The flaws of his character reveal some of the flaws in our representative system. The recent Impeachment Trial of President Clinton has also brought attention to flaws in our representative system. Dick Morris's political commentary on the Impeachment and the work of his career offers insight with which to examine a growing discontent among the American public towards our nation's politics.
In order to understand Morris's relationship to the jading of the voting public it is necessary to examine his career and history. Dick Morris has been around politics for his entire life. Growing up in Manhattan, his father Eugene was a prominent real estate lawyer who was very familiar with tactics of persuasion. Eugene Morris was responsible for deals that created properties such as the Lincoln Center. At an early age he taught his son all about political favor. Eugene had learned his lessons about political action from his uncle Al Cohn. Cohn was a Democratic boss of the Bronx. When Dick Morris was still very young his father abandoned him and Cohn raised him along with his own son Roy. Ironically, according to Time magazine, Roy"grew up to be one of the most hated and feared right-wing power brokers of his generation."(Pooley page 26) In addition to Roy Cohn, Morris's cousin is Jules Fierier, a liberal cartoonist. Morris saw both sides of the political spectrum from a very young age.
Morris campaigned for the winner of the forth grade student council presidency and when he was twelve he stood outside giving speeches on behalf of John F. Kennedy. Morris then attended the Styvesant High School and joined the debate club. At this prestigious preparatory school Morris excelled at taking any side on issues. According to Time he had once said,"Truth is that which cannot be proved false."(Pooley page 26) In 1964 Morris supported his local West Side district candidate by telling his classmates to go to residents doors. Their efforts tripled Democratic participation in the district. Upon graduation Morris attended Columbia University.
After Columbia, Morris worked in Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968. Then in 1969 back in Manhattan, Morris led a group known as the"West Side Kids."They gained the elected control of a thirty-block area much to the chagrin of Harold Ickes whom Morris has been battling with for jobs and budget money for his entire career. According to Time,"He flirted with the idea of running himself, then stashed those ambitions forever. 'I preferred to be the cat with nine lives,' he says. 'If we lost, I was still employed.'"(Pooley page 26) Says West Side activist Ross Grahm:"Some of us wanted to change the world. Dick wanted to run it."(Pooley page 26) Morris also gained important experience as an analyst for a city-budget watchdog group. After working as a free-lance issue advisor to various candidates Morris met a poll expert by the name of Richard Dresner. Dresner worked for Hollywood studios by asking people which blurbs would make them want to see a movie and which of several endings that they preferred. According to Morris, he had suggested to Dresner,"Let's do the same thing for politicians."(Pooley page 27.)
Dick Morris met Bill Clinton in 1977. At the time Clinton was trying to decide whether or not to run for Governor. Dick Morris took a poll and based on these results Clinton decided that he had a chance to win. He won the election and since then they developed a long lasting professional partnership. Clinton ended up losing his reelection in 1980. Interestingly, Morris was called on to create a Clinton comeback in 1980 just as he was in 1994 in the middle of Clinton's first term as president. According to Time,"What Morris calls 'the incredible metaphor of 1980' remains at the heart of their rapport. In 1980 as in 1994, Clinton suffered a shattering defeat and sank into depression. In both cases it seemed impossible for him to climb out of his hole. And in both cases Morris' confidence jump-started the candidate-and began a 'permanent campaign' in which Clinton defined himself partly through polling."(Pooley page 27) Ironically, not long after Clinton's victory in 1996, the culmination of their work together, Morris went through the worst period of his career.
In September of that year, Morris was caught using the services of a prostitute by the name of Sherry Rowlands and the evidence of this encounter was published in a tabloid magazine called the Star. Rowlands had told the Star about their relationship. Consequently a photographer captured everything on film at their next and last encounter. The story was published shortly after. For those who already thought Morris, was sneaky, this validated their opinion. For those who knew little about him, they came to the same conclusion. Morris's reputation was significantly damaged. Interestingly, these events took place just before the Clinton inauguration speech and both were covered on the same day's newscasts. The event was used by Republicans to judge the character of Clinton. They wanted the public to make the assumption that if his prime advisor was sneaky he was as well. Clinton was left virtually no choice but to ask Morris to resign. In 1997 Morris published a book, Behind the Oval Office which documents his winning 1996 campaign with Clinton. The book was largely a way for him to correct his public image. The book begins with an apology to his wife and the public for his actions. In the preface he writes,"In this book, I acknowledge political misjudgments in my career, as well as my grave lapse of moral standards. All my well-known mistakes are real. But no one is merely the sum of his or her mistakes. My desire for political progress is as genuine as my love of politics. It is more than a game to me. Everything else I have written was a speech, an ad, a memo, a tract-all text with a mission to convert, a goal to persuade. This is simply the truth about my role in a series of extraordinary events."(Morris page XVIII)
During his advising career Dick Morris worked with a host of candidates whose beliefs lay all over the political spectrum. His long list of associates includes Senator Trent Lott, William Weld of Massachusetts and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. More examples of his politically diverse clients include the liberal Democrats Bella Abzug of New York, Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and the conservative Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
After his working relationship with Clinton had ended. Morris took on a new role. Since then he has become a political commentator and newspaper columnist. He works for FOX news and has written articles on his political predictions for various candidates. When the Impeachment Scandal became breaking news, Clinton had discussed the matter briefly with Morris who gave him some advice. Because of these two brief conversations Morris was subpoenaed before the House Grand Jury to testify. Afterward he went on FOX News to discuss these events with the public. Interestingly, since his work with Clinton, Morris has not been involved with campaigns. In many ways, creating Clinton's comeback was the ultimate challenge for Morris.
In order to understand why Morris's strategy offends people it is necessary to gain an understanding of his political beliefs. His most recent book, written in 1999 lays out the foundations for his political philosophies. It is entitled, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century. Virtually all of his beliefs stem from the following thesis, one that is quite simple. Morris is a centrist. In an interview with CNN's Larry King, Morris explained,"But, the central thesis of my view of politics, which I do express in the book, but it's my central view of it, is that the American people have become very idealistic, spiritual, positive, sophisticated and well informed. And that if you're going to aim at them, like Machiavelli said to do, you better aim high. That if you aim low, with negative ads and that kind of garbage, your going to lose."(King page 7) This view which permeates virtually everything Morris says is also known as triangulation. It is this strategy that he convinced Clinton to use in the 1996 presidential election and it worked quite well. Essentially this view of centrism holds that the majority of Americans are in a consensus that lies in between the partisanship of the political parties. By separating oneself from their party and moving toward the center of the political spectrum, a candidate is likely to get elected. Morris justifies his ability to jump from one political party to another by explaining,"I hate both parties equally. I'm an independent. I think left to their own devices, the Democrats would raise taxes and kill the economy. Left to their own devices, the Republicans would put us in a straightjacket and tell us how to live every bit of their lives. But they each have points to recommend them. And what I try to do is pick out the stuff from each side and fight for it."(King page 18)
The career of Dick Morris has proven that he is very skilled as a political strategist and persuader. Because Morris's job was to persuade voters to support one politician or another, it is particularly difficult to determine if he really has any defining ideals himself. This makes it challenging to determine what Morris as a rhetorician is attempting to associate with and disassociate from. This is what makes Morris's role in the Impeachment Scandal particularly interesting. He has offended all the different groups represented. These include the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the American people. Representatives from all of these groups have complained about the tactics which Morris practices. In regards to the Impeachment Scandal, Morris has a very outside perspective. He was no longer associated with the goals of either party. In this sense, Morris had significant freedom with which to voice his beliefs without significant concern for those who would receive his message. Morris was free from the confines of partisan warfare that dominated the rest of the rhetoric surrounding these events and therefore able to more freely promote his public image. Despite Morris's freedom from partisanship it is apparent that Morris does attempt to align himself with a certain set of ideals. He attempts to associate his beliefs with those of the Americans whom he has polled.
Morris refers to Americans not as individuals but rather as an entity that is mainly united by consensus. He consistently refers to them using terms of flattery and he also attempts to identify with them through this flattery. Morris has said the following things about the American people.
In his interview with Larry King, Morris boasts,"The American people are so sophisticated, so educated: As turnout drops, the people who still vote are geniuses. They watch your show. They watch news all the time. They're junkies."(King page 15) He is constantly referring to the"swing"group that decides whether candidates win or lose. Morris himself carefully describes this"swing"group."But the real group, the swing group who tends to be the younger people, the people 40 years old or under, they basically say, he's (Bill Clinton) not accused of doing anything that I didn't do when I was in college, and I'm ashamed of what I did when I was in college. But my dominant concern now is that my children are listening. My eight-year-old suddenly knows what oral sex is. My six-year-old comes in and asks me questions that I hoped she wouldn't ask until she was 18. And we take all our time and trouble to keep our kids away from X-rated programs or R-rated programs, and then the news comes on and it's worse than any movie ever was. And what they're basically saying to Washington is talk about campaign finance, talk about Whitewater, talk about public policy, but stop talking about sex. It doesn't belong on the air."(Battista page 11)
Morris believes that the true power in politics rests in knowing what the public wants to hear from the candidate and not on partisanship. He reveals this ideology in an interview with CNN's Bill O'Reilly. In the interview they talk about Morris's prediction than Ken Starr will end up getting himself fired. Morris backs up his argument by saying,"I'll bet that right now a poll would probably show 60 to 30 in favor of getting rid of Starr."O'Reilly responded with the following,"Poll of the American people, but the power structure in Washington's quite another game."Morris concluded with"Well, I am not so sure."(O'Reilly page 2)
In discussing the Impeachment case Morris has talked at length about what the American people want and why they do not want impeachment. He has explained that the Republicans have essentially shot themselves in the foot by going after Clinton with such a vengeance. In his most recent book, The New Prince Morris has dedicated a chapter to his views on the Clinton Impeachment Scandal entitled"Substance over Scandal". In this chapter Morris explains,"The subtitle to the Lewinsky Scandal and the subsequent attempts to remove Clinton should be, Suppose they gave a scandal and nobody came? The more the GOP reveled in the details of Clinton's behavior, the more revolted Americans became-less at Clinton for his conduct, and more at the GOP for obsessing on it. In the end, it was the Republicans who suffered the most."(Morris page 41) Morris further reveals the context of the Impeachment when he explained,"The media runs with scandal on its nightly news because it marches to the beat of a different drummer. Media outlets don't care about swing votes, they worry about ratings. It doesn't matter to ABC-TV if the viewers it attracts are base Democrats, base Republicans, or Independents. Hard-core partisans love scandals that afflict the other party. Right-wingers luxuriate in Clinton's scandals, while liberals can't get enough of any malfeasance involving Newt Gingrich. Scandal sells newspapers, radio programs and TV shows. It just doesn't move voters. It attracts those who are already decided politically-base voters of either party-to the TV set, but it does little to influence the real playing ground of our politics: the independent middle."(Morris page 45)
Morris has correctly summed up the opinions of many American voters. He understands their sentiments very well. It is obvious from his many successes that Morris is an intelligent man and very good at political strategy. But, because Morris has burned many bridges in his career and created a negative image for himself, it is likely that many politicians do not want anything to do with him. However, at the same time, he is still appealing to politicians because he knows how to play their game so well. For politicians, Morris is a great man to have as your political sidekick. But if he is one of your advisors, it can get you in trouble with both the American public and the political community when people find this out. When one works with Dick Morris, his talents as well as his less than clean image are part of the package. Private and public Americans alike often resent the fact that Morris has based policy on polls and not on principles. When asked about the strong tensions between he and Morris, George Stephanopoulos, another ex-advisor to Clinton explained,"it was more about the way he reached policy decisions. He tended to poll first, and then think about what was right."(King page 8) Morris has attempted to defend himself against the claims that he is amoral. According to Newsweek magazine's Evan Thomas,"Morris asserts that Clinton uses polls only to help him sell his policies, not to shape them."However,"Morris's very first advice to Clinton is to sell the invasion of Haiti as a quest for 'human rights and values' even though the real reason Clinton wants to invade the island Morris discloses, is to stop an exodus of Haitian immigrants from flooding Florida - a key swing state."(Thomas page 33) But Morris still insists that"It's not the spin, it's the substance."(Thomas page 33)
It is not surprising that voter turnout has been so low in recent years. The American voting public has become rightfully distrustful of our political system. Both the work of Dick Morris and the events of the Clinton Impeachment Scandal have furthered this frustration among Americans. Poll based campaign and partisanship are not new tactics nor appear to be disappearing from politics. In fact, if kept in check, they do not pose nearly the threat that they currently do. However, with the strategy of Dick Morris and the intense partisanship of Impeachment, these political realities have reached new and unwanted extremes that impede political progress.
Under a Dick Morris system of campaigning, polls are used, and then policy is created afterwards. The benefit of this system is that it promotes issues based campaigning. However, the negative consequence is that politicians abandon their character and simply say whatever will get them reelected. Dick Morris's attempt to align his beliefs with voter's beliefs is insincere and unconvincing. It does not appear that Morris really believes what voters do. Rather he has simply determined how their vote can be obtained. Morris's ability to work for anyone who would hire him despite political affiliation reveals a strong lack of foundation within his personality. Despite his contrary defense, Dick Morris's strategy reduces politics to merely a game. It renders issues important, not because they are but because they will gain votes. It is not surprising that Morris has never run for office himself. Because he lacks core values the public likely would not take him seriously.
During the Impeachment Scandal, political partisanship reached a surprising fervor. The Republicans were willing to get Clinton by whatever means necessary and the Democrats pulled out every resource they had in order to defend him. While Americans were watching in disbelief, congressmen and women were rolling up their sleeves and going into war with one another. The result of this scuffle was that Americans saw their elected officials squabbling about the legal definition of sex instead of running the country. Under a government ruled by such partisanship the voter must choose between the candidates of two bitterly hostile parties.
The American voter has little to look forward to if the strategies of Dick Morris or the partisanship of the Impeachment Scandal continue to dominate. On one hand you have politicians who are willing to say anything that it takes to get voted into office so that they lose all character and personal values. On the other hand you have politicians that are so partisan that nothing else matters but the defeat of the opposing party. What gets lost in both situations is issues based campaign in which the candidates have a discernible character. Dick Morris is correct in criticizing the strong partisan feelings that consume the operations of the parties. However, his political philosophy does not offer a much better alternative for voters. Within this political climate it has become increasingly difficult for the voter to make an informed decision. Issues are either not being discussed or they are discussed exactly how voters want to hear it thereby, creating suspicion about its sincerity. In this context the obvious losers are the voting public.
Battista, B. (March 6, 1998) CNN Talkback Live. Cable News
King, L. (June 28, 1999) CNN Larry King Live. Cable News Network.
Morris, D. (1997) Behind the Oval Office. New York, Random House.
Morris, D. (1999) The New Prince: Machiaveelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century. Los Angeles, Renaissance Books.
O'Reilly, B. (February 8, 1999) The O'Reilly Factor. Fox News Network.
Pooley, E. (September 2, 1996) Who is Dick Morris? TIME v 148. P 24-31.
Thomas, E. (January 20, 1997) See Dick run the country. Newsweek v 129. P 32-3.
USA Today. (October 15, 1996) Election 1996 Dick Morris Biography. http://cgiusatoday.com/elect/ec/ecd114.htm