Sleazy does it

September 10, 1996|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- The affair, or affairs, of the president's main man, Dick Morris, is the kind of thing that gives cynicism a good name. By name or ''Anonymous,'' you can't make this stuff up, which is why Random House, the publisher of ''Primary Colors,'' is apparently willing to hand over $2.5 million to Mr. Morris for his dirty little secrets.

Therein lies a tale with Freudian undertones. Normally, my idea of psychiatry in American politics owes less to Austrian scholarship than to George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Hall philosopher best known for saying, ''I seen my opportunities and I took them.'' But Dick Morris, local boy made bad, did have classic psychiatric motivations for revealing himself as the sultan of sleaze, both sexual and political.

It was not only the money, although I'll come back to that. Mr. Morris needed to show the guys on the West Side that he was smarter than they are and than the president of the United States, too.

A constant essence

Richard Morris has changed, if not grown, over the years. He started out here, in the most liberal precincts of Manhattan's West Side, as a left-wing sleazebag egomaniac. But when he realized where the real money was, he moved to Connecticut and evolved into a right-wing sleazeball egomaniac.

Along the way he met a soulmate, or a friend in need, the young ex-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and for a price helped him win that job back in 1980.

Then he went back to his right-wing patrons, Jesse Helms and friends, until President Clinton ran into trouble with that same Helms et al. last year. Mr. Morris happily betrayed that old gang. Happily, but not ecstatically. Ecstasy for Mr. Morris meant that everyone had to know how bad he really was -- read Dennis Rodman.

So in the weeks before a Washington call girl set him up for tabloid photographers, Mr. Morris had been peddling parts of himself and of Mr. Clinton, too, around his old haunts in Manhattan, where the dear and the editors play.

The basic pitch was: Look, I am the most powerful private citizen in American history; the president and I are like one person and I'm running the country through him.

But publishers and editors were not buying, at least not at the prices Mr. Morris thought he was worth.

Robespierre or Rasputin

First, they were not totally persuaded that advising a professional politician to tell the people what they want to hear exactly qualifies as genius. They also knew Mr. Morris was a liar and suspected that President Clinton would ditch him after he had served his purposes.

They also wondered how far he was really willing to go as long as he thought he had more influence than Robespierre or Rasputin. Mr. Morris, professionally, was worth more dead than alive.

Knowingly or unconsciously, Mr. Morris did kill himself, doing whatever he had to do to be both rich and, more important, famous. He was exposed, or exposed himself, as a true nutcake, a man with nothing to lose. You want self-destructive? I'm worth two-and-a-half times Ed Rollins, he said metaphorically, using the name of the Republican political consultant who received a million-dollar advance for ratting on his clients and their spouses.

It worked for Mr. Rollins, whose book is doing quite well. It should work for Mr. Morris.

And the president? By the time Mr. Morris gets the cash, Mr. Clinton will have run his last race and will be trolling these same Manhattan pools with his remembrances and revelations. The more Mr. Morris and others lower the dialogue, the higher the price for everybody.

This should say terrible things about the way we govern ourselves and the people we choose to handle the people's business. But I am not so sure about that.

We survived Plunkitt and worse. American politics, democratic politics, has always been mucky and its practitioners rarely confused with saints. Of a New York pol named Grover Cleveland, former mayor of Buffalo and father of an illegitimate child, they sang: ''Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.'' Twice, as a matter of fact; Cleveland won two terms.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of ''Democracy in America,'' wrote this in a letter in 1831: ''When the right of suffrage is universal, and the deputies are paid by the state, it's singular how low and how far wrong the people can go. People in Tennessee sent to Congress an individual named David Crockett, who had no education, can read with difficulty, has no property, no fixed residence, but passes his life hunting, selling his game to live and dwelling in the woods.''

The virtue of cynicism

Tocqueville got it wrong about that -- for once. The fact that democracy can survive the leaders it produces -- and that political power is checked by public distrust -- is a strength, not a weakness, of American democracy.

Later, in the frontier city of Cincinnati, the French writer told a physician named Daniel Drake that he was ''frightened'' by the men and ideas democracy produced.

This was Drake's answer, from Tocqueville's notes, and it covers both presidents and the sleaziest of the men who live off them:

''If there were but one demagogue in charge of our affairs, things would doubtless go very badly. But they control each other, injure one another. . . . The ill effects resulting from the elections by the people are not as great as one might believe.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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