Bill and Dick’s Excellent Adventure

Christopher Hitchens

  • Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties by Dick Morris
    Random House, 382 pp, $25.95, January 1997, ISBN 0 679 45747 X

I was travelling in Illinois when I first heard some beefy local pol utter the profound Post-Modern truth that ‘Politics is showbiz for ugly people.’ Yes, you too may be a mediocre, flaky-scalped, pudgy sycophant. But, with the right ‘skills’, you also can possess a cellular phone and keep a limo on call and ‘take meetings’ and issue terse directives like ‘I want this yesterday, understand.’ Unfortunately, the women you meet in the politics biz will tend to be rather too much like yourself. But, hey, bimbos can be rented! And won’t they just be impressed to death when you pass them the bedroom telephone extension and it’s the Prez talking.

By ‘politics’ of course, I don’t mean the conflict of ideas and interests and interpretations. But then, who does these days? I mean the sump of images and soft money and poll-meisters and consultants: the spongy, protean surface upon which one can grow tendrils like Mr Morris and, for the matter of that, Mr Clinton. The President is justly renowned for dropping old friends like hot bricks if they threaten him with embarrassment, but he clung to Morris long after he had been exposed as a sleazebag, and still speaks of him in terms of lip-biting regret. In fact, let’s have Bill’s dust-jacket endorsement of Dick in full:

I think he is, first of all, brilliant, tactically and strategically. Secondly, with me he’s always been very straightforward and honest, the bad news as well as the good and, if possible, the bad news first. Thirdly, he knows how I think, and he knows what I will do and what I won’t do. Fourthly, he’s full of new ideas all the time. And, finally, we’ve been together so long that he not only understands me, I understand him.

This says a good deal about both men. One is a big Babbitt; a Babbitt on a global scale. The other is a Babbitt more in the Osric mould: a tenth-rater who knows how to make himself useful and has a concept of the big break or the main chance. Morris knew Clinton when the latter was a struggling governor of a small state, and was able to do him a number of little services. (He often boasted of procuring girls for him on out-of-town trips.) But, as a toady, he knew his station and was not surprised or hurt to be put on hold when he was no longer required. Indeed, he felt happier going back to work for uncomplicatedly conservative clients like the senile racist Jesse Helms. But in October 1994, ‘my pager vibrated its summons again.’

    The President: ‘I want you to do a poll for me. I’m not satisfied that I know how to handle what the Republicans are doing to me. I’m not getting the advice I need.’

    The Republicans? I was one of them. My candidates in that year’s midterm election included Republican Massachusetts governor Bill Weld and Mississippi senator Trent Lott, both seeking a second term, and Don Sundquist of Tennessee and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, two Republican gubernatorial candidates.

‘Mr President, that would be a conflict of interest. If you want me to do political work for you, you’ll have to ask me after the November election.’ That’s what I didn’t say. You don’t say no to the President. Besides, I needed the fix too badly. I agreed to do the polling.

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