Selected Skirmishes: Morris the Cad

The personal becomes the political.


You may have forgotten Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign theme, the "New Covenant." Then, the Democrats' message to America was: The rich keep getting richer, while the poor get poorer. Median family income is in decline, and it's all the fault of 12 years of Reagan-Bush. We don't need to be lectured on "family values" by politicians in Washington, said the Dems. Americans have family values; our government doesn't. A New Covenant–a sacred bond between the citizen and the state–was to be put in place.

In 1996, these Democrats love to tell Americans all about their family values–and their families. And why not? Chelsea's a whole lot cuter than the statistics on median family incomes during the Clinton years. The "family values" game is really easy, and just about anyone can play.

Even Dick Morris.

He's a world-class "family values" champion. He bulged with pride as he scripted the "Families First" Democratic National Convention. Then, of course, just as the president was set to make his acceptance speech, Morris made headlines of his own: A tabloid reported, complete with photos and check copies, that he'd been shacking up in his posh hotel suite with a $200-an-hour hooker. Perhaps Morris was just making good on the Democrats' 1992 pledge to create "good jobs at good wages."

It would be swell if everyone's personal life–as opposed to their career in politics–could be ushered off stage. But no one is even seriously contemplating that bold step: This year's political conventions were almost gavel-to-gavel Kodak moments.

Bill Clinton ran as the Man from Hope (as in 1992), who loves his wife and gets the biggest kick out of reading bedtime stories to Chelsea. Bob Dole recounted his autobiography, trotting out his beloved Liddy for the really sappy part. Now we know more about Russell, Kansas, per capita, than any other village–er, town–in America.

But the turn to autobiography is hardly openness to inquiry. The candidate chooses what's fair, and everything else is adjudged foul territory. To scrutinize public claims of marital bliss or familial devotion is to engage in the lowest form of political discourse.

Pols are now free to stage the most idyllic domestic tranquility or the most intense personal epiphanies (even using historically enhanced photography, à la Al Gore's brazen revisionism about the evils of tobacco), unconstrained by petty annoyances such as truth and accuracy. Any wonder we saw the Oprahization of the political conventions?

The manner in which the Dick Morris scandal was revealed–something which received virtually no comment in the press–yields a reading on just how cold the corpse of veracity has become. Morris did not deny being shacked up with a call girl while crafting the president's "family values" campaign theme. Instead, he issued a statement citing "the sadistic vitriol of yellow journalism" as his reason for never responding to the allegations forthcoming in the Star.

Meanwhile, the White House claimed not to know whether the scandalous charges were accurate; either the administration was being untruthful, or it maintained plausible deniability via its "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Spokesman Mike McCurry did, however, unleash the administration's wrath upon those who broke the story. According to the Chicago Tribune, McCurry "urged the news media to consider the source of the story, a tabloid that he said publishes stories 'in the space alien category.'"

And this is where the "family values" of high government officials have taken us. When a breach of conduct is alleged, even one of scandalous proportions, the truth of such allegation is deemed irrelevant.

Neither Morris, nor McCurry (with ready access to Morris), feels that getting the matter settled in terms of what actually happened is the appropriate course of action. Instead, the response is to shift the blame, to trash one's opponent (delegates in Chicago largely agreed with one who told the Tribune that he suspected "sabotage"), and to lash out at the appalling lack of class demonstrated by those who would bring up such a thing. Puh-leaze.

Dick Morris boasted that he would use all levers in pursuit of the electoral jackpot. The Star reports one such application, when Morris bragged to his paramour that she was one of only seven people in the world to know about "life on Mars"–the news was being embargoed for several days so as to be dropped right on top of (and help crowd out) the story of Dole's running mate pick.

I doubt if information regarding Morris's evolving views of the marital contract are really prime information for voters in Decision '96. But in an election where the policy promises of 1992 mean nothing and airbrushed photos of nuclear families everything, where else can we look for guidance? And who, then, to believe? As the White House likes to say, "consider the source."

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and finance at University of California at Davis.