Bill Clinton

The Cynicism of Dick Morris

One of the architects of the anti-militia panic is now borrowing the militias' rhetoric.

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Here Come the Black Helicopters!: UN Global Governance and the Loss of Freedom, by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, Broadside Books, 192 pages, $22.95.

The longtime political consultant Dick Morris has a new book out, and—no, wait, don't go away. Morris may not be a thoughtful pundit or an admirable man, but he sure makes an interesting case study.

The book is called Here Come the Black Helicopters!, and it is co-authored, as usual, by Morris' wife Eileen McGann. It begins with an all-caps WARNING from the writers: "READING THIS BOOK AND ADOPTING THIS PREMISE MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR REPUTATION AND LEAD TO CRITICISM AND RIDICULE FROM LIBERALS, GLOBALISTS, AND RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISTS." They go on to explain that the term "black helicopter crowd" is "a derisive liberal buzz phrase used to categorize those who question the movement for global governance," adding: "Of course, we don't believe that there are actual black helicopters on the way to conquer the United States. But we do believe that the term 'black helicopters' is a useful metaphor for this attempt to erode our sovereignty by a network of United Nations treaties, codes, guidelines, and other resolutions."

The average American who remembers the black-helicopter chatter of the 1990s probably associates it with something else. Rumors about mysterious black choppers circulated widely in the '90s militia movement, and the phrase black helicopter became media shorthand for crazy militia conspiracy theory. The militiamen, in turn, got their moment in the media sun after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when the press identified the perpetrators (inaccurately, it turned out) as militia members.

The bombing had an impact on mainstream politics too, arguably marking the moment when the balance of power between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress started tipping toward the Dems instead of the GOP. And therein lies a tale. A significant player in that process, you see, was a presidential advisor named Dick Morris.

Eight days after the bombing, the future coauthor of Here Come the Black Helicopters! presented President Bill Clinton with a proposal to take advantage of the blast. As Morris explained his thinking in his 1997 memoir Behind the Oval Office, Republican leaders were "not themselves extremists," so directly accusing them of radical sympathies would probably backfire. But the president could "advocate executive and legislative measures to counter right-wing hate groups and limit their access to weapons of destruction," Morris felt. "Reluctant to alienate part of their political base, the Republican leaders were certain to rise in opposition," thus linking themselves to the radicals. In a memo, he called this the "ricochet" strategy.

If that sounds a bit like the Red Scare and Brown Scare tactics of the past, it's because it was consciously influenced by them. Morris' memo explicitly cited McCarthyism as a precursor, noting that Republicans in 1952 were able to use the "communism issue against Democrats" by pointing to the party's "flirtation with extremists"—i.e., liberal defenses of Communist civil liberties. The document also described how Democrats used the public's fear of groups like the John Birch Society and the Minutemen against Goldwater in 1964, and how Republicans used the fear of black rioters and student demonstrators against Democrats in 1968. Clinton could do the same thing, Morris wrote, if he would stress the "weird lifestyles, paranoia, and aberrant behavior" found on the right, create a "President's List" of dangerous organizations that must disclose their members and donors, and call for "preventative surveillance" of such extremists.

Some of that scenario, though not all of it, would play out over the next year and a half. Nothing as egregious as the President's List was proposed. On the other hand, Clinton did concoct an anti-terror bill that included serious new limits on civil liberties, and Republican leaders weathered a lot of criticism when they excised the most restrictive parts of the law. Even so, Morris felt that Clinton didn't "emphasize the menace of right-wing extremism" to the extent that he had advised.

Behind the Oval Office also argues that the bombing was a turning point that allowed Clinton to formulate a "values agenda" around such issues as smoking, guns, and TV violence. If that's true, it's an intriguing example of the transmutability of moral panics. If it isn't true, Morris' enthusiastic comments about that agenda are still enlightening. He speaks darkly of how "the Republican right" has "links to the National Rifle Association," and he discusses his push to get the president behind a new restriction on handgun sales. The measure failed, he notes, but "I hope a Democratic Congress passes it eventually."

Now Morris is adopting the rhetoric of the people he called paranoid and weird in the '90s. The result comes off less as a cri de coeur than as a minstrel show, with Morris donning distorted features of the audience he imagines himself reaching. I'm sure the man has honestly changed his mind about various issues over the years, but he is also a notorious opportunist, and it's hard not to read his book as an example of that opportunism in action. Already infamous for offering his services to politicians in both major parties, Morris resigned from the Clinton team in disgrace after he was caught up in a prostitution scandal in 1996. His first step in relaunching his career was to write Behind the Oval Office for a broad audience; the next was to find a narrower but presumably more profitable niche as a right-wing pundit, contributing columns to The New York Post and showing up on Fox to denounce the Clintons, especially Hillary. "The world fell in on me," he told The Washington Post in 1999. "As long as I'm here, I might as well make the best of it."

These days Morris and McGann churn out a book or two a year, most of them disposable tracts that affect a populist pose. They're aimed at an audience of angry Americans who feel screwed and fleeced and ready to revolt—hence the books' titles, such as Screwed! and Fleeced and Revolt! The duo's efforts bear roughly the same relationship to dissent that an ambulance-chasing attorney has to medicine.

It isn't clear who exactly buys the books. Morris is best known these days for that sex scandal and for a long series of wildly inaccurate political predictions. (He and McGann also wrote a book called Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race. It appeared in 2005.) How do you transform that into an aura of expertise? Morris' ideal reader must be someone who vaguely remembers seeing him on TV but doesn't recall why.

All this would be beside the point if Here Come the Black Helicopters! was any good. If Morris and McGann were to win me over, this would be the book to do it with, since I tend to be very skeptical about the sort of international agencies and agreements that they denounce here. But this is shoddy stuff, a short yet heavily padded book where the material that I substantially agree with—an attack on the World Conference on International Telecommunications, for example—is mixed with John Boltonesque complaints that the UN could limit America's ability to send its troops anywhere it wants. It's telling that the authors give so much attention to that unlikely scenario while devoting almost no space to the UN's own military interventions, which actually exist and which have a track record worth criticizing. It's telling, for that matter, that they borrow the black-helicopter metaphor to discuss global affairs while ignoring the domestic anxieties that were also embedded in those conspiracy stories. A lot of black-helicopter rumors were rooted in a fear of paramilitary policing and government surveillance, both of which were on the rise in the '90s and both of which are still going strong today. But those problems, unlike the Pentagon's ability to project unencumbered power, are not concerns of the people who dominate the GOP. And Morris and McGann aren't going to stray far from the Republican platform.

In the 1990s, Morris worked to link the Republican Party to disreputable "extremists." Nearly two decades later, he's pushing Republican policies with language he lifted from the very same crowd. I don't think it's hard to understand what changed. In 1995 he was trying to sell Bill Clinton. In 2012 he's trying to sell books.