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Dick Morris, High on the Critical List

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 3, 1999; Page C1

    After two decades as one of President Clinton's closest friends and advisers, Dick Morris has turned on his former boss with a vengeance.

    Whether he's popping off as a pundit, revealing old confidences or testifying in the impeachment probe, Morris seems downright hostile toward the president he helped reelect. By turns brilliant and erratic, according to both friends and detractors, the man who endured his own humiliating sex scandal has revived his career as a biting critic of Clinton's sex scandal.

    Among his recent utterances:

    Congress should kill Clinton's pension and expense allowance after he leaves office, since the Senate is unlikely to convict him. Oh, and a $4.5 million fine might also be nice.

    A "White House secret police" is trying to "dig up dirt," "viciously smear" and "annihilate those who get in the president's way," all with "a wink from the first couple."

    Several House investigators are "physically afraid of retaliation" by the administration, with one telling him: "Don't you know the list of the 25 people who have died in mysterious circumstances in connection with this investigation?"

    Morris's finger-in-the-eye approach is that of a political operative, not a journalist, since he often hurls charges without proof. But he maintains he's trying to be objective about Clinton. Indeed, Morris ranks Clinton among the top dozen presidents in American history, right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

    There is, however, this caveat: "He's a great president from the neck up."

    "I, along with the rest of the country, am angered by what he did," says Morris, a Fox News commentator and New York Post columnist. "I've always believed he was lying about it, and I'm not willing to accept his excuses. . . . I believe he's guilty of perjury, he's guilty of obstruction of justice, but I don't believe he should be ousted. He led the country on a $4.5 million wild-goose chase."

    Asked how he feels about exploiting his longtime relationship with Clinton, Morris spins the question this way: "When I was advising him, I was just as harsh a critic as I am now. I just did it to his face and in private."

    Morris's former colleagues are stunned by his recent comments. "It really has been astonishing," says Ann Lewis, the White House communications director and the target of a recent Morris attack. "The depth of his hostility and the outrageous nature of these accusations strikes me as so out of bounds for someone who never produces a shred of proof or evidence that anything he says is so." Morris's past relationship with the president, she says, "is the only thing he has to sell."

    "He is the consummate mutation of a political consultant," says Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff. "He's a bright guy, lot of talents – but has this fundamental sense that almost everything is determined by the latest poll, as opposed to conscience. . . . In his own way, he represents the dark side of politics."

    Others see emotional factors at work. "He is deeply angry and resentful of the Clintons," says one Clinton supporter who knows Morris well. "He feels they basically walked away from him at a time he was in need and in trouble." Yet friends say Morris retains a psychological attachment to Clinton – a need to be needed by him – while reserving his strongest fury for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    Two and a half years ago, Morris was a national punch line. While serving as chief strategist for Clinton's 1996 campaign, Morris was fired after the Star tabloid revealed his longtime relationship with prostitute Sherry Rowlands. His marriage to attorney Eileen McGann broke up, and his $2.5 million book on policy-making in the White House was a commercial flop.

    But the suddenly famous Morris refused to go into hiding. Determined to launch a punditry career, he explored different venues – trying out for a New York radio show, for example – before landing high-profile gigs with Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV network and Post newspaper. Now Morris is back with his wife – the most important thing in his life, he says – and gaining new prominence as an expert on Clinton and sex.

    "My outing was not voluntary," says Morris, 51, a short, compact man who can talk about his political ideas for hours. "The world fell in on me. As long as I'm here, I might as well make the best of it."

    Morris's constant diagnosis of Clinton's psyche – he calls the president "a narcissist who needs constant external positive feedback to maintain his sense of self" – carries an air of authority. "He's the guy who has known Clinton intimately for 25, 26 years," says Chet Collier, senior vice president of Fox News. "He, I hope, I believe, knows what's going on in Clinton's mind. He knows a lot of the other players, congressmen and senators, and he can talk to them now."

    Indeed, Morris speaks regularly with one former client, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) – as he did even while working for Clinton – and House impeachment manager Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). Morris has written glowingly of Lott as "the nimble Senate Republican" who "uses a scalpel to get what he wants."

    The president's on-and-off relationship with Morris goes back to 1978, when Morris helped him win the Arkansas governorship and then was fired after Clinton took office. Once Clinton was tossed out by the voters, Morris was brought in to help him win back the job in 1982.

    The consultant turned into a political switch-hitter, working for lawmakers in both parties, from liberal Democrat Howard Metzenbaum to conservative Republican Jesse Helms. After the Democrats lost Congress in 1994, Clinton quietly put Morris on the Democratic National Committee payroll, where his centrist views and advocacy of small-scale initiatives brought him into bitter conflict with top White House aides.

    On the third day of the '96 Democratic convention in Chicago, word spread that the supermarket tabloid Star, which had carried the Gennifer Flowers story, was about to reveal Morris's toe-sucking relationship with Rowlands. Clinton dispatched aide Erskine Bowles to see Morris, who admitted the allegations were true but didn't see the need to resign.

    "Why?" Morris asked. "What the hell did I do that he wasn't accused of doing in the exact same magazine four years ago?"

    "You've admitted it's true," Bowles replied, according to Morris's book. Morris, in tears the next morning, agreed to leave the campaign and would later describe himself as a sex addict.

    Two weeks after his downfall, Morris was giving a sworn statement to House investigators. He denied telling Rowlands that Hillary Clinton had ordered the collection of FBI files on hundreds of Republicans, as the call girl had told the Star.

    Despite his disgrace, Morris continued to quietly advise the president. On Jan. 21, 1998, the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke in the mainstream press, Morris says Clinton called, explained that he had "slipped up" with Lewinsky and asked Morris to take a poll about the potential impact. When Morris reported that Americans would favor his impeachment or resignation if he lied under oath, he says Clinton replied: "Well, we'll just have to win, then."

    Panetta blames his old antagonist for steering Clinton down the path of deception. "It was that unfortunate advice at one of the crucial moments of his presidency . . . that played into his decision not to confront this thing directly," Panetta says. "It tells you a lot about their relationship."

    Morris's fateful poll discussion with Clinton became public last August when the strategist testified before Kenneth Starr's grand jury – and promptly went on Fox to reveal what he had said behind closed doors.

    Although Clinton had stopped talking to Morris after that tumultuous week in January, Morris continued to fax him advice. But by August he was completely off the reservation, telling the grand jury that what he dubbed the "Nixonian" secret police "stems more from Hillary Clinton than from Bill." Days later, he infuriated the president by speculating about the first lady on a Los Angeles radio show – that perhaps Clinton's behavior could be explained by a frosty marriage.

    "Nothing Dick says surprises me," says George Stephanopoulos, another former White House rival turned commentator.

    In his new life, Morris's prognostication skills are less than perfect. Last September, he predicted the Democrats "will absolutely be obliterated" in the midterm elections, losing 30 House seats and five Senate seats. (Democrats wound up gaining five House seats and holding even in the Senate.) Two weeks ago he suggested that five Democratic senators – Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman, Fritz Hollings and Chuck Robb – might side with the GOP on calling impeachment witnesses. All voted to dismiss the trial instead.

    But most media attention has focused on Morris's charges of White House skulduggery. He recently accused Ann Lewis of having "her fingerprints all over" a report about an incident involving Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood that was published by the online magazine Salon. Lewis is a former vice president of Planned Parenthood, and Morris says she "likely" made a phone call to her former colleagues. Both Lewis and the Salon reporter told Fox they had no contact.

    Recalls Lewis: "I said to some friends, 'Gee, I just got slimed by Dick Morris.' They said, 'What else is new?' . . . It's untrue. It's nonsense. A week later, the exact same story appears in his New York Post column, with no reference to the fact I've already denied it." Morris says he was unaware of Lewis's denial. Morris also acknowledged in the Post column that "I distrusted Lewis's liberalism before I met her and her ability after I had gotten to know her." Pressed for evidence of Lewis's involvement, Morris calls the situation "a juxtaposition that might be coincidental but probably was not. This would not be too far from the realm of possibility."

    Morris also tried to link the White House to Larry Flynt when the Hustler publisher dug up evidence of extramarital affairs that led to the resignation of Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). Yet he readily admits: "I have no proof of it."

    A former White House colleague says Morris views these attacks "as a way to boost his career. It's become very clear that you don't make it in the media world as a former Clintonite by being nice to Clinton. His future as a pundit depends on him being able to dump on Clinton."

    Morris maintains he's just calling them as he sees them. "What I'm trying hard to do is be neither Democrat nor Republican," he says. "Initially people would like to hear what I have to say because of my knowledge of Bill Clinton. I hope they develop enough interest in what I'm saying to postdate Bill Clinton."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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