THE MORRIS RESIGNATION
AUGUST 29, 1996
President Clinton's top political advisor, Dick Morris, resigned today amid allegations of a relationship with a prostitute. Three senior political reporters discuss the ramifications and the importance of Dick Morris to the President.
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available.
Shields & Gigot discuss the resignation of Presidential advisor Dick Morris.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the '96 elections.
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MARGARET WARNER: With me now are three veteran political reporters. Susan Page is the White House reporter for USA Today. Earlier this week, she wrote a front-page story on Dick Morris. Eric Pooley is a senior correspondent with Time Magazine, and the author of this week's cover story on Morris. Elizabeth Arnold covers politics for National Public Radio. Welcome, all of you. Susan, the White House clearly went into overdrive today. What were they most concerned about?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: They wanted to put this story behind them before the President's speech tonight. This is one of the biggest triumphant nights of Clinton's presidency. He's going to accept renomination. He looks like he's in very good shape to win a second term. It should be his night, and instead, the second story, an embarrassing story, and a negative story, is intruding on that night.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of the way--I mean, describe for us inside how you think they handled this.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD, National Public Radio: Well, they had a briefing, and the briefing should have been leaking the details of the speech so we could all write wonderful color stories about what was to come, and, instead, the entire briefing was about the details of something that they didn't want to be talking about, and here we are talking about it tonight, instead of focusing on the speech, but they did the best they could.
MARGARET WARNER: Eric, give us the sense of how important Dick Morris really was? We just heard Mike McCurry say, well, it's not as important as you and the press, who are so fascinated, think but he was important. And, and what was interesting to you about the Morris-Clinton relationship as you worked on this cover story?
ERIC POOLEY, Time Magazine: Well, the reason that he's so important to the White House is because he goes back so far with this President. They've been together since 1977, really the first time they met, and after Clinton lost his reelection bid when he was just the boy governor in Arkansas, Morris swept in, brushed him off, gave him confidence, and helped him come back. And that was a searing experience for Clinton, and it changed him forever. What Morris did for him then was to teach him how to use polls to shape his rhetoric, to shape his approach to policy. That's a lesson that we've seen them play together as they mounted the second big Clinton comeback, comeback from the debacle of the GOP stampede in 1994. Now, the reason he's important beyond that obvious thing that everybody says, he helped Clinton come back, is that he's the architect of the family values agenda that is at the heart of this convention. Dick Morris figured out a way for Democrats to play on this field that they'd ceded to the Republicans for 30 years. Now that he's caught up in a sex scandal, the whole family values agenda, cherish your spouse, take care of your kids, looks cynical.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?
MS. PAGE: Yeah. I think that's right, and it goes to one other reason the story is so embarrassing for the White House is it goes to a Clinton vulnerability. We've seen personal allegations about President Clinton's character. Uh, in fact, this same supermarket tabloid, the “Star,” is the one that aired the Jennifer Flower allegations four years ago, and it--we see in our polling now that people tend to think that President Clinton does not have honesty and integrity. Well, the good news for President Clinton is that to some degree at least voters have factored in some of these allegations and suggestions and decided they want to vote for him anyway for reelection.
MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth, explain a little more what that question that we heard McCurry answer about leaked material, what is that about, that there was some potential legal or law enforcement issue here, what is that?
MS. ARNOLD: The question that was raised several times at the briefing was, uh, whether or not he had a hard pass, whether he had certain clearance, and so the question is, um, if this relationship actually is true, what breach of security or breach of confidence also took place. That's what those questions--but when those questions were asked, McCurry rightfully said, take a step back, look at what you're asking. I mean, we're really--we had a tendency in the press to move several steps ahead before we've actually--I mean, we moved from allegations very quickly into suppose.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, and given that, does the President's reaction, or as it was described today, surprise you?
MS. PAGE: I don't think the description of the President's reaction is credible. I think--
MARGARET WARNER: Give it briefly because we didn't show it.
MS. PAGE: Well, the, the White House portrayal is that the President doesn't take these allegations very seriously. He's very sorry Dick Morris is gone, and he's really focused on his speech tonight. I think that is probably not the full story. I think that President Clinton was probably very upset at this coming and coming on this particular day.
MS. ARNOLD: However, he has outlived his usefulness in the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: Dick Morris, you mean?
MS. ARNOLD: Dick Morris has. A lot--a lot of people within the White House, uh, kind of wanted to see him go. I mean, he has done what he was set out--what he was hired to do. He positioned the President from having him sort of reverse himself on the balanced budget and say, yes, I want a balanced budget at a date certain to all these family friendly initiatives that we've heard along the train trip. That's all Dick Morris, and I would argue that Dick Morris's positioning has been ratified by this convention because there weren't any uproars about this sort of centrist move. So he's accomplished that. He set the President up now to go into the final stretch of this race and appeal to the very voters that he needs. He doesn't need ‘em anymore.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Eric in on this.
MR. POOLEY: I agree with Elizabeth, because we're able to shoot now. We're in the horse race. We're in the thing that George Stephanopolous and Harold Ickes know so well. Umm, at the same time, I don't think you can underestimate the loss here because Morris is part of the team. He's part of the brain trust, and he's very, very good at the political jujitsu that's involved in day-to-day campaigning, so--
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you make of the President's reaction as it was described?
MR. POOLEY: Oh, I agree with Susan. I don't find it credible at all.
MARGARET WARNER: Why?
MR. POOLEY: Because Bill Clinton is a man of deep temper. Bill Clinton is a man who knew that Dick Morris sitting at his right hand could not be trusted, yet, went with him anyway because the man is so brilliant and so good at what he does. Now when the President's faith in Morris, when his decision to override what had to be nagging doubts about this man was proved to be a mistake and this blew up in his face on the day of his acceptance speech, there is no way on earth that Bill Clinton takes this with equanimity.
MS. ARNOLD: But if McCurry came out and said he was shocked and outraged, we'd all be sitting here saying, oh, you're shocked and outraged.
MARGARET WARNER: Right. He really couldn't on that one. All right. Let's go back to the significance question. Do you agree with Elizabeth and Eric that he essentially got--Morris has the campaign going on a certain route, and it's going to stay on that route, despite the people in the White House who never liked this new centrist direction?
MS. PAGE: In 10 weeks we'll know whether they're right or not. I mean, maybe they're right. Maybe this is all teed up, and it just has to play out. On the other hand, we do have 10 weeks to go. Campaigns can be tricky things. Morris obviously has a very particular and special relationship with President Clinton, and now he's not going to be able to play that role that he has played off and on for 20 years.
MR. POOLEY: Bill Clinton is not going to lurch back to the left now. I mean, he has got a winning strategy, what he considers a winning strategy, and he is going to continue with it. I mean, the fact that George Stephanopolous learned how to work with Dick Morris in much the same way that he worked with Harold--
MARGARET WARNER: George Stephanopolous, of course, has a much more liberal traditional Democratic view.
MR. POOLEY: Exactly. Exactly, what we need to point out, and is the President's senior adviser, and who lost influence with the rise of Morris and who also saw is war room buddy, James Carville, ousted as Morris replaced Carville, still managed to develop the same kind of working relationship that he had with Carville. He was the filter. He was the guy who filtered the resident geniuses' bright ideas. Carville had some wacky ones. Morris has plenty of wacky ones, and George is the guy who would save their bacon on a regular basis. They're going to miss Morris. Even the people that hate him will miss him.
MARGARET WARNER: What about the Republican response, what's that been like today?
MS. ARNOLD: Well, today Bob Dole responded rather quickly and said that Dick Morris tried to make Bill Clinton into a Republican, and this frustrated Bob Dole to no end, and now that Dick Morris isn't around, Bob Dole will--I mean, Bill Clinton will turn back into the liberal Democrat that he once was. I sincerely doubt that, because why give up a winning strategy?
MS. PAGE: Well, I think the Republicans followed that old dictum that if your enemy is destroying himself, don't get in the way, and they mostly, they mostly kept quiet today.
MR. POOLEY: It's worth pointing out, though, that people don't vote for a pollster, they don't vote for a strategist. They vote for a President, and although this dredges up all of the worst character questions about Clinton, it reminds everybody of all of these things that they desperately do not want people reminded of, in the end, people are not going to walk into the voting booth and cast a ballot for or against Dick Morris. I'd wager to say that despite him being on the cover of “Time” Magazine, most Americans still don't know who he is.
MS. ARNOLD: I talked to delegates this morning and this afternoon, and you would think delegates, if anybody, follow these things pretty closely, and the general response was, Dick who? Now tomorrow might be different when there are reports about the tabloid reports. But for the most part, people aren't really clued into it.
MS. PAGE: Just to agree with that, I think another piece of news that came out today that probably matters more to the election is the revised growth figures for the second quarter.
MS. ARNOLD: Which none of us paid any attention to.
MS. PAGE: Which none of us paid any attention to, 4.8 percent, very strong growth; that's an issue on which people will be thinking when they go into a voting booth and cast their ballots.
MARGARET WARNER: And that was a funny scene in the briefing room today because they preceded McCurry with the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, trying to talk about these good figures; all the reporters ignored it. One last thing, McCurry did say that he thought Morris and Clinton would continue to talk on the phone informally. Do you think that's the case?
MR. POOLEY: This is how it all began when Morris was known as “Charlie.” He was the secret agent for the President who came in and changed policy direction and rewrote speeches and no one knew who it was, except a very select few. Uh, I'm sure that they will continue to talk unless Clinton is so angry that he just won't take the guy's calls.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.