the choice 2000

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interview: dick morris
photo of dick morris

Morris is a political consultant and former advisor to President Clinton. He provides insight into the Clinton-Gore relationship and how the two men differ as politicians and leaders. He reflects on Gore's strengths and weaknesses, in particular Gore's insecurity as a politician and how that has affected his career.
One of the things that think about, as we profile these two candidates, is that they are both sons of political families. Al Gore was born into a family that had certain expectations. What's your take on what that meant to him, how it shaped him?

I think that that's a very good question...because ultimately the defining characteristic of both of these men is that they've had a warping experience that very few of us have had, which is to be born ...with their bed basically made for them before they came out of the cradle. And ultimately, I say warping, because--I don't know if you know anyone who's the son of a famous father, but they always have tremendous self-doubts. They always wonder if they got where they got because of who they are or because of what their abilities are. And they don't have the same kind of ratification that each of us do. Each of us who's succeeded in their own life, to any degree, can look back at one's achievements and say, "Well, I did that, and I may not have thought much myself, but hey, look at what I did. So obviously, I have something on the ball."

Gore and Bush can't do that. They look back at their achievements and they say, "Well, it may have been me, it may have been that I was born to it." When you get a vote, when you get a contribution, when you get support, you don't know if that's for you or for your father or, in Bush's case, for his grandfather. And I think that that had a tremendous effect on Al Gore's psyche. I think that it left him with a burden of insecurity and self-doubt that I think he has struggled against and, increasingly, overcome. But I think the war between Gore's ability and his self-doubt, his confidence and the sense of how did I get here, really is the dominant theme in his personality.

Is this true in Al Gore's 1998 race for president?

I think in the 1988 race for President, Gore demonstrated that insecurity that I think dominates so much of his persona. If you remembered that election, he didn't do well in the early going, in fact I think he didn't even compete in the New Hampshire primary. He went right into Super Tuesday, which was the southern primary, and he hired a media consultant, who's name happened to be Ray Struther, who did a very good job for him in that process. Cast him as a populist, anti-establishment, sort of southern candidate, and it was a beautiful position to be in.

Then he went into Illinois, which was the next primary, and he got a choice: Was he going to run against the Cook County democratic establishment as a reformer, picking up on the populism of the south? Or was he going to try to make in with it and try to work with it and try to become one of the boys? And he opted for the latter, of course. He should have zigged, and he zagged. He didn't use Streuther he used a media creator who wasn't much good.

Whenever Bill Clinton had anything that he wanted done right, quickly, competently, loyally and confidentially, he'd give it to Gore. When he called Streuther to tell him he wasn't going to use him, he said, "Ray, I want to use you, but my whole staff wants me to use this other guy, so I'm going to use this other guy." And this was the pivotal moment of his presidential race, and yet he let his own judgement be overridden, and he ultimately ran a campaign which was kind of me-too, didn't attack the Cook County machine. Had he been aggressive in going after that machine, he could have won Illinois, hit New York winning, gotten Koch's endorsement, the Mayor of New York City, and very possibly won that nomination. And he lost it because of that insecurity...

I had an episode, in the 1996 campaign, that typified this for me incredibly. I had urged Gore to speak on Wednesday night, at the Democratic Convention, the night before the Vice President usually spoke. And I thought it would be a good idea for him to have his own night to himself, where he could really showcase the Clinton campaign. And Gore said, "No, the ratings are terrible Wednesday night, I don't want to do it." I checked the ratings, and they were just about the same as Tuesday night. And I said, "Mr. Vice President, they're just about the same."

And then he said, "Look, Dick, you don't understand. You want me to give a speech Wednesday. It isn't just a speech. I'm accepting the nomination of my party for the position of Vice President of the United States of America." And I said, "Well, you can do that on Thursday, but why don't you also give a speech on Wednesday?" He said, "I don't want to do it."

So then, right before the convention, when the Republicans did really well at their convention, I called President Clinton, and I said, "Gore still doesn't want to speak on Wednesday night, but I think we need him to." And Clinton said, "Okay, tell him he needs to do it."

So I met with Gore and I said, "The president wants you to do it," and Gore was resigned, and kind of say,"Uh, okay." And I said, "What are you upset about? You have a prime-time audience, an hour long speech, to yourself. Nobody cares about the speech the Vice President gives Thursday night; it's overshadowed by the President's speech. This won't be overshadowed. Why aren't you salivating at this opportunity?" And then he mumbled, almost inaudibly, "What if I screw it up?"

And I thought to myself, in that moment, that the possibility of screwing it up would never have entered Bill Clinton's mind, and, even when he did screw it up, at the '88 convention, he didn't believe he had or would screw it up. But the idea that he was worried about failing showed that insecurity tremendously. Now, I believe he's overcome a lot of that insecurity, but it was so evident at that moment.

Is Gore able to overcome this insecurity?

I think when he reached down inside himself and he really tappped into what is ultimately his confidence and his ability, he's a very able, very bright man, and pulled it out, and defeated Bradley. I think that did volumes for his confidence, and, whether he wins or not, if he wins, it makes him a better president.

What would you say is the most salient characteristic of Al Gore?

I think the most important thing to understand about Al Gore is how incredibly bright he is. When I first met AL Gore, Clinton introduced me. I didn't know him until I started to work for Clition. I met with him, and I left the meeting and I said, Oh, I get it. They gave an IQ test and the guy who finished first in the country got to be president and the guy who finished second got to be vice president. I mean, he is an incredibly bright man. He's more brilliant and brighter than almost anybody you come across in daily life. His ability to absorb information, to know what's going on, is incredible.

He also is a very competent person. Whenever Bill Clinton had anything that he wanted done right, quickly, competently, loyally and confidentially, he'd give it to Gore. And as a result, Al Gore probably has run or runs 4o% of Bill Clinton's presidency. The deal he and Clinton always had was that whenever Clinton wanted something done he'd give it to go Gore as an assignment, and Gore would in effect say, I'll take it, I'll do it for you, but from now on this is my turf, and Clinton would say, Okay, it's your turf.

What are the differences between Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as politicians, as men?

Clinton has a restless and relentless intellectual curiosity, which makes him something of a dabbler. He'll focus on something for one week: all he'll think about is Bosnia, all he'll think about is tobacco, or all he'll think about is balancing the budget, or welfare reform; and then he'll kind of set it down and forget it exists, and he'll focus on one thing at a time and really push it. Gore is much more of an administrator, in a conventional sense of the word; he'll keep everything and he'll follow it and he'll move it ahead.

Look, there's one basic point: Al Gore is a normal human being; Bill Clinton is not. If you met with Al Gore and you spent time with him, you'd say, "Oh, he's like a lot of other people I know, maybe smarter, maybe brighter, oddly enough, warmer sometimes, but he's a normal person." Bill Clinton has a very abnormal psychology. I mean, whether you look at Monica Lewinsky or you look at the scandals he keeps getting himself into, or you look at the accomplishments or you look at his skating by by the skin of his teeth, there's nothing normal about Bill Clinton. Al Gore is, at least, a normal human being...

When you get back to the vision issue, I believe that Gore has it within him to be an incredible president; he has it within him to be a truly great president, because he's sane, he's balanced, he's normal in a way Bill Clinton is not, he has a grasp of substance, he has a clear vision about the environment and about its centrality in our universe. He was 15 years ahead of anybody in understanding the consequence of global warming. And he's got a clear sense of where he wants to lead the country.

The thing that could impede him, could hobble him, that comes back time and time again to bite him, is this insecurity, this self-doubt, that leads him not to be as effective as he might be in selecting staff; that leads him to be bureaucratic; sometimes, it leads him to be timid. And the process he needs to go through is one of overcoming that insecurity and letting that raw talent and ability and intelligence come through. I think he's making pretty good progress in that, but clearly that's the dynamic that I think exists with Al Gore.

It's become such a cliche, now, about the real Al Gore, why can't people see him? Is an aspect of inauthenticity about the public Al Gore, that it might have to do with the insecurity?

Yes. I think that his formality stems from his insecurity. Go back to the story I was telling earlier, about his 1996 speech. He said the reason he didn't want to give the speech was he has to accept the nomination of his party for Vice President of the United States of America. He was taking refuge in formality to cloak his insecurity. And I think anybody that's insecure, dresses with making sure he's spic and span, is careful about his hair, is careful about everything, because he's insecure. A person that's not insecure, like Clinton, just ambles in front of the camera however he looks...

When you look at Al Gore and you see a lack of spontaneity, the unspoken text is, we're not looking at the real Al Gore, we're looking at a rehearsed, pre-packaged, carefully weighed, considered Al Gore. Well, I can tell you, that is Al Gore. There's nothing underneath you're not getting--that is Al Gore. He's not spontaneous, he is pre-packaged, he does think long before he speaks, he is very carefully prepared. It's not like this is an act, this is him...

And I think that in his formality, his bureaucratization, his stiffness, his choice of vocabulary, his lack of spontaneity, those are all reflections of a transitory insecurity that I think he's increasingly overcoming by his successes. One of the ironies of Al Gore is, the best thing that could happen, to make him a good president, would be for him to get elected, because then he would get rid of a lot of insecurity.

One of the memorable things about '96, in the context of Al Gore and his public persona, was that remarkable speech in which he got a little bit teary and made the specific reference to his late sister, Nancy Gore Ungar, and her death by lung cancer, and tells this very personal anecdote from his life. Where did that come from? Did that surprise you?

When he started to give it in his speech, I recognized it, because he had given the exact same anecdote, just as tearfully and just as deeply, in the private policy meeting with Bill Clinton, before Clinton came out with the anti-tobacco regulation. There had been a furious debate, in which I was pushing the regulations, and Erskine Bowles, at that time, the Deputy Chief of Staff from North Carolina, was opposing me, and we had been arguing back and forth, and then Clinton had to make a decision, and he said, "Al, what do you think?"

Then Gore gave that exact same speech that he gave at the convention, without a microphone, one-on-one, to the president. His voice got husky, he got teary-eyed, and he went through it. And he told that exact story in that exact same way. And I remember thinking, as I was watching him, how genuine that was, because I had seen him do it when nobody but the President was looking.

Was it genuine when he gave it at the convention, publicly?

Yes, I think it was very genuine. I think he was just tapping into an emotion he really felt, was something that he really felt. I think that was very real, and I think it was, frankly, his finest hour.

Al Gore, who is so inward publicly, whose intellect is the first thing you meet when you see him, who is so practiced and careful in so many ways, suddenly ripping over his chest and letting us see his heart. It was not characteristic, to say the least.

Well, I'd like to think that that performance would become characteristic; I'd like to think that he would lead with his heart more. I think that he was forcing himself out. I mean, most of us, when we look at our lives, are most emotional when we're speaking of the death of our loved ones. And I know my own opposition to tobacco goes back to my mother's death from lung cancer. I think most of us can recall an episode like that in our lives. And I think it was very generous of him to share that on the platform.

Al Gore's major problem, from birth, is insecurity. His life is a lifelong battle of overcoming the insecurity, through competence, through intellect, through emotion. That speech was an example of his overcoming the insecurity. And I think that, were he to be elected President, we would see him constantly striving to overcome that insecurity, in much the same way that someone like Eleanor Roosevelt overcame her insecurity. Harry Truman came to realize that he was qualified for this job and could do it. Or that Lyndon Johnson tried to overcome that sort of back Texas, not Ivy League, insecurity that so bedeviled him. I think there are many people that have that kind of insecurity, and I think that his life is a battle to overcome it.

Talk, if you would, about Clinton's and Gore's relationship.

There are very few relationships in politics closer than Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's. They like each other a lot, and they're very close to each other. And Clinton kind of feels that he has a wife and he has a vice president and everybody else is the hired help. That he really feels that Al Gore is his political partner, someone who came in and cast his lot with him and took a burgeoning political career and hinged it all on Clinton. And he kind of sees Gore as having a sense of entitlement in the administration.

He also sees Gore as an enormously competent person; I think he sees Gore as almost the only competent person around, and that he knows that he can give him anything to do and it'll happen, it'll happen well, it'll be done completely, it'll be done intelligently and loyally and confidentially.

Is it surprising that Al Gore stood by Clinton through the Lewinsky scandal?

I think it reflected his sense of obligation. I mean, Al Gore is probably the straightest guy in American politics. If you made a list of 100 of them, the one least likely to commit adultery is Al Gore; the one least likely to use drugs is Al Gore; the one least likely to do anything flaky is Al Gore. And here, he resists it for his whole life, and he's about to have his political career ruined, because of the other guy's adultery. I mean, can you imagine what he was thinking?

And I think he just cloaked that and shut it down, and just said, Hey, I'm here because of him, this is his election, not mine. If he goes into the tube, all of us are going to go down the tubes. I've got to stand firm. And you've got to realize that if Bill Clinton had been impeached and removed from office, Al Gore would have become President of the United States, and we wouldn't be having this interview, because this election wouldn't be newsworthy; it would be a gimme for Al Gore. Everybody would assume Gore was going to win the election. By an act of disloyalty, he could easily have guaranteed himself the Presidency and guaranteed himself the victory in 2ooo.

So I think it's quite a tribute to him that even though I think he was absolutely retching on the inside, he stood by Clinton on the outside... he remained loyal, in thought, in deed, in innuendo, in nuance--down to his eyelash blinking, he was loyal to Bill Clinton. And you had to realize that this guy was probably retching on the inside...I mean, he's like the least likely to be guilty of this kind of stuff, and yet here he was, with his whole political career going to be doomed by defending this guy, and his whole political career would be made if, in the slightest nuance, he showed disloyalty, and he didn't show disloyalty. That is probably the most revealing vignette about Al Gore you could possibly take.

...Gore is a very bad infighter, he doesn't infight at all. He's very loyal to what Clinton wants, he doesn't try to usurp power. He sits back there, completely passively, and he knows he's the most competent person in the room, and he knows that, sooner or later, after everybody else screws it up, Clinton is going to come to him and ask him to do it, and then he'll do it and he'll do it right and he'll keep control of it.

But he never aggressively goes out and tries to cut anybody else's throat. He doesn't infight, he just sits there and waits to be asked. And in '93 and '94 he wasn't asked much, but in '95, '96 and '97 he was asked a lot, and he ended up being the most powerful Vice President in history.

Looking at the differences between Clinton and Gore, why is it that Clinton comes out of scandal after scandal with his popularity in tact and Gore makes this one statement about "no controlling legal authority" and it stays with him? Why is that?

I think that Clinton has a great deal more positive traction with people, because he's a complete persona to people: they have a sense of who he is, they have a sense of what kind of guy he is, sometimes a misguided sense, sometimes a phony sense, but they still think it's a sense. And when he does something wrong, you add it to the composite of his personality.

With Gore, there really isn't that much of a personality. Gore is a corporation. Gore is a body of work, not necessarily a person. And therefore, when he says, no controlling legal authority, it sounds like the bureaucrat that Gore truly is. Gore is a bureaucrat. He is a corporation. He is an organization man. He's a walking C.E.O. He's an organization chart. That's just the guy, who he is. And we look at it and we kind of say, Do we want that to be our president? Well, it depends. You have to make that decision. He certainly will be a competent President, he certainly will know where everything is, he certainly won't get anything left, he certainly will be an effective, capable President.

Whether he'll have the intuitive understanding of people or the intuitive sense of other people's pain, or the emotional connection with people, he probably won't, and what you see is what you get, with Al Gore. The basic message is, there's nothing hiding: What Al Gore looks like, he really is. He is what you see: the head of a corporation.

Are there other important ways you see Bill Clinton and Al Gore differing in their vision?

Gore and Clinton differ, to a great extent, in their optimism and their pessimism. Clinton is an optimist, the glass is always half full; Gore is a pessimist, the glass is always half empty. And Gore, in his feeling that there couldn't be a budget deal in 1995 and '96, in his concern about things going wrong with Clinton not moving to the center, in his concern that there wouldn't be enough money for the fundraising media--in all of those things Gore is sort of a quintessential pessimist, which is why he's so effective taking the negative position in a debate: Bill Bradley's healthcare plan is too risky; George Bush's tax cut is too risky; George Bush's social security plan is too risky.

He's always very good at seeing the downside of stuff. It comes from his sort of bureaucratic training. And Gore is very much a detail person, a stickler for details, much less of a conceptual person, but therefore is more of a pessimist, more of a things could go wrong, than an optimist.... The major strength of Gore, as a politician, is to pick apart ideas that he doesn't agree with. And I think that the debates in the primary and in the general election, it's pretty clear that he's able to go against the proposals other people are making and come up with flaws in them, many of which are justified. But that's rooted in his own pessimism, his own lack of optimism.

How does a president function, if he's a pessimist?

When the country's going right, a pessimistic president is fine, because his job is to avoid things screwing up, to see the flawed in things, to see the problems that could be caused, and to act against it.

When the country's going poorly, a pessimistic president is a disaster. It was fine to have a pessimistic president in Calvin Coolidge when there was a boon, because he stopped things from going wrong. But when we got into a Depression and we had a pessimist as president, in Herbert Hoover, it was a disaster, because he was incapable of summoning the optimism that's needed to kindle the confidence that's needed to make stuff work.

So if you think America's going in about the right direction, you don't mind having a pessimist. But if you think America needs some radical reengineering, you don't want a pessimist, you want someone who sees the possibilities in things. And Gore is much more inclined to see the pitfalls than the possibilities.

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