Few political operatives in the US enjoy a reputation as tawdry as Dick Morris, pioneer of the use of ‘focus groups’ for devising candidate platforms. Hired by Clinton mid-way through his first term to rescue his prospect of re-election, Morris devised ‘triangulation’ as the winning strategy to foil his likely opponent, Dole. Playing to Clinton’s own instincts, he counselled him to jettison all pretence of commitment to a traditional Democratic agenda, even the watered-down version on which he had campaigned in 1992, and take over much of the substance of the Republican legislative programme instead. Calculating that two-fifths of all voters were in the ‘independent middle’ of the electorate, Morris targeted this centre, reckoning that by stealing the Republicans’ clothes, Clinton would drive them further to the right in search of some still distinctive Presidential apparel.
He was well placed to urge this manoeuvre, as a long-time mercenary willing to serve either party, provided the fee was large enough. Most of his recent work had been for Republicans: Trent Lott, Senate leader from Mississippi, was a key client. In 1995–96 his message to his two patrons was to bury the hatchet. If Clinton and Lott would come together to crack down on crime, reform welfare, erode immigrant rights, devolve federal responsibilities and the like, Clinton could keep the White House and Lott continue to command Capitol Hill. Politics could be confined to narrow limits.
Morris’s strategy gave Clinton the winning formula for the 1996 race, though massive doses of corrupt finance, extracted from donors all the way from New York or Chicago to Djakarta and Beijing, were a vital lubricant of victory. Morris himself, however, did not survive to enjoy its fruits. During the Democratic Convention, it emerged that he had been in the habit of lolling in bed with a paid concubine while on the line to the President, and passing the phone across the pillow for her to savour important exchanges on domestic and state affairs. Evidently, prostitution was an attraction not to be confined to politics. The symbolism of the affair was too pointed, and Morris had to resign. The next year, he cashed his time under Clinton into a standard narrative of service with the President, Behind the Oval Office, complete with a lachrymose letter to his wife begging for forgiveness, and unctuous tributes to his master: ‘The press has given me much credit for President Clinton’s triumph in 1996. It will become obvious throughout this narrative that the mind behind the victory was that of President William Jefferson Clinton.’
At the same time, Morris took the opportunity, with feigned regret, to lace his tributes to Clinton’s accomplishments with insinuations that all was not quite well in the White House. There was a ‘Saturday Night Bill’ whose conduct, albeit in private, was at odds with the regal ‘Sunday Morning Bill’ of public office. By bringing this into the open, Morris assured his readers, he was helping to save Clinton from himself. For whatever his peccadilloes, ‘history will in time dig beneath the scandals and retrieve his record of achievement for the American people. What he has done to help the United States and its citizens is too sweeping and too profound to remain buried for all time.’
The New Prince—subtitled ‘Machiavelli Updated for the 21st Century’—is a more ambitious work, presenting itself as a technical manual for power-holders or -seekers of any stripe in the United States. On the face of it, Morris might seem well placed for such a conceit. Could there be better credentials for it than a famously cynical lack of principle? Any reader coming to it with this expectation is going to be disappointed. The Florentine is way off as a model. This is not just because of the dissimilarity of positions. Machiavelli, writing The Prince in 1513 to win the favour of Lorenzo de Medici, was a powerless exile; the Medici had just returned to rule Florence, in an Italy beset with wars and civil wars. Morris has the ear of almost any political figure he wants to influence, in an America quiescent under a neo-liberal order. There is a more important difference than this, however. Far from displaying any ruthless or consistent cynicism about US politics, Morris’s book is a litany of gurgling pieties about them—the antithesis of everything represented by The Prince. If one were to take Morris’s conceit seriously, which is impossible to do, a closer forebear might be le père Joseph, Richelieu’s henchman in diplomatic intrigue and domestic manoeuvre, whose Capuchin robes created the legend of the grey eminence, since he not only had real influence as confidant of the Cardinal, but was a devout man of the cloth. But there any analogy would break down: where the friar was legendary for his discretion, Morris cannot conceal his exhibitionism.
What is the good news The New Prince brings? American democracy has never been in better shape. Voters are well-informed and expert judges of public affairs, skilled at discounting bias in the media and filtering out irrelevant issues. Their decisions are consistently superior to those of bureaucrats, ideologues, academics or journalists. The role of money in electoral politics is greatly exaggerated. ‘Special interests’ are paper tigers. Race no longer matters much. Images are over-done. Citizens respond not to negative campaigns but to positive messages. They do not want to hear about failures or scandals, but issues of substance. Successful candidates are those who offer bold hopes and high ideals, rather than mere appeals to economic self-interest. A warm-hearted morality is the best policy for winning or holding office.
Who could better embody these prescriptions than the President? At the beginning, admittedly—Morris notes—Clinton’s Health Plan was an embarrassing debacle. But once he had learnt how to ‘update Machiavelli’, under his adviser’s guidance, he proved a star performer. One legislative success followed another. Even his early setbacks were redeemed: ‘The far-reaching reform Clinton failed to achieve in his 1994 health-care legislation happened incrementally through the private sector and through gradual expansion of health-care coverage to children.’ We have seen an administration of remarkable domestic reforms, not to speak of rare diplomatic skills in the service of peace: ‘President Clinton has been particularly successful in establishing a reputation for patience, empathy, reliability, resourcefulness, idealism, and subtle diplomacy in his repeated and usually successful interventions in global trouble spots’, since he is ‘able to make everyone feel he knows their pain, empathizes with their position, and secretly wants to do all he can to help them.’ None more so than Iraqis, Tutsi, Chechens, Sudanese, Yugoslavs, Colombians.