In the mind of Dick Morris, Philadelphia’s political system is in the early days of an epic struggle pitting “the downtowns vs. the ethnics,” one that will determine if Philadelphia goes the way of Boston and New York, or of Detroit and Cleveland.
Progress, Morris says, requires that our politics evolve out of the internecine warfare of various Democratic factions and into a battle between “those who want Philadelphia to be a world city,” populated by “major and good people, with lots of money,” and those “who want it to be preserved in ethnic neighborhoods, with mom-and-pop stores and the whole bit.”
“Those are natural fault lines of any city of size and importance,” Morris proclaims.
He offers me these insights in short little bursts, in commercial breaks from his studio in the WPHT offices on City Avenue. So far, the program has touched on a somewhat peculiar array of subjects, from mismanagement at the Red Cross to Chris Christie’s embrace of Obama to a sympathetic interview with a seemingly paranoid-delusional filmmaker who has “documented” the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration of Congress, Hollywood and the media.
Morris, 65, is small of stature and round as an apple, with a crop of gray hair that doesn’t feather quite so easily as it once did. He has a high-pitched voice straight from New York’s Upper West Side, where he was raised. On the two subsequent days we met, Morris wore near-identical madras shirts. Look past his invective—if you can—and you’d guess he was a professor at some obscure college.
But appearance and timbre aside, Morris has two qualities common to celebrity pundits: a nimble, multi-tasking mind, and no compunction whatsoever when pontificating, regardless of how little he knows about a subject. “I only think when my mouth is moving,” he tells me. “An introvert takes ideas, flies away to the nest, and chews them. I see my ideas in front of me like a cartoon character, and I read them.”
In conversation (though not necessarily on the air), this makes Morris engaging, entertaining and provocative. And he sure seems to have pretty quickly hit on some broad, uncomfortable truths about the slowly unfolding political dynamic in Philadelphia, which will indeed eventually pit an expanding Center City against neighborhoods comprised of longtime residents, many of them minorities. “Philadelphia is getting the overflow from Manhattan,” he says. “Brooklyn got it, Connecticut got it, Boston got it.” He giggles again. “I feel that Philadelphia is going to make the up-cut. I think that it will very much become the re-creation of New York, only much smaller, much more livable and much more fun.”
Yes, it feels wrong and awful and even dirty when it’s someone like Morris making such an observation, but he isn’t far off the mark. And listening to him cut up local pols is a guilty sort of pleasure. Senator Bob Casey is “the son of a famous father who’ll never live up to his father and trades off his reputation.” New Jersey’s Bob Menendez “is the single most corrupt member of the United States Senate. He belongs in jail. … If he dies in bed as opposed to in his cell, it will be an achievement.” The late Arlen Specter was “a whore. An absolute hooker. He should be out on the street with a bag.” Governor Corbett is merely a disappointment: “People expected far more.”
Republican senator Pat Toomey is “brilliant,” “extraordinary” and “an original thinker.” Ed Rendell—who was Morris’s client during his failed 1986 gubernatorial bid—is the “consummate inside player, the politician’s politician.” Morris seems to admire the former mayor and governor, though he claims Rendell strayed across ethical lines.
I ask Morris what he means. “You should read my book. I’ve got a whole section on Rendell and the kickbacks with his law firm.” I ask him which book. “I’m not sure. Fleeced, Outrage or Catastrophe. It’s in one of the three.”
Then I ask Morris what he makes of U.S. Rep and party boss Bob Brady. It’s not meant as a trick question. Brady is an obscure figure on the national stage, sure, but he’s as consequential as they come locally. And yet Morris is plainly flummoxed. How can you credibly host a political talk show in Philadelphia and not have a clue as to why Bob Brady matters?
“Um,” he says, “I don’t really have a view on him.” (Morris did eventually invite Brady onto his show.)