Some pundits might be embarrassed at that sort of gap in their expertise. But Morris doesn’t shame easily.
He exploded onto the national political scene in the late summer of 1996. Bored by the somnolent presidential matchup (Clinton vs. Bob Dole), the campaign press corps fleetingly turned its attention to Morris, the quintessential consultant and political mercenary, whom Clinton had brought back into the fold two years earlier. Morris and Clinton first worked together in 1977, when Clinton was a young and striving Arkansas attorney general. Morris—who casually jumped sides between Democrats and Republicans in those days—helped Clinton win the governor’s mansion. More importantly, Morris helped him regain the office in 1982, after he’d lost the post. An odd bond was formed between the two men, a bond that defied the understanding of other Clinton confidants.
Clinton and Morris parted ways in 1990, after some kind of minor physical scuffle in the Arkansas governor’s mansion. But after winning the White House, Clinton ran into trouble. His health-care initiative foundered, and the 1994 midterms brought Newt Gringrich and his “Contract with America” to power. Desperate, the president turned to his security blanket: Morris.
Before long, Morris built up profound influence. He invented and named “ triangulation”—the political tactic of p lacing oneself between the Democratic and Republican parties—and Clinton embraced it with gusto. It was Morris who drafted Clinton’s spectrum-shifting line that “the era of big government is over.” It was Morris who turned White House polling into an obsession (asking potential voters where the Clintons should vacation). It was Morris who pushed Clinton to embrace the small ball of school uniforms, V-chips and literacy programs. And it was Morris—with a handful of others—who cemented the notion of the “permanent campaign” into American politics.
The week of the Democratic National Convention, Time magazine put Morris on its cover. The headline read THE MAN WHO HAS CLINTON’S EAR. A front-page USA Today story published almost simultaneously said that “if this is Clinton’s convention, it is also Morris’s moment.”
It sure was. On August 29, 1996, the day of Clinton’s convention acceptance speech, a Virginia call girl named Sherry Rowlands went public with the story that Morris—who was married—was not only a regular client, but that he enjoyed sucking toes and had let her listen in to some of his calls with the president. Morris resigned the same day.