Dick Morris In Exile

Former Bill Clinton crony and Fox News contributor Dick Morris is everything that’s wrong with American politics. So, naturally, he’s landed on the radio in Philadelphia.

What is former Fox pundit Dick Morris doing on the radio in Philadelphia?

Dick Morris punched his ticket for Philadelphia in the week leading up to the presidential election. Most pundits expected a close finish. A good number predicted a thin victory for the President. Some, like the New York Times’s Nate Silver, foresaw an easy Obama win.

But not Dick. He’d been at the head of the GOP’s blithely delusional brigade all year long. The eve of the election was no time to quit. While others equivocated, Morris doubled down.

“We’re going to win by a landslide,” he said to Fox News’s Greta van Susteren, with a grin that seemed to stretch a foot wide. “It would be the biggest surprise in recent political history.” Up flashed an electoral map covered in Romney red. Morris proceeded to jump through a series of contorted logical hoops, citing the skewing of one poll and the unjust tweaking of another survey, and finished by predicting his candidate would not just take the battlegrounds of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, but would best Obama in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Hampshire and, yes, even Pennsylvania.

And then, the vote. Overnight, Morris became a national laughingstock. He was “a joke to every smart conservative in Washington and most every smart conservative under the age of 40,” Ross Douthat told Politico. He was the “king of wrong mountain,” said Jon Stewart.

Morris had, of course, long been reviled by many Democrats for selling out his old boss, Bill Clinton, but now he was suddenly persona non grata among respectable Republicans, too. GOP opinion-makers turned on him like he was a quack selling miracle tonic.

“I got to tell you something, people are furious with you right now,” Sean Hannity told Morris on Fox after the election.

That was among his last appearances on the network. After logging almost 15 years and some 3,000 interviews as a paid Fox contributor, Morris had been blacklisted. Fox made it formal in February, when it declined to renew his contract. It was a rare instance of actual accountability in the typically consequence-free world of political punditry. Dick Morris was so full of bullshit that even Fox was embarrassed to have him.

But not, apparently, Philadelphia.

Each weekday afternoon, from 2 to 6 p.m., Morris can now be heard on WPHT 1210’s afternoon call-in show, replacing Michael Smerconish, who jumped to satellite radio in mid-April.

As tempting as it is to dismiss Morris as a sideshow, that would be a mistake. Despite his spectacular flop last fall, Morris has an instinctual understanding of politics that shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly in a city with relatively few veterans of the Washington game. And Morris—unlike so many of the leading national blowhards—was once a political consultant of genuine consequence. Indeed, he arguably had as much to do with the nature of our national political culture—such as it is—as any consultant alive.

What’s more, there’s no indication Morris is just using WPHT as a pit stop. His eventual ambition is to build a syndicated empire, headquartered here in Philadelphia. And he is spending a surprisingly large chunk of airtime on thoroughly local affairs, from municipal tax policy to allegations of anti-Semitism on the Evesham school board.

Make no mistake: Dick Morris—a man ejected from the ranks of the national punditocracy as a charlatan and opportunistic say-anything hack—is attempting to inject himself into the already sordid world of Philadelphia politics. This could go one of two ways. Morris has the potential to emerge as a sharp, uncensored observer in a city with a circumspect civic dialogue—the leading local voice of the angry right, tipping over sacred political cows in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Or Morris could continue prancing down the path of glib, credibility-shattering commentary.

Either way, Morris’s fate as a public figure now looks to be in the hands of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Which, yes, sounds absurd, but no more absurd than anything else in Dick Morris’s life.

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.)

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.

Before another show, Morris finds an unoccupied corner in the WPHT offices. He is going on about the benefits of nuclear power when a young, lanky ad rep interrupts to say, “Hey, thanks for that spec. The Uncle Dave’s Ice Cream spec. He’s dying to have you up there.”

What a comedown, right? From omnipresence on the biggest cable news network to recording ads for an ice-creamery in Yardley. “If you look at things in a linear sense, and you’re obsessed with your own dignity, all right,” Morris acknowledges. “But I’m not. It’s not a comedown. It’s fun.”

Perhaps in private, Morris really is in anguish. But I saw no sign of discontent in our conversations, nor do you hear any self-pity in his shows. His enthusiasm for Philadelphia seems entirely genuine. He goes on and on about the restaurants (Barclay Prime called to confirm a reservation mid-interview), and he and his wife are hunting for an apartment in Rittenhouse. Even more surprising, given his long work on the national stage, is Morris’s interest in the local stories.

This is where it’s clear Morris is a very quick study. I’ve heard him go deep into the weeds with officials and analysts on municipal tax policy—a subject I know better than I would like—and his questions are not only on point, but are often more incisive than those asked by the beat reporters. Morris has gotten the better of pitched interviews with State Senator Stewart Greenleaf (over mandatory minimum sentences for Philadelphia gun arrests, which Morris favors) and deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel (on the city’s homicide rate), to name a few.

When the show is clicking, Morris will hear out an opinion, counter with his own research, and then zoom back out for a bit of solid analysis. One caller, from Ambler, dialed in to complain about the injustice of Philadelphia’s tax abatement program—about as local as a topic gets. Morris knew the program inside and out, repeated the talking points of the pro-abatement crowd, and then put the issue in context. “The big problem that’s facing cities throughout the northeastern United States is that they’re becoming vacant lots,” he said. “These cities are going to become ghost towns. … And the main thing you want to do is bring people into the city who are rich, who are upper-income, who can anchor the city and stop it from becoming a ghost town.”

That’s good local talk radio. Strong, controversial opinion? Check. Credible analysis? Check. Relevant and timely? Check.

The problem is that these moments are rare. Like, a comet approaching the Earth rare. Most of the time—whether the subject is local or national—Morris will drone on and on, so enraptured with his own expertise and anecdotes that the audience seems forgotten.

Morris also completely lacks the showmanship and rage—real or pretend—that animates the shows of the better-known conservative radio hosts. He seems to be positioning himself as a consummate insider, peeling back the artifice of modern politics for his listeners. To that, he adds a healthy pinch of historical references, à la Glenn Beck. And then he layers those cerebral stylings on top of boilerplate conservative fare, i.e., Obama is a socialist with strong anti-American instincts.

It’s faux political intellectualism for conservative rubes. And while the formula has made Morris a lot of money over the years, it’s not at all clear it will work on a four-hour radio program in a Northeastern urban market.

“We just needed something big,” says WPHT operations manager Andy Bloom, when asked why Dick Morris. “Michael had been the biggest name on the radio station, so we needed something bigger.”

When I ask Morris “Why Philadelphia?” he replies, “Well, they asked,” and then chuckles for a bit.

It was mutual desperation, then, that brought WPHT and Morris together, and it’s likely to keep them together for some time. Morris knows his show needs work. “I’m a musical comedy honing its act in Philadelphia, and making all the mistakes with a very patient management,” he says. And so far, WPHT management remains enthralled by Morris, despite his program’s problems. “His show has gotten better faster than any show I’ve ever heard,” says Bloom.

Perhaps so. Yes, Morris has the intellect and the background to evolve into an important local voice. But this is a man with no shame, one entirely unconcerned with his own credibility. Morris will say whatever sells. He always has. Is Philadelphia really the market for this Dick?

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