Playing 'Comeback Kid' for Real

Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

Dick Morris is on the comeback trail, and the former Republican and Democratic political advisor has not lost his touch. Last week, he managed to turn a political-science classroom at New York University into a major political event in his campaign to rehabilitate his image. The master of manipulation still plays the press like a piccolo. But will the public be so forgiving?

Most public figures who are forced to resign in disgrace go through some period of contrition before beginning the comeback trail. They check into the Betty Ford Clinic, figuratively if not literally. There is the tearful news conference, with family present, at which responsibility is simultaneously assumed and deflected ("It's my fault. The alcohol made me do it."), followed by a polite respite of silence before rehabilitation gets underway.

Americans are willing to forgive, or forget, almost anything--provided the appropriate rituals are followed. Abuse of power? Drunken driving? A woman in the Potomac? All can be overcome, provided the rituals are followed. But it is not necessarily a measure of our virtue that we forgive so easily.

Yet, Morris is not a man to play by others' rules. He is well-known for his ability to play reporters against each other--by passing out tidbits of information and colorful background quotes. The week of the Democratic National Convention, he graced the cover of Time magazine, having won the bragging rights for the president's success. Even in disgrace, he managed to negotiate an exclusive that got him on the cover of Time for a second week in a row.

Far more impressive than his skills in playing the media is Morris' reputed talent for understanding the public--sometimes better than we understand ourselves. Or so he claims. Moving from Democrats to Republicans and back again, unfettered by apparent beliefs, Morris takes credit for saving America's best living politician, first in Arkansas and then in Washington.

Now he's using those skills to save himself--and redefining the rituals of disgrace in the process. Morris has not accepted responsibility for anything but President Bill Clinton's success.

When a prostitute's tapes and photographs forced Morris to resign from the Clinton campaign, the political consultant blamed the tabloids. Using his wife (who reportedly has finally left him) and dog as his props, Morris cast himself as the victim--even as he compounded his betrayal with a multimillion-dollar book contract for his own "kiss and tell" story. He has not disappeared--his public appearances since the summer have included a much-publicized New Yorker luncheon and a stint as a TV news commentator on election night. But he has not taken questions about himself.

Tuesday was billed as his first prolonged public appearance. Morris spoke for almost an hour to a group of political-science students at New York University. Selected reporters were allowed to watch--no tabloids. A camera crew from "Prime Time Live" and a public-relations consultant reportedly accompanied him. The students asked the questions, not the reporters; the questions were about politics, not about Morris and his ethics. Students are far more polite than reporters.

As an academic, I respect the fundamental freedom of professors to teach their classes as they believe best, which includes the right to invite whoever you want to speak. But this wasn't a class. It was an event. The students and the classroom were the backdrop. The university provided respectability. The media provided coverage.

Morris' speech has indeed been widely reported, with pictures of him speaking while teacher and students listen respectfully, and with extensive quotes about Morris' view of Clinton and the profession of political consultants. Prime Time will air later.

No doubt there will be major efforts at "balance," as there were in preparing last week's round of news reports. Balance means that more than once in the news piece, we are reminded of Morris' indiscretions. But it also means that Morris gets a chance to speak his piece on a whole range of subjects, and when there is nothing new on the betrayal front (how can there be, if no one even asks?) and lots of colorful comments about politics and the president, the commentary will dominate, as it did in last week's coverage.

So we learn about what Morris thinks of Clinton ("a little weird"); how he and the president followed "the wind" of political currents, and how he might have saved the president from the mistakes of his first two years. The media are still interested in what Morris has to say about the president he betrayed, even if he's not talking about the betrayal.

The NYU speech will almost certainly help Morris on the high-paying lecture circuit: If he's good enough for NYU, why not for the next association meeting? Along with the newsmagazine piece to come, it may well pave the way for Morris not only to increase his speaking commitments, but also to appear more often as a commentator in the political food fights--where the subject is someone else's career and not his own. That publicity, in turn, helps sell books, which Morris will have to sell in large numbers to recoup his large advance.

Morris told the NYU students that a political consultant must have "the ability of an academic and the canniness of a drug pusher." He was reportedly taken aback when the students gasped at his equation of his own skills with those of a drug pusher. Morris' ease in working both sides of the aisle has long earned him the reputation of the ultimate cynic. His comeback may be the ultimate test of the proposition that notoriety counts for more than integrity, and that betrayal sells.

In the Morris version, you don't even have to say you're sorry. The question is not whether Morris has any shame. He has answered that, many times. It's whether the rest of us do. *

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