His predictions were wrong as often as they were right; his poll-obsessions and willingness to work for racist Jesse Helms verged on nihilism. But, on the very biggest strategic questions, Morris gave Clinton advice that helped save his presidency. He understood that Clinton had blurred his political identity as a New Democrat in his first two years in office. Morris intuited, too, that success as Chief Executive sometimes required confounding, bold action, such as, say, defying your congressional party to back a balanced budget and sign welfare reform. He understood the power of the presidential bully pulpit and encouraged Clinton to use it. His grasp of tactics was far less sure. “I am the kind of person who sees far off in the horizon, but trips over chairs in front of me,” he once explained to me. These strengths and weaknesses are echoed in his columns and Fox News analyses: They are fascinating, closely argued, and sometimes wildly wrong.
So there was reason to expect Power Plays to be interesting. Put it this way: I would not go to Dick Morris for a tutorial on moral theory, or even on the day-to-day maneuvering by which most political change occurs. But he does have a sure touch for divining politicians’ larger strategic patterns. This book looks at the experiences of 19 leaders, from the U.S. and abroad, and shows how they sought and won power. “Any new figure looking toward a career in politics cannot help but realize that many, many others have come before, and that even a passing review of history can save more than a little heartache down the road,” he notes. Power Plays is well-researched, often illuminating, and can be a rich source of examples, anecdotes, and archetypes. However, for all the fun of wondering what Morris might have whispered in the ear of Woodrow Wilson (“triangulate before it’s too late!”), the interesting case studies don’t add up to a coherent theory of leadership.
Morris groups the leaders in categories, like an ornithologist. Some divided and conquered: Lincoln, in the famous debates, pushed Douglas into taking positions that split the Democrats. During Vietnam, Nixon split the Democrats by remaining silent on the war (hence hinting that he was against it).
Some leaders grasped new technologies: FDR understood radio, but Nixon in the 1950s didn’t “get” TV; LBJ, for his part, invented the 30-second attack ad, a development that draws praise. (Again, look elsewhere for moral tutelage.) Tony Blair of Britain and Junichiro Koizumi of Japan revolutionized their own political parties to gain power, while George McGovern–refreshingly analyzed as a consequential leader and not just as an epithet–alienated party leaders while transforming the Democrats. He deftly shows how FDR and Winston Churchill rallied their countries by never sugarcoating bad news at the dawn of World War II, contrasting that candor with Lyndon Johnson’s credibility gap in Vietnam.
Morris is best known for counseling Clinton to blunt the Republican surge of the mid-1990s by coopting their strongest issues, advice he repeats here. He makes a good case that George W. Bush, running for president in 2000, did the same with his mantra of “compassionate conservatism.” Like nearly all pundits, Morris ignores the degree to which Clinton’s challenge to his own party’s base was substantive, while Bush’s was little more than rhetorical colorizing. He also notes, “The lesson from Clinton and Bush is clear: You can move to the center by trying to solve the problems normally associated with the other party, but don’t abandon all the traditional positions of your own party on the issues with which it is normally associated.” Hence W’s tax-cut fetish, and Clinton’s honorable support for civil rights and affirmative action (a position, it must be noted, that Morris urged him not to take at the time).
But acute though these profiles are, they don’t cohere. Clinton and Bush won by seizing the middle ground–but Reagan and DeGaulle are praised for sticking with principle and waiting for the public to come to them. What’s an aspiring Great Man to do? Ultimately, the you-are-there ephemera of tactics looms too large. Sure, McGovern and his legions needlessly humiliated party bosses such as Mayor Daley in 1972. But can we really imagine the South Dakotan beating Nixon that year, no matter how well he ran? Could Barry Goldwater ever have topped LBJ in 1964? Profound economic and social forces shaped those races far more than the “power plays” outlined in this book.
The best way to read this book is the way Clinton read Morris’s memos and polls. He clearly valued Morris and saw through him at the same time. Morris’s earlier books to the contrary, Clinton never gave him free rein. He pitted him against more traditional Democrats such as chief of staff Leon Panetta, rarely letting one faction know what the other was up to. That way Clinton could be the broker, picking among the best arguments and policies. It was grueling. I had always read about how FDR did the same thing, giving rivals Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins the same assignment, but never realized how demoralizing that could be. But the period of creative friction produced perhaps the most fruitful period of the Clinton presidency. In reading this book, be like Bill: Take Morris’s advice with a large pinch of salt.
Michael Waldman teaches at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard. He was the director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995-1999.