“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as i can do to see real people, by this light!”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Dick Morris worked to get Jesse Helms and Trent Lott elected. He currently works for Fox “News.” Morris is of course best known for getting caught spilling Clinton White House secrets to his favorite hooker whenever he could pry his mouth off her toes. With this history, his new book Power Plays can’t possibly be the least appealing thing he’s done. But it’s close.
In Power Plays, Morris examines twenty past struggles for political power — usually elections — and draws five different types of “plays.” Each strategy gets a section of the book with examples making up individual chapters. Each chapter, with titles like “EXAMPLE ELEVEN — UNSUCCESSFUL — Nelson Rockefeller Crashes as He Falls Between the Parties,” delivers a brief lesson about how a politician gained, or failed to gain, power. Welcome history as a PowerPoint presentation.
And Morris writes as if he expects you to take notes in your DayPlanner, often reminding the reader that these lessons can be applied to the arenas of politics, business and school. I kid you not. This must have something to do with the success of that Who Moved My Cheese? book. It’s high comedy to read Morris’ clumsy attempts to imply that the election of, say, Churchill might carry a lesson for potential class presidents out there. Note to self: Once the Nazis attack, everyone will know I’m right.
Power Plays feels like a survey course in political campaigns. Despite Morris’ extensive experience and legitimate credentials, few of these examples contain much insight a reasonably educated political junkie — the sort of person to pick up this book — doesn’t already have. FDR used the intimacy of radio to connect with people. JFK used the glamour of TV to defeat Nixon. Goldwater was too much of a grim ideologue to win election. Not much of Power Plays exists outside the realm of repetitive Monday morning quarterbacking and conventional wisdom.
I had expected a book with Morris’ name on the cover to be more overtly biased and therefore potentially entertaining. The bias is there, but it remains fairly quiet and deadly dull. About Bush Jr., Morris writes, “By cutting [tax] rates for lower, middle, and upper income brackets alike, Bush made his tax cut sound downright populist.” This is about how it sounds, not how it is. Money from Bush’s tax cuts, of course, went predominantly to the wealthy. The classes were not treated “alike,” but what matters to Morris is how things were spun. Although I did not search aggressively, I found no enormous factual errors. Instead, I felt like I was treated to a thousand tiny cuts of slant and bias.
For example, Bush Jr. and Clinton both serve as examples of the “triangulate” power play. In other words, they stood apart from the extreme wings of their parties in order to, as the conventional wisdom would put it, capture the middle. In the Clinton chapter, the Democratic left are “ideological police” trying to “drag him back.” Clinton becomes the left’s “slave” in their “prison.” Morris compares Clinton’s occasional nods at the left to alcoholism. In the Clinton chapter, the left wing needs to be corrected. The other chapter dissects the cheery slogans Bush used to convince moderates and minorities that Republicans aren’t really hard-hearted racists. In the Bush chapter, Morris directs no harsh words to the Republican’s right wing. The extreme right is perfect as is, and needs only to be sold to those foolish citizens who are wary of the GOP.
The Bush chapter, along with its twin Gore chapter, provides some of the most head-scratching moments. Bush won because he triangulated. Gore lost because he abandoned his environmental message. (Had Gore won, I guess this would be evidence of Gore’s brilliant triangulation.) Considering the razor thin margin and pulled-outta-thin-air legal rulings, anything could be declared the decisive factor. Ralph Nader, Elian Gonzalez, Katherine Harris, illegal absentee ballots, Monica Lewinsky, second-class voting machines in poor districts, Gore’s inept campaigning, Sandra Day O’Conner’s desire to retire. Morris wants to pretend he can map out such a toss-up for your potential benefit. Note to self: Never get into a recount situation in a state where the governor is the brother of my opponent.
Morris ignores the elements of dumb luck and personal charm while placing complete faith in strategies and plays. Of course, if election wins were merely the result of plays and strategies, campaign advisors like Morris would be the real brains and winners, right? The foolishness of this notion is obvious in the section on Reagan. According to Morris, Reagan won because he kept his hard conservative ideology but, unlike Goldwater, wrapped it in patriotic optimism. There’s nothing outlandishly wrong about this idea, but it ignores the importance of natural charm, which Reagan had and Goldwater lacked. And if you don’t have natural charm, you sure aren’t going to pick it up from a pedantic, dull as dirt book like Power Plays.
The chapters of Power Plays I enjoyed most concerned politicians unfamiliar to me. The chapters on Mitterrand and Japan’s Koizumi didn’t feel recycled, perhaps because I missed the conventional wisdom the first time around. Power Plays does not offer enough fresh insight or sharp opinion on the well-known campaigns to be worthwhile to anyone but the political neophyte. I would rather have Morris tell me what it was like to sell Jesse Helms than read his list of JFK’s top glamour moments. Even though I would not always agree with it, I would have welcomed more of Morris’ opinion and personal experience in exchange for these dull lesson plans.