Seldom has the nation seen a more desultory presidential campaign. With scarcely two months to go, the Republicans have yet to articulate a theme capable of firing the moral imagination of the electorate. Tax-cut talk, which was supposed to do the trick, has produced only yawns of indifference or skepticism, and on virtually every other issue in sight, Bill Clinton has masterfully co-opted the Republican agenda.
In fairness, it must be said that Dole and Kemp have a difficult task. The economy is in good shape, and the public seems blissfully indifferent to the odor of corruption emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Senior GOP advisors have been debating how best to inject the “character” issue into the campaign but fear a voter backlash. Their caution finds support in poll numbers showing that while roughly three-fifths of the electorate distrust Bill Clinton, a healthy majority is nevertheless prepared to re-elect him.
In an earlier and better age, the Morris scandal alone would have sent an incumbent President into a political tailspin. Dick Morris, after all, was no mere campaign “advisor” or “strategist.” He was by all accounts (not excluding his own) the undeniable puppetmaster of the Clinton re-election effort, the man who brought., the President from 20 points down to 20 points up.
What’s troubling about the Morris episode is not his sordid carryings-on with a prostitute, nor even his subsequent admission that he had fathered a child by a prior illicit liaison. All that is bad enough, but far worse is the reaction of political and intellectual elites, beginning with the President himself.
Within a day of Morris’s unceremonial departure from the Chicago convention, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, as well as Vice-President Gore, had called him. Only they and Morris know for sure what they discussed, but nowhere in the public White House musings on the subject has there been any but the most perfunctory note of moral disapprobation. It was almost as if Morris were some kind of victim—we heard sniping about “tabloid journalism,” the untrustworthiness of the prostitute’s story, endless ruminations on “how the mighty have fallen,” but next to nothing about the wretched behavior that led to Morris’s downfall. Even Morris’s wife couldn’t bring herself to criticize the man whose long-standing sexual escapades with other women were broadcast to the world. She paraded with him arm-in-arm at a front-lawn press conference and even posed for a Time magazine photographer.
Within a matter of days, Random House announced that it had inked a $2.5 million book deal with Morris and, not to be outdone, the once venerable New Yorker featured Morris at a headliner luncheon for writers and advertisers—which makes you wonder what they would have done had they been able to lay their hands on the Marquis de Sade. Far from being shunned as a reprobate, Morris is being treated to full celebrity status. Can product endorsements and a TV mini-series be far behind?
It is a sad reflection on the state of the culture that we have come to such a pass. Our jaws drop in wonderment, but are we entitled to be surprised? In an age when the popular arts are chiefly notable for their indulgence of depravity, when schoolchildren are routinely informed that sexual preference is a matter of choice, and Heather can have as many mommies as her real mommy wants, who can claim surprise when a Dick Morris achieves fame and fortune?
What has disappeared in all this celebrity lather, of course, is even the slightest semblance of shame. Morris not only laughs all the way to the bank, but he is confirmed in his conviction that right and wrong are mere matters of personal taste and that those who speak of morality are so many hypocrites, cranks, or fools. When vice achieves honor and fortune, what need is there for virtue?
The Republicans have been reluctant to capitalize on l’affaire Morris, perhaps because they fear retaliatory exposes by the opposition against their own. But they need not dwell on Morris as such; in some respects, the less said about him the better. But the larger point about the condition of the culture needs to be made—that, as Burke said, “men are fitted for civil liberty in exact proportion to their capacity to place chains upon their own appetites.” A society unwilling to chastise the worst of its members will soon imitate them.
Errata “Slavery & Abortion” by Lewis Lehrman (September 1996) p. 25: Lehrman’s original manuscript reads as follows: “On all fronts slavery advanced, stronger in 1858 than in 1807, the year before the African slave trade was legally abolished.” Mr. Lehrman’s original sentence makes clear that the African slave trade was abolished in 1808. Due to an editorial error in setting up the final printing, Mr. Lehrman’s original sentence was inaccurately rendered in the final printing, thus implying incorrectly that the African slave trade was abolished in 1859.