Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- September 3, 1996
by James Fallows

A Dip in the Bathos Tub

The Dick Morris story is not really about American politics, any more than Othello is really about the ruling council of Venice. In each case the true subjects are folly, ambition, vanity, and lust. But Morris's recent flamboyant passage through our consciousness underscores several developments in the way politics and the news now work.

The episode, first, reminds the public how very important political "consultants" have become. A generation ago, the figures closest to Presidents were other politicians, direct staff employees, long-time friends in a "kitchen cabinet" -- but not hired media pros. The power of these consultants has risen as campaigns have become more TV-centric, and their celebrity has soared as journalists, bored with interviewing mere party officials, have grown fascinated with experts who can provide clever campaign "spin."

For politicians the case is a useful reminder of the dangers of personalized politics. At the last two Democratic conventions, Bill Clinton and Al Gore centered their speeches on tales of dying sisters, nearly dying children, alcoholic step parents, and otherwise damaged kin. Wallowing in hardship may seem effective in the short run -- but after Democrats try to argue that Dick Morris's personal failings have no larger significance, they may hesitate before taking their next dip into the bathos tub.

For the media, Morris provided a rare moment of honest self-revelation. During the Watergate and even Iran-Contra episodes, the prevailing myth in Washington was that these were "wrenching" and "agonizing" ordeals for the country. In fact everyone except the victims had a wonderful time, waiting for the mighty to fall. This time no one bothered with the tut-tutting pretense. When the Morris story broke reporters were openly joyful at the prospect of "real" news -- a category into which none of the speeches, platform items, or personal dynamics at the convention apparently fit.

The seeming success of the administration's damage-control effort shows something further about today's media. The oldest rule in press-management, and one of the hardest to obey, is that when news is really bad, you need to get it out really fast. In this case -- unlike earlier ones including Whitewater -- the Clinton administration did exactly that. The same news broadcasts that carried word of Morris's alleged offense also said that he was gone. If he'd been left in place, the news today would feature death-watch stakeouts of his house, and the story would have tremendous ooomph. Instead it is dribbling away not because its intrinsic importance is any different but because it now lacks dramatic suspense. The Clinton media handlers should be celebrating their tactical dexterity. We in the media should be wondering about our concept of "real" news.

Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.

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