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Friend & Foe: Dick Morris's unreliable, intoxicating tale of Clinton.

Because He Could By Dick Morris and Eileen McGann Regan Books, $29.95

Bill Clinton, so the story goes, once almost punched Dick Morris in the nose. But, at the last second, Hillary restrained her husband's cocked-back arm. The blow never landed.

These days, Clinton must wish he had knocked Morris off his feet when he had the chance.

Morris, once the former president's closest confidant and advisor, his poll-wielding Svengali, and now a FOX News commentator and New York Post columnist, is keeping busy of late with his own cottage industry: Clinton-trashing. In a matched pair of books, Morris (writing with his wife Eileen McGann) delivers a one-two punch of his own at each of the recent Clinton autobiographies. First, last came his Rewriting History, which took on Hillary's Living History.

Now Because He Could--a response to Clinton's huge, and hugely success autobiography, My Life--arrives on the scene, wailing noxious fumes of ingratitude and score-settling, which the author attempts to cover up with the righteous perfume of providing historical accuracy. Because He Could is essentially a long, cranky review of My Log, in which Morris deconstructs, denies, and disses much of what Clinton wrote, setting forth his own version of the truth. (Here's a Zen koan to ponder: How overwritten must a presidential autobiography be to deserve a 300-page rebuttal?)

Morris's book portrays Clinton as a weak-willed, amoral, and visionless wanderer, saved--in a limited way--only by his vaunted empathy and communication skills, coupled with his head for wonkish policy detail. According to Morris, it was only his own wise counsel that made Clinton the success he was. Without him, Morris writes, Clinton was too focused on minutiae to see broad patterns or form sweeping strategies:

"It was as if I were staring up at the stars with Clinton, trying to get him to pick out the constellation Orion among the many glittering stars. 'Over there,' I'd point. 'You see the three stars. That's his belt."' But Clinton, Morris reports, could never see it. Morris sees Clinton's autobiography as a metaphor for his personality--ambitious, but undisciplined and chaotic. He writes: "Clinton's My like his political life, has no organizational motif beyond simple chronology. It is, simply, one darn thing after another."

The book's title, of course, is a reference to Clinton's reply to Dan Rather that he had his affair with Monica Lewinsky "because I could" Morris, in high dudgeon, calls this the "ultimate statement of unbridled power." His attitude was not always thus. For perspective, let's go back a few years, to 1996, just before Morris's spectacular fall from grace--the result of reportedly allowing his pricey call girl at the Jefferson Hotel (yes, the one with the delectable toes) to do things like listen in on a phone conversation with the president. Back then, Morris described to Time magazine his profound respect and affection for Bill Clinton: "It's very important for me to convey how deeply I care about this man, what an inspiration, even a guide, he's been. He is the essence of my career." Well, that last part still seems true. What is Morris's claim to fame, after all, if not as Clinton's former guru?

Although he insists that he is correcting the Clinton record for lofty historical purposes, Morris comes off not so much as the conscientious scholar but rather as the royal butler who, dismissed from the palace staff, can't wait to tell all about His Majesty's nasty habits. But there's a catch: Morris is much smarter than your average butler. He has almost Rovian political instincts, and formidable powers of observation and analysis. That's what makes Because He Could a fascinating--if not particularly likeable--addition to the ever-burgeoning Clinton bookshelf. Morris is not only perceptive and knowing about his former boss, but his book is packed with the sort of juicy insider stuff that will feed the apparently insatiable appetites of Clinton-philes and Clinton-phobes alike. Whether to believe him is another question entirely. Morris had unparalleled access to the president--but he also seems to have a hefty axe to grind.

Among the most memorable offerings of Because He Could:

On Clinton's anger: "His is a primitive anger, manifested by red-faced screaming, a wildly pointing accusatory finger, and utterly self-righteous tirades. For those on the receiving end, it is a frightening and unforgettable encounter. For Bill Clinton himself, it is an exhausting and demeaning experience, usually followed by waves of guilt and, occasionally, a perfunctory apology."

How Clinton used public opinion polls to form the State of the Union address: "Clinton writes that he used the address each year 'as an organizing tool' to stimulate the cabinet and staff to 'come up with new policy ideas.' But he does not mention that it was, in its essence and specifics, a speech written by polls. Months before the address, we would canvass the administration ... for ideas. Then we would take the mother of all polls, testing each idea to determine its political appeal."

On Clinton and the draft, as portrayed in his book: "Nowhere is the disjuncture between My Life and real life more pronounced than in his account of the draft story.... Like most of Clinton's important life experiences, his actual draft history was complicated, convoluted, calculated, and cover. Only in his retelling has it come to seem incredibly simple--simple and incomplete; simple and inaccurate."

On how Bill never blames Hillary: "I never really understood why he wasn't more angry with her. Every one of the nonsexual scandals that bedeviled his presidency was her fault."

Dick Morris adds this observation about Bill Clinton's relationship with his wife, which he describes as fearful and fawning: "Bill may not always have been faithful, but he sure is loyal." Clinton may indeed be flawed on that particular virtue meter, but Morris is worse: 0 for 2. Still, his book will be much read, and gossiped about, and absorbed into the Clinton mythology. While it's hard to admire the cravenly appropriate reasons Because He Could was written, it's harder still not to devour it in one hungry gulp--always aware that indigestion may follow.

Margaret Sullivan is editor in chief of The Buffalo News.
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Title Annotation:Because He Could
Author:Sullivan, Margaret
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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