Sex on the Hill: the US scandal that still pays off

The rise of the consultants is a commentary on the state of American politics. Sin only adds to their allure, and to the advances from their publishers
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The Independent Online
Celebrity in America is supposed to last 15 minutes. Congratulations, therefore, to Dick Morris, practitioner of that once unremarked trade of political consultant. Nearly three weeks have passed since the Star, a supermarket tabloid, revealed how during his visits to Washington, he consorted with a prostitute whom he sought to impress by allowing her to listen in on his conversations with the President.

But so much for any theories of ignominy, retribution and the echoing silence of shame. Dick Morris is not merely still in the headlines; along with Saddam Hussein, he bestrides them. Esteemed columnists continue to debate his doings. His career has been not so much destroyed as relaunched. Among arbiters of what matters in America is the cover of Time magazine. Mr Morris has appeared on the front of two consecutive issues - an honour not accorded by that illustrious organ to Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill or Gorbachev, or any other shaper of this century (apart from OJ Simpson). But in the lesser context of contemporary US politics, such prominence is not misplaced. For this is the age of the political consultant.

Under various guises, they pop up everywhere, their smallest utterances avidly seized upon by television and newspapers. They may be a "senior adviser," a "key strategist" or a "top aide". Beyond Washington, their existence may be virtually unknown. But in the enclosed little universe of politicians, journalists and sundry other opinion-makers, the consultants are mega-celebrities, macho-figures and guns for hire whose skills supposedly can make or break a campaign. Sometimes, indeed they do. Equally often, they don't. Nobody, though, has played the game as deftly and cynically as Dick Morris.

In a 20-year career, he has worked for liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans, but most constantly for Bill Clinton, first when he was Governor of Arkansas and then, after the Democrats' mid-term debacle in November 1994, as President. The fact that - at least until just before the fall - Morris gave no interviews only increased his allure. He was, a breathless media declared, Clinton's "guru", the architect of the President's shift to the centre and of his subsequent astonishing political recovery. And such was his view of himself, according to the diary kept by his paramour, Sherry Rowlands. His disgrace, we scribblers opined, could not but tar his boss, a man himself not unacquainted with tabloid scandal.

How wrong we were. For one thing, Americans have long since factored "character" into their views of Bill Clinton. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of insider Washington, the Morris affair left the public cold. If anything, a touch of sympathy was apparent for his boss. This time, a courtier was not a king's sinister accomplice, but his betrayer. When Mr Morris's cavortings in the Jefferson Hotel made headlines, the President's lead over Mr Dole was about 10 points. Today, it is double that.

And the Morris fortunes have equally flourished. The "scandal" about him may grow, with allegations that he has a child fathered in an out- of-wedlock liaison and accusations that he breached confidentiality agreements by rushing into print with his memoirs. Mr Clinton's staff trembles at what it may contain, their fears not stilled by the author's insistence that the book will be "dignified, accurate, insightful, probing and, I hope, newsworthy." Anyone who had worked closely with a President should "share their experiences with the public", Mr Morris continues archly - omitting reference to the $2.5 million advance he has received from Random House.

Meanwhile, the man who gave no interviews is popping up all over the place - including the halls of the once-venerable New Yorker magazine, to whose editors, staffers and advertisers Mr Morris vouchsafed an off- the-record breakfast briefing on Thursday. He was described by some present as "cheerful, confident and not terribly contrite".

But contrition is not an attribute much associated with political consultants. Take Roger Stone, a Republican who claims much influence with the Dole campaign, and the latest "key strategist" to provide grist for the scandal mill (let no one say slime is not a bipartisan affair). Having wrapped up its Morris series, the Star claims in its new edition that Mr Stone and his wife have placed steamy photos of themselves and ads for group sex in swingers' magazine and on the Internet.

Mr Stone holds up his hands in studied outrage, at the work of some "sick, disgruntled person" out to smear him, while Mr Dole, desperate to preserve at least his "character" edge over the President, has swiftly and completely severed his links - whatever they were in the first place - with Mr Stone. That, however, is where the damage is likely to end. Like Dick Morris, Roger Stone, a body-building fanatic who has spent $8,000 (pounds 5,000) on hair transplants, revels in infamy. Back in 1985, the New Republic ran a profile on him entitled "State-Of-The-Art Sleazeball," and its delighted subject sent copies to all his friends. Now he's on the Internet. Can a book contract be far behind? More pertinently, should anyone be surprised?

The rise of the consultants is a commentary on the current state of American politics. The genuine differences between the candidates are minimal. In this 1996 campaign thus far, serious issues have gone virtually undiscussed, drowned by banalities about family values. Presidential nominating conventions, once so gripping, have turned into a minutely worked collage of chat-show sob stories, ranging from Christopher Reeve to wounded policemen, HIV- infected children and Al Gore's telling of how he sat at his sister's bedside, watching her die of lung cancer. Far more than in Britain, the substance of politics in America has devolved into manipulation and image- marketing. Issues have been replaced by process, the province less of the politicians than of the consultants who sell them.

Small wonder then that some have become more famous than the politicians they work for. Sin only adds to their allure, and to the advances from their publishers. The Morris volume will doubtless be a rattling good read. But for the content of American politics, one may tremble.