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The Danger of a Big Victory

The Allure of Risky Behavior

September 01, 1996|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times)

CHICAGO — A journalist whose beat is political scandals soon starts hoping, sincerely hoping, that the country's political figures will get religion, take the pledge, turn over a new leaf--anything to keep them from spawning yet another scandal virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors.

But, nooooo. With the Democratic convention in full swing--indeed, on the very eve of Bill Clinton's speech accepting his party's renomination for the presidency--the media revealed the sordid charge that Clinton's top campaign consultant, Richard "Dick" Morris, had consorted repeatedly with a prostitute.

The ingredients of the scandal were standard issue, beginning with the juicy target. As the man who pushed Clinton to the political center, Morris had plenty of ideological adversaries in the White House. His reported self-promotion and somewhat limited charm made the antagonism highly personal, and his appearance on the cover of Time magazine raised his profile well into shooting range.

Moreover, Morris' campaign strategy relied heavily on the family-values theme, so the discovery of any sins on his part would have the special deliciousness of hypocrisy exposed.

Morris' alleged paramour-for-hire, in a type of transaction that has become increasingly familiar, approached the supermarket tabloid Star, which, in turn, paid her money for her story about him. To provide evidence, she made the requisite tape recordings and arranged for the necessary photographs.

In another unsurprising occurrence, a more respectable paper, the New York Post, got wind of the coming Star story and wrote about it. In the past, tabloids like Star have run these stories only to have other, more mainstream media agonize over whether to repeat them. This time, the repetition began even before the original story appeared. Thus do markets perfect themselves.

Next came reactions, also expected. Morris speedily quit as Clinton's advisor, saying he would "not dignify" the charges with a reply. President Clinton, understandably, issued a statement that praised Morris and said not a word about the current unpleasantness. White House spinners claimed Morris' departure was unimportant because: a) their campaign strategy is already set, and b) the chief strategist is, and always has been, the president himself. Republicans naturally countered that the scandal would help them press the character issue in the campaign.

None of this is very fresh. While Morris' story offers minor diversion, mainly in the charges about his specific sexual habits, it simply cries out for something bigger and bolder to lift it out of the ordinary. Couldn't we have the alleged call girl, Sherry Rowlands, turn out to be a transvestite? How about discovering that Morris was really spending time with her to persuade her to reform, as Gladstone did with prostitutes in 19th-century London? Maybe a CIA connection? Republican dirty tricks? Third-party participation?

But, alas, what we see in this scandal is probably what we get--just another political type teetering on the lip of the same old sort of disaster until bad luck or a misstep finally nudges him over the edge.

Precisely because of this repetitiveness and lack of novelty, even observers who are resistant to psychoanalyzing public figures must face the deep, complex personality issue: What is with these crazy people? How can they keep doing what they do when the likelihood of their getting an electric shock is so high as to deter even your average-intelligence gerbil?

Those who believe in the essential corruption of politicians say the reason is arrogance. In this view, people who spend their lives manipulating political events and images come to feel they are "above the law," too powerful to be hurt by the rules and processes governing others. This idea had a fair amount of explanatory power in the past, when for every instance of publicized wrongdoing, there were indeed several successful cover-ups.

But for a public figure to imagine that kind of immunity for himself or herself today would indicate not arrogance but a delusional disorder requiring serious psychiatric care, perhaps in a residential setting. We have had a quarter century of one high-level political personage after another humiliated, jeopardized, fired, ruined, jailed or obliterated. Political types who are in their late 40s today have never personally known a different state of affairs. The vast majority of them do not think or feel that their sins, if known, would be ignored or excused.

It is more likely that many politicians do risky things because they are risky--that is, because the real possibility of getting caught adds to the excitement.

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