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All the King's Men

POWER PLAYS: Win or Lose--How History's Great Political Leaders Play the Game, By Dick Morris, ReganBooks: 360 pp., $25.95

April 21, 2002|ANDREW H. MALCOLM | Andrew H. Malcolm, a former foreign and national correspondent, editor, government and campaign spokesman, is the author of such books as "Final Harvest" and "The Canadians." He is a member of the Times' Editorial Board.

He's baaack--again.

And this time Dick Morris is full of political advice from dead people--dead politicians, actually. You remember Morris. He's died too, several times, politically. There were the times he consulted for both sides of the political aisle (and may or may not have detailed that for clients). And there was that tabloid expose with the prostitute just as Morris' client, President Bill Clinton, was accepting the Democratic nomination in 1996. Mere momentary setbacks in modern politics. Clinton valued Morris' advice so highly that he later smuggled him into the White House to share his expertise in secret, keeping it quiet even from devoted official presidential staff. And Morris' polls told the president he should vacation in Wyoming. So he did.

Today, as living proof that scandals may perish but flamboyant celebrities in modern America never die and never fade away, the repackaged Morris resides on the Fox News Channel, where he dispenses political opinion, candid advice and sometimes accurate prognostications to viewers who aren't paying for any of it.

"Power Plays," his fifth book, is a clever idea, cleverly titled and cleverly outlined--clever like one of those book ideas, book titles and book outlines from Judith Regan at HarperCollins which, by golly, according to Morris' acknowledgments, it indeed was. The outspoken Regan, you may recall, dispenses her own opinions on her own show on Fox, which, like HarperCollins, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. So you see the strategic political connections in this book on political strategies. No coincidence.

In this book, Morris examines some moves by politically great and not-so-great men. (Apparently Regan's outline did not include detailed mention of female political leaders such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher). In a fairly breezy style suitable for television, Morris breaks his examination of political strategies into six categories: Stands on Principle, Triangulation, Divide and Conquer, Reform Your Own Party, Using New Technology and Mobilizing Your Nation at a Time of Crisis. Whether Morris is the best-qualified person to examine political principles might make good shouting fodder on "The O'Reilly Factor," which also happens to appear on Fox.

You'd better like politics and history to read "Power Plays." You'll see some patterns you may or may not have noticed: How Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan held to their principles, lost, suffered political exile and returned, possibly repackaged, to triumph in a changed society while Woodrow Wilson, Barry Goldwater and someone named Al Gore all failed. Except we might need another epilogue if, in coming months, Gore's latest repackaging gains "traction" (a favored expression of political consultants).

Written for a generation that gets its news from TV and the Web, Morris' sections on how Churchill and FDR crafted political intimacy and support through this newfangled thing called radio are enlightening. But perhaps Morris' best sections deal with triangulation, a process in which a politician confounds his opposition and neutralizes its supporters by co-opting its issues while protecting his standing among his own political supporters.

American journalism too often treats politics as a mere spectator sport full of duplicity, rather than as the machinations of participants in a complex democracy reflecting through their maneuvers the complex and often conflicting and hypocritical feelings of inattentive voters. Understanding these professional strategies sheds light on our democracy's inner workings and on how we can be manipulated. Since open attacks on opponents can ricochet, it's just as effective politically to lure opposition supporters or simply weaken their fervor by seeming to adopt some of their stands.

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