The Morris Meltdown

CALL IT ROOM SERVICE. ON THE EVENING OF AUG. 22, PRESIDENTIAL adviser Dick Morris was in his $440-a-night suite at Washington's small but elegant Jefferson Hotel. Joining him was Sherry Rowlands, a call girl with whom he had allegedly been enjoying a yearlong relationship. Unbeknownst to Morris, in mid-July Rowlands, who had grown disenchanted with the rumpled New Yorker, had been trying to sell the story of her affair to the Star tabloid. Star's Richard Gooding, a former New York Times clerk and editor at other New York tabloids, was intrigued by the blonde's tale. It had it all: illicit sex, a description of Morris sucking her toes, accounts of the consultant blabbing White House secrets--like the discovery of life on Mars--and even letting her listen in on calls to the president. But Gooding wanted more. And so a plan, NEWSWEEK has learned, was laid for trapping Morris.

The lure wasn't just Rowlands but her dog, too. Rowlands brought her cuddly Yorkshire terrier to the hotel. Morris was eager to meet the dog, and, as a notorious Francophile, he had even suggested a French name for the pet-- Bijou, meaning jewel. When Rowlands opened the door to the balcony and let the dog scamper out, she followed, and so did Morris. He stood on the balcony, kissing and fondling Rowlands and playing with the pooch--unaware that Gooding and a Star photographer were on the rooftop of an adjacent hotel. Later, Rowlands and Morris emerged; he was sporting one of the hotel's terry-cloth robes. Throughout it all, the photographer snapped away. For good measure, Gooding captured the two on video. When the story broke, Morris quit, denouncing Star-but not directly denying the account.

The Jefferson sting was no ordinary stakeout. Morris, a denizen of the murky world of political consultants who's worked for both Democrats and Republicans, had become the architect of President Clinton's re-election strategy. At 48, Morris was a recluse, dodging camera crews and refusing to give on-the-record interviews. He would spend the working week in Washington, staying at the Jefferson, and return home to his wife, Eileen McGann, in suburban Connecticut on the weekends. Morris had used polling and his conservative instincts to push the president to the popular center following the Republican sweep in 1994. But Morris made important enemies--including White House aides George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes--who disagreed with Morris's politics and found him annoying. Still, until last week no political riser in the country was riding higher.

The irony of Dick Morris's fall is that it came just at the moment--the very week--he had reached the pinnacle. Clinton, his star pupil, seemed poised on the verge of winning a historic second term. Morris himself had been the subject of a Time magazine cover story, and in Chicago he was emerging from his self-imposed anonymity to meet with reporters and host high-powered parties. He cut a curious figure: his hands constantly quaked. But he was cocky, rumored to be pitching New York publishers on the idea of a postelection tell-all book. And Morris knew he was where he wanted to be. Last winter, returning to his native Manhattan to address a meeting of Democrats with whom he had toiled and sparred during the '60s, he offered the story of working alone in the.Oval Office, late at night, with,, the president. "You know, Mr. President,' Morris reported, ever since I was an 8-year-old, I've dreamed of doing this in exactly this way." Months later, after enraging his colleagues for throwing his weight around the West Wing, Morris fell into a trap of his making. The consultant had been consumed.

Like a lot of scandals, the Morris ouster didn't begin with an explosion but with a slow burn. Last Wednesday, Clinton was on his rail trip to Chicago, working on his acceptance speech, when Morris paged Press Secretary Mike McCurry. Star, Morris told him, is writing a story about me having an affair with a prostitute. What are we going to do? Morris insisted that the Star story was trash journalism. But McCurry was cautious. He warned Morris that these stories often had an element of truth, and Morris needed to "think about what kind of exposure" he might have in the situation. McCurry made it dear that he didn't want to know whether the charges were true. McCurry then brought the matter to deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman, who, along with counselor Bruce Lindsey, told the president. Distracted by his pending speech, Clinton was dismissive.

But the story wasn't going away. On the chopper ride into Chicago, Clinton talked about the convention with Harold Ickes, unaware that the Morris problem was growing. By the time the president began watching Wednesday evening's proceedings from a suite in the Sheraton with friends Vernon Jordan and Erskine Bowles, Clinton was told something would have to be done. Everyone in the Clinton entourage seemed to know that Morris might go down. To insulate himself from the affair, the president asked Bowles to tend to the matter. After Bowles--and, later, counsel Jack Quinn-confronted Morris, the consultant submitted Ins resignation. Bowles told chief of staff Leon Panetta about the situation around 3 a.m.

A couple of hours later, after drafting a statement in which he blasted the press's "sadistic vitriol," Morris winged back East, his wife in tow. When Clinton woke up and Panetta told him the news, Dick was gone. Clinton never had to lay eyes on the man. The next morning, Clinton told his top advisers how much he respected Morris and ordered them not to trash the fallen consultant. Hillary Clinton, NEWSWEEK has learned, told friends she was worried about the personal toll on Morris and his wife and feared that Morris might even attempt to take his own life.

Back in Washington, Rowlands remains an elusive figure who was paid for her story-less than $50,000 from Star, but she stands to make much more from other outlets. The 37-year-old says she met Morris through an escort service in the summer of 1995, according to Star. The two had been consorting for a few months when she left the escort service and its $200 an-hour rates. She formed her own housecleaning business, run out of her sister's house in suburban Virginia, but she kept up the liaison with Morris and continued to charge him. It was the latest chapter in a hard luck life: by Rowlands's account, she was married at 19, had three children, little money and even fewer prospects. In mid-July she offered to peddle the details of her affair to Star editors. Her evidence seemed intriguing to them: diaries of her assignations with Morris, hotel receipts, tapes of messages that Morris had left on her machine and a check for $824 that Morris had received for a speech that he signed over to her. Star wanted pictures. "We wanted to see it with our own eyes," says Star news editor Dick Belsky.

Of course, much of Rowlands's story remains assertion, and doubts about her tale led the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal to pass on printing the Star story. (The New York Post bit, nd after Morris resigned, the story was quickly picked up by the mainstream media.) But parts of Rowlands's account do check out. For example, the Star story describes how Morris, after learning that Clinton was angry that Morris was about to be n the cover of Time the week of the convention, called the magazine's managing editor, Walter Isaacson, and insisted that his image be kept off the cover. Isaacson confirmed to NEWSWEEK that he had just such a conversation with Morris on the evening of Aug. 22. And at least some of Rowlands's allegations are more serious: she says, for instance, that Morris told her about the presence of U.S. warships in Cuban waters.

The wild episode seemed a fitting end to one of the wildest careers in recent American politics. In grade school on Manhattan's West Side, Morris was a pint-size ward heeler, managing the student-council race of his friend Jerrold Nadler, now a congressman. After graduating from Columbia, Morris cut his political teeth in the liberal internecine wars of the West Side Democrats. Morris found himself on the opposite side of the barricade from one of the older Democrats, Harold Ickes. Dick was a flexible type who would move right to win; Ickes, the son of a New Deal icon, was an unbending liberal. The two would ultimately take their West Side fight to the West Wing.

Morris toiled as a '70s-style political drone, tapping out a period piece of a book called "Bum Rap on American Cities." Eventually he realized that he could make a living freelancing his political savvy. Morris understood the power of the hot-button positive, helping a slew of Southern politicians use nerdy issues like education reform to win. He developed a new polling technique in which respondents are asked to analyze lengthy policy arguments instead of answering quickie questions. He also became known for small talents--like being able to start his stopwatch and compose a 30-second ad on demand.

But Morris had a reputation for fudging polls to make them to the candidate's liking. He wooed candidates with Pollyanna-ish talk of "permanent" leads, telling them that this ad or this speech would end his troubles. "He sings to me," says Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a former client. "Strings go p-ling in my thoracic cavity. He finds boogie men and sets them up and knocks them down." His ideas were often over the top. At one point he urged Weld to run an ad promoting the use of metal detectors in schools. To make his point, Morris wanted to show a 747 being blown up in the days before airport metal detectors.

He certainly made an impression on Clinton, with whom he has had a love-hate relationship spanning three decades. Morris was there in his first gubernatorial candidacy in 1978 and again in 1982, when Clinton came back after voters threw him from office. They had tastes in common: in 1992, Morris told the Los Angeles Times that when he saw a sexy picture of Dolly Parton taped inside Clinton's bathroom, he knew the two would get along.

Even as Morris drifted to the right, picking up clients like Jesse Helms, he kept his ties to Clinton. In 1990 the conflict between Morris and Clinton grew, with the governor furious about Morris's devoting time to too many other causes. According to some reports, they even came to blows after Morris threatened to quit and work for Clinton's opponent, Sheffield Nelson. (As recently as 1994 Morris was, according to Nelson, approaching him for business and offering inside stories on Clinton.)

But Clinton and Morris never really lost touch. When the Democrats were buried in the midterms in 1994, Clinton called Morris in West Redding, Conn. At first the entreaties were secret, with Clinton initiating late night phone calls to Morris behind the backs of his senior staff, calling him "Charlie" when others were in the room. A parallel operation took shape as Morris began to bring in other political consultants, like pollsters Mark Penn and Doug Schoen.

Morris certainly had his wins. He urged Clinton to embrace a balanced budget. And his quiver of small, popular issues--who's against better meat inspection?--made Clinton into the leader of the society instead of the head of the government.

But Morris's ethical lapses-and absurd flights of ego--hurt him. He couldn't seem to break his ties to Republicans, sharing polling secrets with the Dole camp. And when he was found out, he blamed the indiscretion on George Stephanopoulos. He was caught demanding to be put at the head of the line at his Connecticut dentist's office, insisting that he was "running the country." And he was humiliated by Ickes for turning in exorbitant minibar and movie bills at the Jefferson- a fact that seemed innocuous enough when it was first reported but that now, Morris's enemies are quick to note, raises the possibility that Democratic money found its way into a hooker's purse. In fact, the issue of Morris's expenses has sparked an audit at the Democratic National Committee and at Clinton-Gore '96. Lyn Utrecht, the campaign's general counsel, told NEWSWEEK that she has ordered lawyers to review Morris's expense reports for any irregularities.

Clinton's staff had always treated Dick like chemotherapy, painful but necessary. He angered national-security adviser Anthony Lake by penning ridiculously blustery statements on terrorism and trade. He so infuriated Panetta that the chief of staff issued a memo saying that meetings with Morris had to be cleared with him. He irritated many in the cabinet. When Clinton was developing his plan for a $1,500 tax credit for higher education, Morris kept insisting that Clinton promise fully paid college tuition for all. Robert Reich, Laura Tyson and others forced Morris to back down.

In recent weeks Morris began to annoy more powerful patrons. In preparation for the convention, Morris tried to foist a speech on Hillary Rodham Clinton that she found laughable. And he tried to push a text on Gore. "This speech will transform your career," he told Gore in a meeting, and then proceeded to read the speech out loud. Morris had no interest in Gore's poignant story of his sister's death from lung cancer. Instead he wanted the vice president to offer a minute-by-minute recitation of how Clinton policies shape the average American family's day. Gore, who had been a fan of Morris's, was miffed.

The question now is whether Clinton and Morris can stay apart. The two spoke briefly on the day of Morris's departure. Since then, the First Lady and Gore have called him, too. And White House aides allow that they'll stay in touch--something sure to give Bob Dole and Jay Leno plenty of fodder. The attacks and the humor, however, belie the poignancy of the moment. On the night of Clinton's renomination, Morris gave a small party in his suite at the president's convention hotel. About 25 guests mingled, savoring the president's--and Dick's--triumph. But as pagers began to go off around the room and Morris began to look increasingly worried, it became apparent that something was wrong. As the party broke up, some of the guests sensed that their host was troubled. None, though, had any idea that they might be saying goodbye for a very long time. ..MR.-

68% say Morris's alleged dealings with a prostitute won't make them less likely to vote for Clinton; 67% say it hasn't made them doubt Clinton on family values. ..MR0-