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Behind the Oval Office

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The most fascinating character in Dick Morris’ 346-page wonk-fest, Behind the Oval Office, is a woman who’s mentioned only a few times. No, it’s not ”the prostitute,” as Morris piously refers to Sherry Rowlands, whose toes he reportedly sucked before their affair became public, forcing him to resign his job as President Clinton’s chief political strategist.

Rather it is Eileen McGann, his long-suffering wife of 20 years, who announced her decision to end her marriage to Morris just a week before this book’s publication. McGann’s move to dump Morris was the first sign that she wasn’t the maddening doormat she seemed to be when she loyally stood by Morris after the Rowlands scandal, and later, when it was revealed that Morris had fathered a child with an ex-prostitute in Texas.

She surfaces only occasionally in this otherwise turgid and predictable swamp of self-aggrandizing campaign analysis, political theory, and White House power struggles. The book traces Morris’ long relationship with Clinton, whom he began working with in 1977 during the President’s Arkansas gubernatorial run, but concentrates mostly on how he reshaped the presidency after 1994’s disastrous midterm elections and guided Clinton to a second term.

With the exception of McGann, everyone in Behind the Oval Office is essentially a corporate toad — bowing and scraping, back-stabbing and fawning, to the gods of politics and power. In 1995, for instance, Bill Clinton agreed grudgingly to taking a camping vacation out West instead of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he really wanted to go, because Morris pointed out that hikers and campers made up a big part of the swing vote. Morris himself endured vicious tongue-lashings by the volatile President as if Morris were a hapless TV producer whose fortunes were tied to a temperamental, million-dollar anchorman. As for Hillary Clinton, Morris describes her as ”crying her eyes out” over the pounding she took in the press in 1994 for her high profile in the White House.

McGann, strangely enough, seems to be the only person with a backbone, the only one not willing to bend like a political pretzel to accommodate outside whims. She made no secret of her occasional distaste for Clinton. ”Each time he calls and Eileen answers or when they meet at a reception,” Morris writes, ”he focuses his six feet two inches of oozing charm on her — though usually with little effect.” She once refused to accept a phone call from Clinton because she was annoyed at how he treated Morris. When Morris and his wife were ordered by the White House to file financial-disclosure forms, a move orchestrated in December 1995 by Morris’ archenemy, Clinton political adviser Harold Ickes, McGann balked at filing hers, and the White House backed off.

At the end, when the Star tabloid broke the Rowlands scandal, Morris writes that ”[McGann] was furious in private and fiercely loyal in public….She battled for me like a tigress.”

Morris’ final chapter involves his emotional post-scandal conversation with the President. He seems desperate to avoid losing touch with Clinton, who assures him, somewhat disingenuously, that Morris will always have access to him. Morris should have worried a lot more about losing McGann.

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