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Clinton's Resurgence: Having to Say You're Sorry

THERE'S a fellow working behind the scenes these days who just might be the most influential person in America - someone who should have vied with Newt Gingrich as Time Magazine's Man of the Year. He's Richard Morris, the political consultant and pollster who seems to have revived two of Bill Clinton's careers simply by telling him to say he's sorry.

One can't be too sure about how much the president listens to Mr. Morris. Top Clinton aides insist he talks to Morris but in the end always makes his own political decisions on whatever is advised. And two White House correspondents have told me that Clinton always calls the shots, because he is such a master politician.

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But let's turn to Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Maraniss's account of Clinton's comeback in 1982 after his ouster from the Arkansas governorship in 1980 following a two-year term. A downcast Clinton, who hadn't gotten over feeling miserable and rejected after his defeat, called upon Morris to help get him back into the governor's mansion.

According to Maraniss's book, "First in His Class," Morris told Clinton there was, indeed, a way back, "but first Clinton had to apologize" for the mistakes he had made as governor. "Morris conceived the notion of a public mea culpa, a television advertisement in which Clinton announced his comeback bid by saying he was sorry." It was an unorthodox, risky way to try to rekindle support in the voters. But it worked. And a bouncy, optimistic Clinton was soon back as governor and already beginning to plan for a presidential bid.

After that, the Clinton relationship with Morris cooled. Indeed, Maraniss relates an incident when, during one of their frequent yelling matches, Governor Clinton poked Morris, a little man at least a head shorter. Clinton quickly apologized.

Clinton never liked Morris's lack of ideological involvement in the political campaigns in which he gave advice. So they pulled apart, Morris going on to provide help for several Republican candidates, including Sen. Jesse Helms.

Then came the 1994 elections, which saw the Clinton administration rebuffed and the resultant GOP Congress, with Mr. Gingrich leading the way, taking Washington's prime power role away from the president. Once again, as he had as a defeated governor, Clinton felt rejected. He saw his chances of reelection slipping away. And so he once again called upon Dick Morris to help lead him out of the wilderness.

We don't know what Morris said to Clinton. But look at what's happened since Morris came on board last summer: First there was Clinton's surprise admission to a business group in Houston that he had raised taxes too much. Then came the long phone call schmoozing with a columnist, in which Clinton admitted that he had gotten a lot of things wrong. He said he shouldn't have made a first priority of supporting homosexuals in the military; he said he had spent much too much time and effort on his health- care program. He seemed to be saying that he had been ineffective and he was sorry about it.

Then Clinton talked at length to reporters on Air Force One about the "funk" the American people were in. A few days later he told news media assembled at a Monitor lunch that he "misspoke" in using the word "funk." He went on to say that he had meant to convey the thought that the United States was going through a technological and cultural change of immense proportions and that he should have provided better leadership to deal with this new national climate.

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Well, as I see it, we have been treated to another Morris-orchestrated mea culpa of the 1982 Arkansas variety. It was the start of Clinton's comeback then and, it seems, it has now begun a big and perhaps lasting Clinton political resurgence.

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