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Is Mark Penn The New "charlie"?

A long print feature has been diverting me, so I've been slow making a point about the demotion/non-firing of Mark Penn. Fortunately, though, Paul Begala has given me a fresh hook today with his declaration that he has "nothing but contempt" for Penn and, especially, his dismay that Penn was not fired but merely demoted. Indeed, as others have already noted, it's not even clear how substantial a demotion it really was.

And that wouldn't surprise me at all. Why? Because the Clintons already have a well-known history of relying heavily, and in secret, on a controversial centrist pollster despised by other members of their inner circle. His name: Dick Morris.

Recall that when the Clintons first brought Morris into their decision-making loop after the disastrous 1994 elections, they did so covertly. Indeed they even gave Morris a secret code name so that other key White House figures--including current campaign honcho Harold Ickes--wouldn't know what was up. 

Here's how Morris himself has recalled that period for "Frontline":

But he wasn't sure that I would work out, and I wasn't sure that I would work out, either. I didn't know if his staff would accept me. ...

From his point of view, he had a liberal Democratic staff that disapproved of everything I would urge. And he wasn't about to announce me with great fanfare if I wasn't able to really make the grade and give him advice that was effective.

So both of us were sort of having a trial marriage. And we both figured it was better for me to be involved secretly. So I made up a code name, "Charlie"--which, by the way, is the name of my favorite Republican political consultant, Charlie Black. And I just thought it was kind of funny that I'd use a Republican name, working for Clinton.

And it was really weird. He would be in meetings with Panetta and his whole staff. And Betty Curry, his secretary, would come in and say, "Charlie's on the phone." And he would say, "Excuse me, that's a call I have to take." And he'd go out into the anteroom and talk to me. And he'd go back in. And they'd all be wondering, "Is this some head of state? Is this some CIA agent or something?" And they had no idea who it was. It was kind of funny.

At some point, the staff realizes that something is going on. They're submitting drafts in the daytime, and the next morning these drafts are coming back with significant, even radical, changes. And the staff says, "Well, there's a day Clinton, and there's a night Clinton."

John Harris's account of the Clinton years, The Survivor, includes this interesting glimpse at how Hillary herself responded to complaints that Morris was a bad guy. "He's a sleazy son of a bitch," Ickes is said to have told Hillary. Harris says that Hillary "made no effort to defend Morris's virtue. Instead, she patiently explained that the consultant knew the practicalities of winning elections, in particular the black art of negative advertising, as well as anyone the Clintons knew. 'He understands the underside,' she said."

Not to play guilt by association, but it's perhaps worth noting that it was Morris who, in turn, brought Mark Penn into Clintonland.

P.S. This is a tangent, but the Morris portrait in George Stephanopoulos's memoir is pretty great. It's 1995 and the young White House aide has just met Morris for the first time:

He was a small sausage of a man encased in a green suit with wide lapels, a wide floral tie, and a wide-collared shirt.  His blow-dried pompadour and shiny leather briefcase gave him the look of a B-movie mob lawyer, circa 1975--the kind of guy who gets brained with a baseball bat for double-crossing his boss.

--Michael Crowley