Former chief strategist to President Clinton, Dick Morris was once described in Time magazine as the most influential private citizen in America. He has worked in election campaigning for over twenty years and was political advisor to Clinton in 1978 when he was Arkansas governor. As special advisor to President Clinton, Morris met with him on a regular basis in the Treaty Room at the White House.
Morris had worked with Richard Scruggs on asbestos litigation. When Scruggs told him of his intention to sue tobacco companies, Morris conducted a poll in Mississippi to weigh public reaction. Morris had personal reasons for wanting to sue the tobacco industry. In September 1993, Morris’ mother, a lifelong smoker, died of cancer. Morris was also born two pounds 11 ounces premature and almost died because his mother chain-smoked during her pregnancy.
Morris asked Scruggs for help in convincing the President that this was a good issue. Scruggs paid for a poll in the five tobacco states (North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee). It showed that the public was strongly against teen smoking and tobacco was a major health concern. After seeing the poll data, President Clinton decided to act. He proposed new anti-tobacco regulations that would restrict marketing to children and give the FDA the authority to determine if nicotine was an addictive drug.
FRONTLINE interviewed Dick Morris in January 1998.
Q. Could you explain, given your political expertise and background, how dangerous was it before, let’s say 1994, for a politician, someone like Mike Moore to take on the tobacco industry.
Morris: I believe that there were three sort of protected industries in America that everybody agreed you don’t touch. The Mob, the tobacco companies and the beer companies.
The beer companies still are sacrosanct, they get away with it. Reagan was very aggressive in cracking down on the Mob and the other–and that’s followed. But tobacco enjoyed a charmed life in American politics until about the mid-1990s and the assumption was that you could never take them on. That they were absolutely the giants of American politics. You just didn’t mess with heavyweights.
Remember the old stuff about Jim Brown. You don’t spit on Superman’s cape–you know walk on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t mess with the Lone Ranger, you don’t fool around with Jim. Well, that’s how people I think felt about the tobacco companies. And the irony of that was that it took a–a pygmy to take them on because the giants were too scared.
That is the courage of Mike Moore to do that.
Q. So to politicians, the tobacco industry was Darth Vader?
Morris: Yes. It was the source of a vast amount of money, an incredible amount of advertising. Erskine Bowles told me when we were considering the tobacco initiative, “Don’t pick on somebody that spends six billion a year in advertising.” And you know that was–that made some good sense.
Q. So it took a pygmy as you put it. The pygmy is Mike Moore.
Morris: The giants turned away and it took one man who believed that he could use the court system to bring about justice. The beauty of our court system is that anybody can enter the court and sue. Uh, you have to be appointed to be in the Executive Branch. You have to be elected to be in the Legislative Branch, but anybody can go into court. And Mike Moore basically said, “I’m anybody, and I’ve got basically a free lawyer in Dick Scruggs who’s willing to front all the money that’s required and all the time and all the energy and uh I’m willing to do it.”
And the beauty of this, the amazing thing about it is this was such a incredibly courageous idea and it took me so long personally to understand what he was doing. That he was suing over Medicaid. It was just uh, a very unusual idea. And he really singlehandedly brought about the changes that are going on the country today. And he did it, not as Attorney General. He did it as just a regular plaintiff.
Q. You said you had a hard time understanding it at first. Do you remember when it was explained to you?
Morris: I had been working with Scruggs on some of the asbestos litigation he had been doing and uh, he called me and he said, “I’m going to go after tobacco.” And I said, “Well, great. But what’s, but, most people are losing in these smoker lawsuits. They don’t believe that the cigarette companies have liability about people who have died as a result of smoking.”
He said, “No. We have a new theory. The State of Mississippi is going to sue and to say that the tobacco companies owe us money for the people who we’ve been treating for lung cancer and emphysema and heart disease and that the cigarette companies should pay for that treatment.”
And I said, “You mean actually charge them for the treatment?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Under what theory?” And he said, “Well, the theory of any liability, that their misbehavior, and their selling products that kill people caused this liability and that they should be required to pay for it.”
And it was a fascinating theory. So I said, “Well, I don’t know if anybody’s going to buy that, but that’s incredible.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you do a poll on it?” So I did a poll in Mississippi and I outlined it to people. And at first blush we got 55 that agreed and 40 that opposed.
Q. Fifty-five that agreed to what?
Morris: We had 55 percent that said that tobacco companies should pay and 40 percent that said that they shouldn’t. And after we went through the argumentation on both sides, pro and against–
Q. In your poll.
Morris: In the poll.
Q. So you went down to New Orleans to do what?
Morris: Well, Scruggs asked me to meet with all of the anti-smoking lawyers, to test the viability of this weird idea of suing over Medicaid. And I went to them and showed them the poll that we’d done in Mississippi. And the poll showed that about 55 percent of the people, off the first blush would vote for the plaintiff’s position that the tobacco companies would have to pay, and that with some arguments on both sides for and against, you could get it up to 65 percent.
And I said, “Hey, if you need three-quarters of a jury to win this, maybe you can.” Because there clearly is good, solid public consensus. And the data showed that the people really believed–number one that smoking caused these diseases; but number two, they also believed that these cigarette companies were targeting kids.
They had absolutely no doubt that the purpose of cigarette advertising was to go after the kids and that was a very, very important element of it, of making this whole case work.
Q.What was your sense of Dick Scruggs?
Morris: I thought that he was a regular lawyer, litigating to make money and that he had this really good thing going because there were so many people that were sick from asbestos in this–the area of Mississippi where the shipyard was.
You know, he was doing very well financially. But then as he became more involved in tobacco, I began to realize that this was not a profit-making thing on his part. This was a holy crusade. This was sort of something he was dedicating his life to. And uh, I really believe, and came to believe that if he didn’t make a penny out of this uh, it would be fine for him.
I think he made all the money he would need for the rest of his life in the asbestos litigation. And I think he basically decided he would dedicate it to fighting tobacco. I think Dick Scruggs is probably one of the most idealistic people I know. He puts the rest of us to shame.
Q. This is coming from hard-nosed Dick Morris.
What can–was there an incident, something happened that convinced you that this guy wasn’t in it for the money or just to win?
Morris: Well, a lot of times as we talked about the proposed tobacco settlement, I would say I thought a real vulnerability here was the attorneys’ fees and–because they were pretty large. And I said, “The tobacco companies and people will pick on that aspect of it, and, and they’ll pick it to death.”
And he said, “Well, look, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if I make a dime off of this. I don’t care if I lose money, for the millions that we’ve put out in this thing. I’m just determined to see this through.” And at first I just thought that was a speech. But then, the more we talked about the formula and who would get what and how that would work, it became very clear that he literally was willing to make nothing from it. Literally.
Q. So you believe that Dick Scruggs is in it for the issue?
Morris: Yeah, idealism isn’t fashionable in America these days and it certainly is suspect. But I think that he is one of the truly publicly spirited people around. I think that he decided that he made a lifetime’s worth of money off of the asbestos stuff, that he was just going to basically spend the rest of his life fighting tobacco. And if he got money for it, fine. If he didn’t get money for it, fine. But he was going to go after it.
And you know, he put his whole law practice on hold. He uh, basically stopped taking any other cases. He focused all of his energies and resources on this tobacco litigation. And he didn’t have all that good a chance of success. I mean, if he was a pragmatist, he was a pretty stupid pragmatist. There were a lot of better targets he could have–you know, people get hurt in automobile accidents every day. He could have focused on that.
Q. So, you took this, in a sense–by the time you went back to the White House, 95… Did you talk to them about this litigation? Did you talk to the President about it?
Morris: Yeah. Starting around January or February of 95, I raised with the President the tobacco issue, because I thought Henry Waxman, the Congressman from California had done a very fine job of focusing attention on the issue.
But then there was kind of the assumption that with the Republican victory that the deregulation, anti-regulation forces were in the driver’s seat. And I knew from my polling in Mississippi how strongly people in what’s after all is the most conservative state in the country, felt about that issue.
So I told the President that I thought this could be a really good issue for us to focus on.
Q. Give me a sense of the conversation. You’re in his living room, the Oval Office, where are you?
Dick Morris: We would meet in the Treaty Room it’s called, which is in the President’s residence. And it’s his office. And there’s this huge picture on the wall with William McKinley settling the Spanish American War and behind you there’s a picture of Abe Lincoln, an original oil painting of Lincoln and Admiral Farragut and General Sherman and General Grant on a river boat settling the Civil War strategy. And then there’s his desk and then there’s his book case of his personal book collection. So it’s really a heady and a very intimate kind of atmosphere.
Q. Subject of the day was?
Morris: Well, it was part of our weekly meetings. We’d meet every week, initially alone and then with others. It became kind of a strategy meeting. and I said, “You know, we ought to look at tobacco down the road as an issue we could focus on. And he just kind of grunted. He looked at me and, you know, just nodded and it was kind of lightly and in passing.
Then we were looking for issues that we could take the offense on. We were playing defense on school lunches, defense on Head Start, defense on Medicaid, defense on Medicare, defense on education, defense on environment. And we were looking for something–I was looking for something where we could take the offense. Where we could really go out with a new proposal.
And as the President was beginning to move towards the center on the balanced budget and stuff like that, I thought just strategically, it would be a good idea to have an issue where we were really going out left. Where we were really being very aggressive and very active.
And then, I guess, two influences combined in my mind. One was that I knew from my work with Scruggs how incredibly deeply the American people felt about this stuff. And in September of 1993, just about a year and a half before all this happened my mother died of cancer after a lifetime of smoking and that affected me. And I also personally was born two pounds 11 ounces, premature and almost died and my mother chainsmoked during my pregnancy and had no idea in 1947 that that caused premature birth. So tobacco almost killed me and it killed my mother. So I took it personally.
Q. Well, there is this way in this issue, whether you’re Hubert Humphrey, with his father, and other people, that there’s a personal connection to this issue.
Morris: Yeah. And, and I felt it, and I felt that it was politically good. But that really wasn’t enough to make it work. That was just kind of the beginning of the process.
Q. And this is at the time that the FDA is getting ready to propose regulation of cigarettes?
Morris: The FDA’s thinking about it. And, um, we’re now around March or April or May. Then, um, in early July, the President gave a speech at Georgetown University where he really talked about a values agenda in our politics. He said that we need to basically move from an exclusive focus on dollars and cents to something where we’re really focusing on values.
And I think that that gave the whole anti-tobacco thing a new spark in terms of the thinking that kind of catalyzed it. Because I think that it–that he was very clear that the anti-tobacco stuff would be kind of the one of the centerpieces of that new agenda. So I think that was, an important part of the calculus.
Q. But did he bring up the fact that, “Hey, Dick, tobacco. They’re the Darth Vader of politics”?
Morris: Well, he was scared to death of losing Kentucky and losing Tennessee because he felt it could get tight in the electoral college when the reelection came. And he felt that this would absolutely wipe him in those two states. And he was a little worried about Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, but he pretty well figured he wouldn’t win those states anyway.
But I kept telling him that even in those states, there was a strong probably a strong majority in favor of banning tobacco companies’ efforts aimed at kids. You see, at that point, the anti-tobacco cause had not really distinguished adults from children. They had focused on smoking as a whole as being a health issue in general.
And the contribution that, I guess, I perhaps had the most to do with was to say that, that voters felt one way about kids and teenagers and another way about adult smoking. When you talk about restrictions on adult smoking, you basically had about 40-50 disagreement–45 on one side, 45 on the other. It was a real split community. But when you talk about restrictions on teen smoking and on advertising to kids and of targeting kids, you have about 80 percent that wanted to crack down hard.
And the the funny thing about it, the amazing thing about it is people that have never smoked didn’t switch, they were always anti-tobacco. People who had smoked and quit, were always anti-tobacco. So they didn’t switch.
The difference was smokers, people who were now smoking were almost unanimous against restrictions on adult smoking, but 70 or 80 percent in favor of restrictions on teen smoking. Because they were hooked and they were basically say that “I know that I smoked when I was 12 years old and they were not very sentimental about the process.”
They are flipping. They gave you the votes that made this politically viable.
Q. So Scruggs tells us that you called him at one point and asked him “can you do a poll in the tobacco states, because I need the information for my discussions with Clinton.”
Morris: That’s right.
Q.Tell me how that happened.
Morris: Well, as it turns out the–I did the poll.
Voters absolutely felt that cigarette companies were targeting kids.
We asked them in one question, “Do you think cigarette companies advertise to get people to switch brands, to get people to smoke more or to get children to start smoking?” And 80 percent said “children to start smoking” and only 20 percent said the other two answers or weren’t sure. They got it. They knew what Joe Camel was about and the Marlboro Man and all that.
But the President said, “Okay, well this’ll be the issue. But I’ll lose two states. I’ll get killed in these two states.” I remember he once said to me, he said, “I’m going to get a one-day story and I’ll lose two states.” So I said, “Well–”
Q. Was he laughing?
Morris: No. He wasn’t laughing. He was deadly serious. Because he felt that you know, he would get a nice one-day story and it would look good, and then he’d get killed in two states that he absolutely had to win.
So I did a survey in five states… in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, which were the five tobacco states. And we asked people, “Who are you voting for?”
And then we said–we talked about the anti-smoking stuff being aimed at kids, and we said, “If Clinton backs this would you vote for him? And we found that in every single one of these states he gained by taking this position, as long as it was aimed at kids, at teenagers. And uh, he was shocked by that. He was absolutely blown away by that.
Q. What’d he say?
Morris: He was shocked. He said, “In other words, it’s not adult smoking, it’s teen smoking?” And I said, “Yeah, this is–as far as their concerned, smokers see it as a subset of the drug issue.” You know, not the civil liberties issue, and not seatbelts and that kind of stuff. They see it as basically a drug issue and a character issue and it was a whole new perspective for him in that sense.
So that was significant, and I think that was very important. But the absolute key intervention was Gore. Because Gore was from Tennessee. And, I remember at the seminal meeting when he really decided to go ahead in early July. We were pondering it and he was thinking about it.
Erskine, who usually–Erskine Bowles the current Chief of Staff–who usually was an ally of mine, was here against it because he’s from North Carolina. He favored it in principle but he was scared to death of the tobacco companies. He said, “Let’s don’t go against somebody that spends a billion dollars in advertising.” And the President turned to Gore, he President was sitting in a wing chair, in front of the table and Gore was sitting at the edge of the couch, right over here and he turned to Gore after everybody had spoken and he said, “Al, what do you think?”
And you know, Gore always speaks like he’s giving a Supreme Court opinion. And he said, “Well, Mr. President, the history of this issue goes back, blah-blah-blah and he was, you know, like writing for the Court majority. And he said, “Listen, early in my political career, an issue came up about labeling on the cigarette packs to say this–the health warnings that you see.” And he said, “I had to vote on that, and I decided to vote in favor of that. And I thought I was ending my political career.” From Tennessee voting in favor of that.
And he said, “I would go before tobacco farmers and I would say, “I voted for this because I don’t want your kids to smoke. Do you want your kids to smoke?” And he said, “None of the tobacco farmers wanted their kids to smoke. And they really identified with it. They understood it and they voted for me, even though it hurt their economic interests. Because it was their children.”
And he said, “Mr. President, I am deeply convinced that if you do this, it’s not going to hurt you politically, it’s not going to cost you Tennessee. It’s not going to cost you Kentucky and it’s going to be a very important advance for public health.” And I think that decided Clinton. Because he wanted to do it anyway, but when the former Senator from Tennessee was saying it’s not going to cost you Tennessee, that I think was the decisive moment with him.
Q. That’s when he let Commissioner Kessler issue his regulations.
Morris: Yes. When he endorsed those regulations I think that he–there ensued a couple of weeks there where he was talking with Governor Hunt of North Carolina and was, I think, hoping for a negotiated solution with the tobacco companies. But I think he understood that he wasn’t going to get that and that he should go straight ahead.
Morris: When Clinton decided to take on tobacco it was really very close to the absolute low point of his presidency. Uh, his popularity was very far down, he had been battered by the Republican Congress which had passed a lot of its programs and um, this was a, this was an act that was taken by a president who was looking at the face of extinction.
Uh, whatever you think of Bill Clinton, it’s clear that this was the single most courageous moment of his presidency. The single most courageous moment.
Q. His willingness to take on the people no one else would ever take on?
Morris: Exactly, his willingness to take on this mass collection of power and money and uh, and political clout that the tobacco industry represents.
He took on the NRA. The NRA is probably a tenth as potent as the tobacco companies were. He took on the pro-life people. They’re probably a tenth as potent as tobacco. To take on the tobacco was just extraordinary. And the interesting thing about it, it is that while he probably came to believe that maybe this wouldn’t cost him two states, he sure didn’t believe this would help him.
Because he didn’t really believe that America would get energized about tobacco. It wasn’t a national issue. It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody was talking about it back then. And, uh, he was kind of rescuing the issue from the dust heap. It had fallen by the way side.
Q. Now during this period of time, according to Dick Scruggs, you are the Prime Minister, as he put it. You were talking to Trent Lott. Who was, at one time, or was still your client as well.
Morris: At one time was my client, right.
Q. Yeah. What was Lott’s reaction to all this?
Morris: Well, Trent had a weird relationship with Scruggs. Uh, he would always refer to Scruggs as “my no good scum-suckin’ brother-in-law.” And when I met with him in the future and I wanted to refer to Scruggs, I would say he’s the “NGSSBIL” the initials of that “no good scum-suckin’ brother-in-law.” So he kind of saw Scruggs as this crazy Liberal who he was related to by marriage. Who he liked a great deal. He had a very real affection for him.
But Trent uh, didn’t and I think that he really was sensitized on that issue. And I think he was really uncomfortable with the tobacco industry and I think that one of Scruggs’s key aces in the hole here is his relationship with Trent.
Q. Is that why Scruggs turned up in Trent Lott’s suite at the 96 Republican Convention?
Morris: Okay. Well, the sisters are very close, Trent’s wife and Dick’s wife are very close and Dick’s wife is very involved in this and feels very passionately about it.
Q. During this period of your being the Prime Minister–
Morris: That’s your phrase not mine.
Q. Well, that’s Dick Scruggs’s phrase.
Q. The go-between between Lott and [Clinton], right?
Q. What stands out as sort of your feeling that these guys really were together actually on this issue?
Morris: Well, most of the time I–I didn’t really deal with Trent on tobacco very much until April or May of 96 when Scruggs told me that the tobacco companies were suing for peace. That they had reached out to him and said they were interested in settling these lawsuits. And at that time it seemed that it was very possible for that to happen in 1996.
And uh, as I mentioned, Trent had kind of designated some people to help put this together, and those were the negotiations that were going on. So I kept the President closely informed of what Scruggs was doing and Scruggs kept Trent closely informed of what he was doing. And uh, I kept the President aware of the fact and constantly focusing on the fact that Trent was probably moving with Scruggs and that therefore he probably could count on helping Congress and getting this thing done.
It was the willingness of Lott and the Republicans to be part of the process uh, that gave it sense of political reality to it. As opposed to pie in the sky.
Q. Did the President ever say, “I want to settle because I want to show them we’ve accomplished this.”? Or, was he reluctant to settle and say, “Listen. We wounded em, we better kill em.”?
Morris: The President was thrilled at the idea that this could be settled. He was absolutely euphoric about it.
Q. Did he jump out of his seat or what?
Morris: He said, “You mean they really could do this? I mean we really could bring this about?” Just, he was just excited about it. Uh, and constantly, whenever I would brief him on the talks and stuff he would say, “That’s great. Great. Let’s just keep going. Keep going, that’s terrific.”
Gore was apprehensive about it. Gore is much more– read the fine print and pay attention to the details. And Gore had a very cynical view of the tobacco industry, and felt that they couldn’t possibly mean anything in good faith, and that if they were going to give you a concession then there was something that they had in the back of their mind that you didn’t know about. They were smarter than you were. And that they had some–
Q. Did he say that?
Morris: Yeah, in effect. And that they had some marketing gimmick that they would pull out of the hat at the last minute and would screw it all up. And he told me early on that he would look to three people to give him advice on this. Uh, Kessler, Waxman and, Myers from the smoking coalition, the anti-smoking coalition.
And, um, I relayed that back to Scruggs and that’s the time when Scruggs reached out to Myers from the Coalition Against Smoking to get him into these talks and these negotiations because he would be so influential with Gore. Um, so the state of play really in the White House in the April, May, June, July, August of 1996 period was eager anticipation of the possibility of a tobacco deal by the President and tremendous concern and caution on the part of the Vice President.
Q. And then the trial balloon, or the week in September destroyed the whole process?
Morris: Derailed it for this time. There was no longer a chance of getting it through before the election.
Q. Okay. And then we have from Scruggs and from Moore the history of the deal progressing. You know they backed away and then–what do you think brought the tobacco industry back to the table. Back to, you know–?
Morris: Well, the macro of any negotiation is that the only time you can cut a deal is when both sides are hurting. If either side is, is well and feeling happy, you can’t get a deal. Then they go for victory. You need–if they’re willing to settle for things the other side can live with, it’s because they’re hurting a little bit.
And the tobacco companies at the beginning of this process weren’t hurting at all. They were winning everything, that they encountered. Then they began to see their vulnerability with these Medicaid lawsuits, when state after state after state followed Mississippi’s model and filed these lawsuits, uh they, the potential liability piled up and they were really scared. Uh, frankly, if they lose two or three of these lawsuits they’re going to go broke, and this is a very serious issue for them.
Q. Scruggs and Moore, once they announced their deal in June of 97, uh, in their words, “descended into the swamp of Washington.” They say they learned a lot of lessons. They really did not realize that it was a town where people told you one thing in private and then something else in public.
Q. Did they talk to you about that?
Morris: Yes. I think that Scruggs and Moore were so used to fighting the tobacco companies that they were unused to fighting a two-front war, with the tobacco companies in front of them and the public health companies in the rear. Because the public health community basically said, “Thanks for the gains, now get lost. We want to kill these guys. We don’t want to make a deal with them.”
And whereas the President strongly believed that this should be limited to stopping teen smoking, the public health community wants to wipe out cigarette companies entirely and make everyone that smokes not have cigarettes anymore. I mean that, that’s their goal and it’s laudable, but impractical.
So, um, Scruggs and Moore I don’t think were prepared for the splash on the Left over this issue, and I think they were shocked by it. And then, I think they expected Clinton to stand up and deal and tame the Left and get a deal going.
But I think Clinton basically took the position of, “Why should I do this when the courts are going to do it? The courts are probably going to rule against the FDA. If they do then that’ll give me the ammunition to put a deal together.”
But then I think Clinton also realized because he’s a marvelous student of the practical, that if the courts ruled in favor of the public health groups and against the cigarette industry that no force on earth was going to constrain them. Then there was just going to be rout, and frankly I don’t think Clinton weeps over tobacco companies. I don’t think he cares much if those companies die.
Uh, he’s not going to be too grieved about that and at that point, you know, the Huns sack Rome. And then who knows where it goes? Uh, but I think that his feeling was that he would only attempt to impose a deal when there was a reason to do it, which is that it was the only way he could get FDA jurisdiction.
Q. One last question. You placed this issue, this whole thing on a macro level that is beyond belief in terms of what the politics can accomplish and all of this came out of a bunch of guys in Mississippi in Pascagoula?
Morris: When the history of the 20th century is written, there are going to be some pretty obscure people who are entitled to sainthood. And they’re not going to be well-known. Nobody is going to know their names, and um, I don’t know if they’ll go on to do anything else in their lives. I don’t know what their futures hold. But Scruggs and Moore have earned their place in heaven.