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Power Plays: Win or Lose – How History’s Great Political Leaders Play the Game by Dick Morris


Rating: (Recommended)


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Whether you think highly of Dick Morris or not, you’re likely to find something to enjoy in his new book, Power Plays: Win or Lose – How History’s Great Political Leaders Play the Game. The structure of the book makes it easy to read in episodes while remaining focused. Morris presents six strategies used by politicians, and uses successful and unsuccessful examples of carrying out each strategy. Here are the six strategies:

1.      Stand on Principle

2.      Triangulate

3.      Divide and Conquer

4.      Reform Your Own Party

5.      Use a New Technology

6.      Mobilizing the Nation in Times of Crisis

The sixth strategy was an add-on following the events of September 11, 2001. The exemplars for successful and unsuccessful approaches are nine U.S. Presidents, five foreign heads of state, and five aspirants for the U.S. presidency. For each strategy, Morris gives a three or four page introduction to the strategy and what he means by it, and then he plunges into the 20 examples. One example of the Use a New Technology strategy was the 1964 presidential campaign where Lyndon Johnson used negative television ads, the first candidate to do so. The most famous of those ads ran as a paid ad only once. Here’s an excerpt from that example:

“An idea was born: Schwartz suggested juxtaposing the countdown with the sound of a little girl counting petals as she pulled them off a daisy.
The concept was brilliant and brutally effective. The final ad showed a little girl in a field pulling the petals from a daisy as she tried to count them: ‘one, two, three, four, five, seven, six, eight, nine, nine,’ she says in her innocent voice. When she reaches ten, a resounding male voice suddenly reverses the count: ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.’ At zero comes a deafening roar, and the screen fills with the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.
Then one hears the voice of Lyndon Johnson: ‘These are the stakes – to make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other, or we must die.’ A reassuring male voice concludes the ad: ‘Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.’ The ad never mentioned Barry Goldwater, but everyone knew that it was about him. As Schwartz later wrote, ‘The commercial evoked a deep feeling in many people that Goldwater might actually use nuclear weapons. This mistrust was not in the daisy spot. It was in the people who viewed the commercial.’ Voters had read about Goldwater’s consideration of using the bomb; now the ad tapped into that fear.
The ad, titled ‘Peace, Little Girl’ and forever known as the ‘daisy spot,’ ran only once, on CBS’ Monday Night at the Movies on September 7, 1964. although it would air only that one time, Moyers recalls, ‘all three networks … picked up on the story and showed the commercial on their evening newscasts, giving the spot millions of dollars of free air time.’ The White House switchboard went nuts. Moyers told Johnson, ‘You got your point across.’ Johnson’s delighted response: ‘You sure we ought to run it just once?’
How should Goldwater have handled the daisy spot? In a 2002 interview with Schwartz – who still spins miracles in his 56th Street office – he had a novel idea. ‘Goldwater should have said, “I dedicate this campaign to banning nuclear war. So I will pay for this ad to air a second time, sponsored by my campaign.”’ If Goldwater could have devised a way to use his own voice instead of Johnson’s at the end of the commercial, it might have worked brilliantly. Had Goldwater simply gotten out of the way of the ad and not accepted that it was targeted at him, he could have ducked the punch deftly enough to make Muhammad Ali proud.
Instead, Goldwater stood up and took it on the chin. ‘Every time I saw that hideous Johnson TV commercial with the little girl, it saddened me to realize that all involved … valued political victory more than personal honesty.’”

Morris’ writing style is conversational. He’s condensed the wide range of strategies down to five or six, and uses examples that will resonate with most readers. Power Plays provides insight on how bright people can succeed and fail in carrying out their strategies.


Steve Hopkins, June 12, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2002 issue of Executive Times


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