What the Yankees Don't Know About Whitewater

In 1994 White House Chief of Staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty made some telephone calls on behalf of his old friend Webster Hubbell. Webb--a former Arkie like McLarty and President Clinton--had just resigned from the Justice Department because of accusations that he'd defrauded his Little Rock law firm. Mack had the nerve to help his buddy find new work. "Hush money," the president's critics called it.Daily newspapers all across America put this shocking tale on their front pages last month. Me, I'm an assistant editor at the San Jose Mercury News, and I might not have run the story at all. But then, having spent some time in Little Rock, I know Mack personally. And I know just how characteristic, and how Southern, such behavior was for the president's friend since their boyhood together in Hope, Ark.Every time I read scandalized stories about Mack's friendship with Webb, I end up wishing that the reporters covering the White House had a better understanding of the South. The suggestion that McLarty's only motivation for helping Hubbell was to keep him from cooperating with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is based upon a fundamental lack of understanding of Mack, of Arkansas, and of the region. That's a distinction common to much of the nonsense that's been lumped together under the salacious catch-all "Whitewater.'People who do understand the rural South are more apt to realize just how stupid this Whitewater thing is. Most of you may not be paying attention to it, but those of us who know Arkansas sure are. And boy does it look different through our eyes.First, there's talk about a conflict of interest. It's no surprise to me that Mack McLarty would lift a finger for a friend embarking upon a new career. He did so twice for me. The first time was in 1985, while he was president of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company. Clinton was governor, and I had just quit my job since I was planning to start an alternative newspaper like the Scene. Shortly after Spectrum received its earliest publicity, I received my first order for a subscription. Mack McLarty's check arrived even before my own parents offered to pay. Over seven-and-a-half years, I don't believe he ever let his subscription lapse.Nine years later, after I moved to California to edit another weekly newspaper, Mack sent me a second letter wishing me well--this one was written on White House stationery no less. The gesture meant a lot to me--even if I found it hard to believe he'd actually taken the time to send it.But that's Arkansas. People are still neighborly there. And conflicts of interest are more numerous because there are so few interests to get conflicted.The whole state reminds me of the movie-trivia game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Perhaps you've heard of it. After one player names an actor, the other players have six moves or less in which to connect that actor to a movie featuring Kevin Bacon. Use the same technique and you can pretty much connect any two Arkies. Which has made it all too easy for some of these half-informed reporters to dive-bomb into Little Rock, fly out a few days later, and then start trading in guilt by association: Person A has loose morals; Person B used to work, sleep, eat, or commingle funds with Person A; hence Person B has loose morals too."You know how it is; you piece together this and that and you make this grand conspiracy," Hubbell recently told the Arkansas Times newspaper, in a rare interview. "But is it some grand conspiracy, or is it Arkansas?"Consider this example: Let's connect me to Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie in six moves. Last January, I received an invitation to a great inaugural wingding thrown by David Pryor Jr. (1), son of U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark. (2), who once ran against U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune (3), an Arkie Republican who is Newt Gingrich's latest lawyer, replacing Jan Baran (4), the GOP general counsel Newt blamed for all that bad legal advice who believes no laws were broken by Supreme Master Ching Hai (5), the Vietnamese religious figure whose followers funneled donations through Charlie Trie (6), a Clinton pal who used to own a Chinese restaurant in Little Rock.The thing is, this link-up doesn't really take me six moves. I've eaten at Trie's restaurant hundreds of times and have met him personally. I know the Pryors and the Bethunes too and have even met the Supreme Master once. And that ain't the half of it.Last year I bought some undeveloped land on the White River, not far from where Clinton's bum land deal went down. My weekly newspaper used to rent space in a building financed by the savings and loan at the center of Whitewater. I took a class alongside its president, John Latham, and once employed his sister as my classified advertising director. I interviewed Vince Foster several times. I worked right across the street from Indonesian financiers Mochtar and James Riady. I used to look out the window of my office and see Clinton jog by. I ran into him and his best friend--yes, Webb Hubbell--every Christmas Eve at a local store. And when my girlfriend and I and gazed out her back door, we were staring at the back of the governor's mansion.Arkansas is a small state, after all. Little Rock--the only place in the state that you'd even call a real city--boasts about as many residents as Knoxville. The whole of Arkansas has less than half the population of Tennessee. There are a handful of major banks, a handful of major law firms, and a handful of major industries. If an S&L needed a top-notch law firm, it had maybe two or three choices. If you wanted to eat Chinese, or hear live country music, you could count the options on one hand.So when it comes to Whitewater, it helps to know that Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan was just about the only S&L making real estate loans in Arkansas in the late '80s. All the rest were investing in Texas land, 'cause that's where the really big money was. (Those other S&Ls folded first, by the way. Serves 'em right too, sending all our money to Dallas.)Not for nothing was "Thank God for Mississippi" our unofficial state slogan. The Magnolia State was usually the only thing that lay between us and the bottom of the heap. Didn't matter which heap either: income, literacy or teenage pregnancy. They were 50th; we were 49th. We were sick and tired of it too.But our time had finally come. Our neighbor had been elected president.Like everybody else in Arkansas, I'd known Clinton for years by the time he ran for president. Ultimately, I covered his 1992 campaign, but then he moved to Washington and I was out of work. So I hightailed it up there myself, to cash in on the action and assume my rightful place among the titans of the news media. It was a stupid idea, I came to realize, but it's one reason I sympathize with all those other Arkies in D.C. I understand their motivation. We were all going off to Washington. If nothing else, at least we'd get to visit the White House. George Bush certainly hadn't invited us over.Sure enough, Clinton had the whole darn state over on his first full day in the joint. While cabinet nominee Zoe Baird was being barbecued before a congressional panel and U.S. jets were bombing Iraq, Clinton spent an afternoon showing off his new digs to a mess of Arkie pals. I bet that seemed like the most natural thing in the world to him too, opening his house to friends.For a while, we ruled. One day I met a friend at the National Press Club. Her Arkansas foundation was introducing itself to the larger world, and she invited me along. On the bus ride downtown, I read in the Washington Post about our takeover: "They're everywhere: Atop the nation's largest retailer [Wal-Mart] and perhaps its hottest department store chain [Dillards]. Commanding a big chunk of prime-time television [Designing Women and Evening Shade]. Controlling a huge interstate transport network [J.B. Hunt Trucking]. Wielding America's largest family fortune [the heirs of Sam Walton]. Reigning, as owner and coach [Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson] of the Super Bowl champions [Dallas Cowboys], over the National Football League."Across the land, prizes of the American establishment lie crushed under the hooves of the rampaging razorbacks like sclerotic Russian dukes trampled by Bolsheviks." I was feeling pretty good as I got off that bus. Then, glancing in a nearby restaurant, I saw my state representative.Like I said, we were everywhere. We all knew one another too.That's why I'm so irked by all the guilt-by-association theorizing that's needed to hold this Whitewater thing together. So Hubbell did defraud the Rose Law Firm and several of his clients of nearly $500,000 years ago; what's that got to do with whether Clinton's a good president? If anything, the president is poorer for knowing Webb, since some of that pilfered money should have gone to Hillary instead.Some of us Washington Arkies quickly realized we were out of place and moved elsewhere. Others still work in D.C. today and do a fine job. But a few let it go to their heads and got into trouble. They're the only ones you read about. Actually, most of the country's Arkie problems are well behind it now--except Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but that's another rant, I suppose.Weren't regional stereotypes supposed to be a thing of the past? Wasn't Jimmy Carter supposed to have changed everything for Southerners?In an article in Esquire written way back in November 1976, humorist Larry L. King proclaimed that the South's vow to rise again was fulfilled at the very moment that Jimmy Carter accepted his party's nomination for president. At that point, King wrote, rednecks throughout the South rose to their feet, sloshed their bourbon, and proclaimed in a single voice, "We ain't trash no more."We Southerners had been fretting about the trash issue since way back in the early 1950s. That's when political scientist V.O. Key--the Old Grand-Dad of experts on the topic--wrote, in his book Southern Politics, "Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi." Growing up in Florida, I hadn't yet formed an opinion on Mississippi when I first ran into Key's book, which is probably why I prefer the way King put it:"You've called us everything but ladies and gentlemen: hillbillies, lintheads, woolhatters, rednecks. You've made no distinctions between those of us who produce clear fruit-jar whiskey or pale idiot children and those of us who've went to Harvard. Let us go off in a corner to have a little talk with Jesus, and you suspect us of chunking snakes, catching fevers, and talking in tongues."But on the eve of the Carter era, King and lots of others predicted a bold new day for us Southerners. Saturday Review devoted an entire section to "The South as the New America." Time magazine went them one better, allocating the South an unheard-of 72 pages in its Sept. 27, 1976, issue--welcoming us back to the Union, in essence.Those of you who paid attention to Clinton's first presidential campaign know that all the hype was hogwash. You can go all the way back to the days of H.L. Mencken, but for out-and-out regional prejudice, you certainly can't do much better than a paragraph from the April 14, 1992, Village Voice:"The fact that the Arkansas governor is known to golf at a whites-only club; that he runs a state with no civil rights statute; a powerful Klan holdout where the Aryan Brotherhood runs preparedness camps; and where the legalized near-slavery of sharecropping is alive and thriving, doesn't seem to tarnish his luster. As a Southern homeboy, his advantage is, of course, genetic." While nothing else I've read quite oozes the same Northeastern arrogance, hundreds if not thousands of subsequent articles and comments have been founded upon the same assumptions.It's not that the president is without sin, mind you. But where's the beef? The Clintons lost money on their rocky plot of land, and the government ultimately shut down their partner's S&L. And anyone who's actually been to north central Arkansas knows how ludicrous it is to think of Clinton's Whitewater development as anything other than a really dumb place to build a residential community. I like the way my friend Gene Lyons made this point in his book Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater:"The problem with the Whitewater site, from a developer's point of view, is that it's on the wrong side of the White River. The only road in and out is Arkansas Highway 101, narrow, steep, and curvy even by Ozark standards. It's roughly a half-hour drive from to Flippin (pop. 1,100), the nearest town with a grocery store and bait shop--and until 1994 required crossing a one-lane bridge over Crooked Creek. Good-paying jobs in the area are scarce. The nearest town with a hospital and a golf course--assuming Whitewater hoped to attract retirees--is the Baxter County seat of Mountain Home, roughly 45 minutes away. Marion County, where Whitewater is located, is also dry." Some scandal, huh?Clearly, the president hasn't been very careful about who gives him money or comes to visit. And sure, it's probably not a good idea to take campaign contributions from China or to let their arms dealers visit the White House. But it's not like Clinton bought any weapons, is it? He was just being polite. That stuff still matters in Arkansas.Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr has been on the job for more than two-and-a-half years--wasting about $28 million of our money--and he hasn't yet managed to produce any proof or even charges of criminal conduct by the president. And still a federal judge just gave him six more months to snoop around.The actions of the first lady--identified by Starr as a "central figure" in his investigation--are certainly more complex. Hillary Clinton hasn't been very candid about her law practice, and she seems to have done all she could to keep Vince Foster's name out of the news.Of course, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Hillary might try to shield her friend's family from trauma after his suicide. After all, they'd been close for more than a decade. This impulse would explain the series of secretive actions Hillary took to gather his effects and minimize press coverage after his death. Foster's suicide also would explain the reason that McLarty and others in the White House were concerned about the well-being of Webb Hubbell after he resigned. After all, Webb and Foster had been friends and colleagues for years.But even Hillary's most unappealing behavior has roots in Southern culture, I believe. For the better part of a decade, we of the Arkansas media gave Hillary a free ride, without intrusive scrutiny, because we were ashamed that she thought she had to change her name from Rodham to Clinton to get her husband re-elected. Consequently, Hillary had no preparation for the unprecedented level of interest her actions would receive once she moved to the White House. In fighting for her privacy, and seeking to resist inquiries into her business and personal affairs, I think Hillary was just clinging to the rare degree of freedom we granted her in Arkansas. The more pressing the inquiries became, the more desperate her resistance grew.The jury's still out on Hillary, it's clear. But then, I don't recall casting any votes for Mrs. Clinton anyway.The most destructive thing about Whitewater is all this nonsense about how Whitewater will bring the government to its knees. How many times have we heard that about Bill Clinton before? After all, Clinton was once a mortally wounded Democrat who couldn't possibly overcome six rivals for his party's 1992 presidential nomination. And he was a bloodied party nominee with no chance of unseating the GOP incumbent with the highest job-approval rating in history. And he was a weak and irrelevant president bound to lose his job to one of several Republican challengers. It's true; Clinton was all of those people. But he's also the man who fell mere days shy of replacing Orval Faubus as the longest-sitting Arkansas governor, and he's the first Democratic president since F.D.R. to be elected to a second term.The worst thing about Whitewater is that it lets Clinton off the hook on all the stuff that really matters. Like whether he's going to save Social Security and Medicare, or what kind of relations we're going to have with China, or whether he's too scared of health care to ever think about it again, or why he broke his promise to cut our taxes. Fact is, there are much better reasons to pick on Bill. I should know; I've been doing it for almost 15 years now.Let's just complain about the right stuff.


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