IN January of 1995 the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post was about to publish a very long article by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, based on research Morris had been doing in Arkansas for his new book, Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America (Holt, 526 pages, $27.50). At the very last minute, after eleven weeks with the article, the paper, which had delayed publication three times, began to dither again. Morris and Denton angrily withdrew the piece, and the Washington rumor mill buzzed for a few days. Clinton-haters speculated that the article was all about the use of the Intermountain Regional Airport, in Mena, Arkansas, as the base of operations for secret arms going out to the Nicaraguan contras and cocaine being smuggled back in, with Governor Bill Clinton's connivance, and that this damaging material had been censored by the Post's liberal editors. Clinton supporters said that the article was thin stuff, anonymously sourced, and not up to the rigorous standards of the Post; it had therefore quite properly been spiked. There were jests that Roger Morris -- a principled chap who, with Tony Lake, had resigned from the National Security Council in protest over the 1970 invasion of Cambodia -- had spent too long in Arkansas.
In fact the article was sourced with documents and affidavits, and included intriguing new material. But it was all about Oliver North and George Bush and the contras, and contained very little about Clinton. The Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie, had approved the piece for publication, and after long wranglings the lawyers pronounced themselves satisfied. Printing was then postponed not because of Democratic loyalties but because Robert Kaiser, the managing editor, was struck, he said, by the fact that "our own reporters had looked at this material and found zero grounds to justify the inferences drawn."
The fuss was a classic example of a curious new subculture, the Clinton legends. All sorts of scandalous and criminal things are alleged and believed about Clinton by his enemies, and utterly rejected by his friends, who have spawned their own counterlore about the anti-Clinton conspiracy. The result is an almost Manichean standoff between the loathers and the loyalists, now a feature of Washington life as it once was a feature of Little Rock life. Clinton seems to inspire this kind of antagonistic intensity, and all books about him seem condemned to fuel it.
Roger Morris, whose biography of Richard Nixon was a minor classic, has produced a deeply infuriating sprawl. He keeps abandoning Clinton for extended excursions into the mood of the Reagan years, corruption in Washington, the compromised media, and the Iran-contra affair. One gets the impression that Morris has written a book on each of these topics, shoehorned them all into an occasionally empathetic essay about Bill and Hillary Clinton, and then tossed in a grandiose college thesis about the underlying currents of twentieth-century American political history. In the opening paragraph of a ponderous chapter Morris writes, "In the growing convergence of the Republican and Democratic Parties there was a slow-motion coup d'état in American politics and governance." It goes on to say, torturing the argument into forced relevance, that this process began as Clinton's father died in a car crash in 1946.
is the work of a disillusioned liberal Democrat who spent a lot of time in Arkansas, heard all the gossip about Clinton, and chose to believe most of it. The critical faculties that Morris deployed to such effect in his books on Nixon and Alexander Haig appear suspended in a book that recalls G. K. Chesterton's observation on the end of faith: when people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing but start to believe in absolutely anything.
Morris concludes that "by the spring and summer of 1996 investigators from one congressional committee have begun to gather sworn testimony linking the president of the United States to drug money and organized crime." That is that; no supporting evidence is presented. Take it or leave it.
But Morris can still write arrestingly well, can capture the boomtown atmosphere of Little Rock and its bond markets in the mid-1980s so precisely that the pages almost steam. And there are sections of this book -- among them a haunting account of the degree to which Clinton and his baby half-brother were, like their mother, beaten and abused by their drunken stepfather -- that are better than anything else that has been written about the family. Morris understands how much the man from a town called Hope was really the young slicker from the glittering sleaze of Hot Springs. Far more than any other writer, he also seeks to understand the constraints and tensions within the suburban placidity of Hillary Rodham's childhood. But again, his control slips, and the writing descends into adjectival incontinence.
There was no real hiding the quiet cruelty and pain. The sense of stinted or denied love, a resort to refuge outside the family, the alternating warmth and vitriol, compassion and sarcasm, the tightly controlled yet seething perpetual anger not far beneath the impenetrable shell -- all would be visible in the independent but camouflaged woman she became.
IN short, Morris has produced a psychological study that struts -- one is tempted to say masquerades -- as a definitive investigation into the Clintons of Arkansas. There are lurid accounts of parties in Little Rock at which expensive call girls were burned by cigarette butts and high school girls were given cocaine. (They are presumably included to tar Clinton by association and implication -- there are sly suggestions, rather than firm assertions, that he took part.) And some of Morris's writing has an unpleasantly tabloid quality.
According to numerous witnesses who slowly emerged from the shadows, drug orgies were hardly the governor's only sensual pleasures. . . . Police files brimmed with allegations of drug running, ties to organized crime, and even murder alleging the involvement of a well-known Arkansas businessman and some of the governor's closest supporters.
The sections on Clinton's alleged cocaine use are, in terms of serious evidence, less than convincing. There is no doubt that Clinton's brother, and some of his fundraising circle, used cocaine. Furthermore, Clinton was at least briefly at parties where some people, possibly in other rooms, used cocaine. Big deal. There cannot be many politicians of the 1970s and 1980s of whom that could not be said. The sources Morris cites are dubious: anonymous cops, "a convicted drug dealer and informant," and an apartment manager who claimed to have overheard Clinton and his brother discussing the marijuana they were smoking. There is also a woman who claims that she had an affair with Clinton, was cruelly ditched, and was then threatened by an aide with violence if she talked.