Clinton Scandals, Inc.

Whitewater, the author writes, exemplifies the old saw that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. 

Pen-wielding knight on horse

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."

Malicious writer with pen 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.

Another Morris revelation is that Clinton may have discreetly helped the Central Intelligence Agency keep an eye on Vietnam protesters at Oxford. One supposed piece of evidence he offers, that Clinton's visit to Moscow at the end of 1969 was spent at the expensive and exclusive Hotel National, is feeble. In the old USSR one was assigned to a hotel by Intourist or by the student-tour bureaucracy. As part of a British student group visiting Moscow the previous year, I was put in one of the National's cheaper annex rooms. Was there CIA interest in Clinton at Oxford? Absolutely. His housemate Strobe Talbott was at the time translating the secret memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev for Time, Inc., which must have made the Leckford Road house one of the more intriguing espionage targets of the day.

Certainly Clinton got very little in return by way of assistance with his draft board -- a service the CIA was said to offer its informants. Morris cites anonymous CIA veterans, one claiming to have seen the details of Clinton's recruitment on file. Well, one can suggest several reasons why some retired spooks might want to say that, but if there are files, they might have been leaked by now. And given the effort the Bush Administration put into looking at Clinton's passport files, a former director of the CIA like George Bush might have expected a little more help from his old comrades at Langley. Clinton's first appointee to run the CIA, R. James Woolsey Jr., was not a success and was sufficiently disenchanted with Clinton to have since announced his endorsement of Bob Dole's candidacy. Were there a CIA hold over Clinton, one suspects, we would have learned of it.

If there are police files about "the parties with the teenage girls and tortured prostitutes," they, too, might have been leaked. Similarly, were Clinton in the least concerned with lining his pockets, we would know by now. But even a political enemy like Frank White, who beat Clinton in the 1980 race for the governorship, says that "he was clean because he genuinely didn't care about money." For all the expectation among the Clinton-watching cognoscenti, Morris has not delivered. Once again the Arkansas Houdini slips out of the net.

BILL Clinton has usually been lucky in his enemies. Seldom was he more blessed than in becoming the target of so hapless an author as Gary Aldrich, the disaffected FBI liaison officer in the White House. Aldrich's squalid little volume Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House (Regnery, 222 pages, $24.95) relies on spite and hearsay for its lurid tales of the President's practice of being smuggled out of the White House late at night, and of homosexual activity in the White House offices and showers. His book tends to confirm Hillary Clinton's early suspicions of the permanent staff at the White House. It also discredits Aldrich's Clinton-loathing cause. Whatever may have happened to the morals of presidential aides, it seems that standards at the FBI slumped calamitously.

Clinton is similarly lucky in those Arkansas state troopers who were his bodyguards in Little Rock. Their wide-eyed allegations of his romantic dalliances lost credibility for several reasons. The troopers appeared to have a financial motive. Their probity was in question after news broke of the truth about why their patrol car hit a tree at three o'clock one morning in 1990. At the time of the accident they told insurance investigators that they had been sober and on official business. In a subsequent lawsuit, however, they swore they had spent the evening downing whiskies at a bar called the Bobbisox Lounge. And they were represented by the Arkansas lawyer Cliff Jackson, one of the founding members of the loose consortium we might call Clinton Scandals, Inc.

An Oxford classmate of Clinton's, Jackson was a young Republican who in 1969 helped Clinton with his draft problems. The relationship then soured. By 1992 Jackson was organizing an anti-Clinton advertising campaign during the New Hampshire primary. He was an amateur, but the professionals were about to move in. Floyd Brown, the author of the notorious Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign, returned in 1992 to promote a telephone service playing tapes of Clinton's conversations with Gennifer Flowers, the woman who claimed to have been his mistress. Brown's partner, David Bossie, later joined the investigative staff of Senator Lauch Faircloth on the Senate Whitewater Committee. Richard Mellon Scaife, through his newspaper the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, advanced the theory of foul play behind the supposed suicide of Vincent Foster. One of the heirs to the Mellon banking fortune, Scaife also helped to finance Accuracy in Media and the Western Journalism Center, organizations that bought advertising space in the mainstream press to publicize these allegations. Together with the marketing of anti-Clinton videos by the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, these assaults on the Clintons helped to create a subsidized culture of scandal, designed to sap the Clinton presidency if not destroy it.

With enemies like these, the Clintons should not need friends. But they do -- largely because of what the Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons, in Fools For Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (Franklin Square Press, 224 pages, $9.95), suggests is the near vendetta that the press, and in particular some writers at The New York Times, seem to be waging against them. The eminence of that newspaper has tended to spare it the criticism that some of its reporting and comment have deserved. Consider the initial report, of March 18, 1994, on Hillary Clinton's $100,000 profits in the cattle-futures market. Written by Jeff Gerth, who also wrote the first Whitewater stories, it contained one serious error and some unsettling sleights of hand.

The Times said that Hillary Clinton had been helped by "a friend who was the top lawyer for one of the state's most powerful and heavily regulated companies." In inconvenient fact Jim Blair, a friend of Bill Clinton's, was not at the time employed by the Tyson food empire. He joined Tyson later, after losing millions in the same futures market that Hillary Clinton had wisely abandoned in time. While she was trading, in 1979, her husband the governor was infuriating Don Tyson and the chicken lobby by failing to raise the weight limit on Arkansas roads and allow bigger and heavier trucks on the state's highways. The implication of the New York Times article was, in the words of its subhead, that the "company thrived in Clinton years." A benefit Tyson received, the Times alleged, was "$9 million in government loans." This was false, and was later retracted by the Times, which alleged instead that Tyson "did benefit from at least $7 million in state tax credits." So it did, following state economic-development legislation passed five years after Hillary Clinton had traded. And the tax credits, which were for investments, were legally due to any company that made similar investments.

In sum, Gerth had a terrific story in Hillary Clinton's extraordinarily profitable investments. But he then overegged the pudding by implying a broad pattern of corruption and quid pro quo, and in the process going a lot further than the evidence could justify. And when Gerth made a serious factual mistake about the nonexistent $9 million in state loans, it was grudgingly and unfairly corrected, and new insult was added to old injury. This is not what one expects from The New York Times, and it casts a shadow upon the paper's other assaults on the Clinton presidency, in its overheated editorials and in the influential op-ed columns of William Safire, who has called Hillary Clinton "a congenital liar."

Gene Lyons, of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is not known in Little Rock as a Clinton loyalist, and it seems that he was first inspired to unpick the New York Times version of Whitewater by a kind of local patriotism. He was outraged at the way big-city reporters flew in "to portray the entire state of Arkansas as a veritable American Transylvania: a dark, mysterious netherworld populated by a mob of ignorant peasants and presided over by a half-dozen corrupt tycoons in collusion with the Clintons as the Count and Countess Dracula."

Affronted by this fashionable view, he produced an essay in Harper's and now this book, which leave the Times and Gerth with some serious questions to answer. He does not quite sustain his claim that "the Washington media had turned itself into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party." But he makes a strong and entertaining case that the whole Whitewater business is "possibly the most politically charged case of journalistic malpractice in recent American history."

THERE are four important facts to bear in mind about Whitewater. First, at the time the Clintons initially invested with Jim McDougal in the Whitewater property, McDougal was neither a banker nor a savings-and-loan man. Second, all the evidence suggests that McDougal later sought to defraud the Clintons, transferring assets out of the company, selling the remaining Whitewater lots for a secondhand airplane he fancied, and leaving Bill and Hillary Clinton responsible for the original loan. Third, the most serious and professional inquiry yet conducted, by the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, which was commissioned by the Resolution Trust Corporation, in effect cleared the Clintons and put McDougal in the dock. The legal team included the Clinton critic and former U.S. attorney Jay Stephens, who was among the group of Republican-appointed attorneys ordered to resign shortly after Clinton took office. Fourth, Beverly Bassett Schaffer, Clinton's appointee as Arkansas securities commissioner, did not have the power to close the Madison Guaranty S&L but tried hard to get the federal authorities to close it.

appears to owe Schaffer a profound apology. That is one point on which James B. Stewart, the author of the best-selling Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries (Simon & Schuster, 479 pages, $25.00), seems to agree with me. His book has been much praised, and it is a decent journalist's attempt to make something readable of a paltry set of transactions and balance sheets. Stewart, too, concludes that the Clintons were guilty of no criminal activity -- except perhaps one small thing, which he mentioned in his appearance on Nightline. Hillary Clinton broke the law, Stewart said, with the 1987 Whitewater loan-renewal application; she submitted "a false financial document" that inflated the value of the property.

Whoops. As Joe Conason, of The, established, Hillary Clinton was right and Stewart was thumpingly wrong. He had failed to read the back of the personal financial statement for the loan-renewal application, where she had explained the valuation in detail. In capital letters at the bottom of the document, where Stewart could hardly have missed it, was the warning "both sides of this statement must be completed."

Whitewater exemplifies the old saw that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. It can get even farther when spurred on by politically partisan dirty tricksters and investigative reporters who read only one side of the paper. To do the Whitewater saga justice any fair-minded person, citizen or voter, must read Gene Lyons. He is a better writer than James Stewart, knows more about Arkansas than Roger Morris, and appears in print to be a far more reliable reporter than the miserable Gary Aldrich.

This is not to whitewash the Clintons. The evasions and prickly legalisms that have marked their behavior over Whitewater since arriving in the White House may yet bring serious trouble. In this sense Clinton Scandals, Inc., may be said to have succeeded, locking the First Family into a pattern of defensiveness that has threatened under media and partisan pressure to become a pathology. The need to cleanse their surroundings of all but loyalists underpins the firings at the travel office and the disturbing furor over the improper requisition of FBI files. The Clintons may plead that they were driven to it, and even paranoids have their enemies, but Presidents are not supposed to behave this way or to tolerate subordinates who do.

By comparison, any offenses they may have committed back in Arkansas seem relatively trivial. They were foolish to trust the smooth-talking Jim McDougal with their savings, and there is not much doubt that Hillary Clinton took full and enthusiastic part in the moneymaking activities that rendered the 1980s the decade of greed. She broke no laws, and in a checkered investing career she won some and lost some. Bill Clinton was as ethically casual, and as ruthless, about his political fundraising in Arkansas as most other American politicians. He was not much involved in personal financial matters, not because he was stuffing his nose with cocaine or torturing call girls but because he was governing a small state well enough to be consistently re-elected by his own people.

The voters of Arkansas got to know him reasonably well as a flawed but engaging sprawl of a man with entirely human appetites and weaknesses and a lot of good intentions. Above all, he had a gift for politics and a capacity to inspire and lead people which usually, and on the whole, delivered more public good than harm. It is as much as most citizens expect from their politicians, and more than most of them deliver.

Illustrations by Scott Menchin

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; Clinton Scandals, Inc.; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 109 - 116.