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Anything Goes

Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America

by Roger Morris
Henry Holt, 526 pp., $27.50

Most of the rewards of the Presidency, in these days, have come to be very trashy. The President continues, of course, to be an eminent man, but only in the sense that Jack Dempsey, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, and Henry Ford have been eminent men.”

—H. L. Mencken,
“Imperial Purple” (August 17, 1931)

Every bit as much as Texas and Manhattan, Arkansas is a world unto itself. For decades schoolchildren here have been taught the myth that Arkansas alone among the states has the natural resources—water, timber, some oil, plentiful natural gas, and vast stretches of fertile alluvial soil—to build a wall around itself and nevertheless thrive. Prosperity eludes many, yet local patriotism runs very strong.

In the fourth year of the presidency of native son Bill Clinton, a great many Arkansans would be very happy to build that wall. Greeted by euphoric throngs in downtown. Little Rock on November 2, 1992, Clinton’s election seemed to many the state’s best chance to put behind it a heritage of scorn and derision dating back to territorial days. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn satirized the state’s backwoods squalor mercilessly. Mencken joked that he knew New Yorkers who had visited ” Cochin China, Kafiristan, Paraguay, Somaliland, and West Virginia, but no one who has ever penetrated the miasmatic jungles of Arkansas.”1 But mostly, local patriots hoped Clinton’s victory would mitigate the memory of the 1957 Central High integration crisis—when Governor Orval Faubus’s futile and shameful resistance fixed Arkansas’s image as a bigot’s paradise for a generation.

The state, alas, is now seen as a paradise for political and personal crookedness of all sorts; and this is so in large part because the Clinton presidency has coincided with a near total breakdown of the already shaky standards of evidence used by American news organizations. Driven by talk radio, by “trash for cash” tabloids, by ideologically motivated writers for journals like The American Spectator and the London Sunday Telegraph, by Internet conspiracy theorists, and not least by publishers competing for lucrative book-length “revelations” about the intimate lives of the famous, a puritanical credulousness appears to have replaced skepticism among many contemporary journalists. Many Arkansans have been stunned by the calculated viciousness displayed by the press toward those whom they view as powerless to respond.

The breakdown, of course, didn’t begin with the Clintons. Joe McGinnis’s infamous book on Senator Ted Kennedy is only one of many that also come to mind. But Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been treated with a kind of gleeful malice formerly reserved for Donald Trump and Marla Maples, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

Gossip, rumors, and unattributed slanders that would until recently have been confined to the fringe press—if published at all—appear today in the news columns of The New York Times. Consider the front page treatment that paper recently gave charges by an embittered former FBI agent, Gary Aldrich, that President Clinton—perhaps disguised in Groucho Marx glasses, nose, and mustache—has taken to slipping out of the White House for post-midnight nookie at the Washington Marriott.

No doubt the prominence The New York Times gave to Aldrich’s Unlimited Access was influenced by the President’s own public comments about the book, and the Times’s editors made the right decision in describing and exposing the book. The absurdity of Aldrich’s allegations, their immediate repudiation by the Secret Service, and the author’s sheepish admission that he was passing on second- and third-hand gossip allowed Times readers to judge the book’s shabbiness for themselves. In a political atmosphere in which anything goes, that may be the only answer. It is a good question why any number of similarly improbable tales told about the Clinton’s days in Arkansas were not given similar skeptical examination.

Had that been done, we might not today be faced with as slipshod and manifestly fraudulent a piece of work as Roger Morris’s Partners in Power. Making much of its author’s Harvard Ph.D. and Guggenheim fellowship and his resignation from the Nixon White House, the dust jacket calls it the definitive account of “the parallel lives and tortured relationships of the Clintons personally,” and an expose of “a world where corrupting money and favors flow freely and the tyranny of wealthy interests and their captive politicians mock democracy.”

This “world” is not Washington but Arkansas, a dark, blighted land whose bankers are money launderers and worse, whose judges and lawyers are whores, whose journalists are mostly deaf and blind, and where only courageous state troopers ever tell the truth. Thus the stubborn persistence of rural poverty in the Arkansas Delta counties along the Mississippi becomes, for Morris, a repudiation not merely of Clinton himself—who, after all, failed in six terms as governor to eradicate it—but of just about everybody in sight. Morris writes rhetorically, in a sweeping, hyperbolic, radical-sounding prose. “The state’s farmers, found one study,” he writes, “were ‘the nearest approach to medieval serfdom ever achieved on the North American continent.”’ An Arkansas “oligarchy,” he adds, “its paternalism…now cruel and crude, now mincing and discreet, though above all constant,” keeps the beaten-down peasantry in check.

Meanwhile, “the state’s newspapers and broadcast stations were in the hands of ruling interests, their editors and reporters cowed or bought off.” Journalists and oligarchs alike, we’re told, dwell in colonialist splendor in Little Rock’s luxurious “White Heights.” There they “controlled it, held it at bay—in part, as always, by laughing contemptuously at what surrounded them. ‘How do you measure the wealth of the average Arkansas household?’ went a familiar joke. ‘By the number of dogs killed when the front porch collapses.”’

So how did the likes of Bill Clinton keep getting elected? Arkansas voters just don’t know any better, what with their “weary acceptance of their lot’ and their

grateful credulity toward politicians earnestly promising to change it. As in the old Communist tyrannies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there was often only resentment toward outsiders pointing out the enduring disgrace, a native refusal to face reality that further fortified the system.

Speaking of facing reality, you might want to know that the passage about “medieval serfdom” Morris quotes from Leland Duvall’s Arkansas: Colony and State refers to the post-Civil War institution of sharecropping—a practice that vanished around the time Bill Clinton was born. There is, in fact, no such place as Little Rock’s “White Heights.” It’s a pure invention, alluded to repeatedly throughout Partners in Power. Readers who are Southerners, meanwhile, surely recognize the joke about the collapsing porch. It’s taken straight from the popular comic Jeff Foxworthy’s little book You Might Be a Redneck If… (“If you had a toothpick in your mouth when your wedding pictures were taken,” “If your brother-in-law is also your uncle,” etc.).

Morris’s prosecutorial style ignores the fact that Bill Clinton’s native state has always been his single greatest political liability. Arkansas’s six paltry electoral votes are virtually meaningless to Republican strategists. Even when he attacks Clinton’s actual record as governor, the gritty realities of Arkansas politics elude Morris’s understanding at every turn. Take, for example, his criticism of Clinton’s educational reforms of 1983. In pushing through a substantial tax increase for Arkansas Schools, did Clinton also arrange that the passing score on a controversial, one-time teacher competency test be set at an embarrassingly low level? Indeed he did. Even so, upward of 30 to 50 percent of black teachers in a few of the state’s poorest rural districts failed the first time they took it. Had they been fired, who would have replaced them? At what cost?

As it was, Clinton’s reform program brought millions in badly needed funds into the school system. It mandated smaller class sizes and required school districts to offer previously unavailable courses in science, mathematics, foreign languages, etc. Many schools here still have large defects but Morris has not the slightest idea what goes on in them.

Would efficiency be served if, as Morris writes, Arkansas had far fewer school districts? It would. But today’s champion of consolidation, as Arkansas voters have made clear, will be tomorrow’s former governor. Is it really scandalous, as Morris claims, that higher education got some of the money simply because Hillary’s commodities trading pal Jim Blair lobbied for it? Who’s going to train better qualified Arkansas teachers if not Arkansas colleges?

The same ignorance is evident in Morris’s account of the state’s regressive tax structure. He mentions in passing that Arkansas’s antiquated constitution requires a 75 percent vote to approve any tax increases other than the general sales tax. He never alludes to the many times Clinton tried and failed to coax three fourths of the legislature to increase Arkansas’s virtually non-existent taxes on natural gas, oil, and timber. Nor does he seem aware of the persistent and unsuccessful efforts of Arkansas progressives to win a new constitution. Earlier this year, Arkansas voters rejected a referendum for a constitutional convention by 80 to 20 percent.

There is no party machine in predominantly Democratic Arkansas,” the state’s two US Senators pointed out in a 1994 letter to The New York Times. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor wrote in response to a critical article by Michael Kelly portraying the Clinton years, as they put it, “as a kind of wasteland, during which a hollow man played it slick and safe to insure a certain path to the Presidency”—a view Morris embellishes in his own florid way.

The political scientist V.O. Key long ago observed that a one-party state is a no-party state,” the Senators, both former governors, continued.

The governor of Arkansas must form a new coalition on each issue. The resulting bartering and negotiations may look slick to the unpracticed eye, but the novice should try it before judging…. In his twelve years as governor, the President alienated every large interest group in the state at one time or another: utilities, timber, building contractors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Medical Society, the Education Association, the poultry industry, the Farm Bureau, the National Rifle Association….

No doubt Clinton’s Democratic colleagues laid it on a bit thick. With virtually the entire spectrum of Arkansas political opinion represented within the Democratic Party, Clinton wanted no permanent enemies if he could help it. Was the Arkansas Education Association infuriated by Clinton’s teacher competency test? Repeated pay raises eased the sting. Were poultry and trucking interests angered by a “tonmile” tax on eighteen-wheelers? Clinton’s corporate tax investment credits lifted some of the burden. Did the National Rifle Association resent the governor’s veto of a bill forbidding Arkansas municipalities from passing gun-control ordinances? Well-publicized duck hunting trips—hardly, one suspects, a Clinton pastime, requiring, as it does, rising before dawn and sitting silent and still for extended periods—reassured sportsmen.

Bill Clinton’s idea of leadership has always been a perpetual balancing act. Political allies who fell over the side often found themselves treading water as the good ship Bill and Hillary sailed out of sight. All things considered, however, Bumpers, Pryor, and Clinton must have done something right. When Dale Bumpers became Arkansas’s first post-Faubus Democratic governor in 1970, the state’s per capita income was roughly 43 percent of that of the United States; by 1990, it had grown to 63 percent. Roger Morris to the contrary, Don Tyson (Tyson Foods), Sam Walton (Wal-Mart), and Jack Stephens (Stephens, Inc.)—all of whom opposed Clinton a lot more than they supported him—didn’t get to keep it all.

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    Mencken was writing in mock astonishment at the founding of a literary journal he admired in the college town of Fayetteville. His words stung anyway.

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