“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.
But the actual world of Arkansas politics doesn’t really interest Roger Morris very much. Rather, most of the energy in Partners in Power is reserved for the so-called “character issues”—what House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls “the Clinton Scandals.” And oddly enough, given his ostensibly leftist views, most of Morris’s sources, which he presents with all the trappings of scholarly paraphernalia, turn out to be right-wing periodicals like the aforementioned American Spectator and London Sunday Telegraph, as well as the Washnington Times, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In fact, although Morris does not mention it, many of the most extreme charges of moral turpitude Morris lodges against the President and his wife are identical to those first made in a scurrilous videotape, The Clinton Chronicles.
Marketed nationwide by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Pat Robertson since 1992, The Clinton Chronicles are primarily the work of two people: a former public relations man for the Arkansas Development Finance Administration (ADFA) named Larry Nichols, and “Justice Jim” Johnson. Nichols was fired by Clinton in 1988 after it was discovered that he had used his office phone to make 640 long-distance calls at state expense on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. Considered absolutely unreliable by Arkansas reporters, who have long ignored him, he has conducted a one-man slander campaign against Clinton ever since.2 Johnson was the founder of Arkansas’s long-defunct White Citizen’s Council, and the state’s last (1966 and 1968) unabashedly segregationist Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Several of the lurid charges in The Clinton Chronicles which resurface in Partners in Power were comprehensively refuted in an article by Carrie Rengers in the Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on October 30, 1994. Morris seems unaware of it, but Rengers showed there was no substance to the charge, as Morris puts it, that “Clinton himself…personally approved every [ADFA] bond issue and major transaction,” and that the agency was “being used to launder millions in drug money” (according, as Morris characteristically puts it, to “suspicions and even published accounts”). Other claims made by Morris, including his almost phantasmagoric account of Bill Clinton’s alleged cocaine use and his participation in a CIA-sponsored drug-smuggling plot, were also made in The Clinton Chronicles, and were previously subjected to withering analysis by none other than David Brock, the author of The Real Anita Hill and “Troopergate,” in the Winter 1995 issue of the Forbes Media Critic.
It’s possible, of course, to suspect Brock of discrediting the manifest absurdities of The Clinton Chronicles to enhance his own suspect credibility; but an obvious point still stands. If there were any credible evidence linking Clinton to Iran-Contra—as Morris claims—what prevented independent counsel Lawrence Walsh from uncovering it long ago? Walsh indicted the secretaries of state and defense. Are we to believe he skipped over the Democratic governor of Arkansas? To believe much of Partners in Power, it is also necessary to believe exactly that.
Whitewater is another subject on which Morris’s accusations merge with, indeed go far beyond, those of the President’s Republican attackers. In their original investment in 200 acres of woodland along the White River in Marion County, Arkansas, Morris contends, the Clintons put nothing at risk. “Susan and Jim McDougal,” we are told, “would manage the business and bear most of the risk and liability, personally guaranteeing nearly $200,00 of the total loans, while Bill and Hillary…would still enjoy a full 50 percent ownership.”
This is false. According to the Pillsbury Report, the $3.6 million study done by the Republican law firm of Pillsbury Madison & Sutro for the Resolution Trust Corporation, the partners bore absolutely equal risk. Morris simply ignores the report’s findings, which reveal that all four parties to the company were jointly and severally responsible for the entirety of the debt—meaning that if Bill Clinton and the McDougals had perished together in an airplane crash, Hillary alone would have been responsible for paying the loan.
Almost every sentence regarding Whitewater in Partners in Power is similarly irresponsible. “Afterward,” Morris writes, “there could be no doubt how much and how currently the Clintons knew the business habits of their intimates, knew the essence of what was happening at Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.” But the Clintons swore under oath to their ignorance of McDougal’s machinations and the Pillsbury Report supported them 100 percent. The Clintons, it concluded, were passive investors, and were not informed about the affairs of the Whitewater Development Corporation, and were even deceived about them. “There is no basis to assert,” the investigators concluded,
that the Clintons knew anything of substance about the McDougals’ advances to Whitewater, the source of the funds used to make those advances, or the source of the funds used to make payments on bank debt… There is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct.
As for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s legal representation of Madison Guaranty, that, Morris claims, was more on the order of a bribe, paid to her by Madison in order to get favorable treatment from Clinton. The Rose Law Firm’s $2000 a month retainer, he says, was paid to her personally. “Being on the Madison payroll was no mere whimsy for the First Couple,” he writes. “The governor was there at the Quapaw office on his morning jog regularly each month to pick up the check, and on occasion Hillary herself came for the money.”
According to anonymous quotes Morris attributes to Hillary’s Rose Law Firm colleagues, Mrs. Clinton saw these payments as her due for the enormous sacrifice she was making by living in Arkansas. (A place she despised, Partners in Power assures us.) ” ‘No one thought of this as something to be covered up or worried about,’ said an aide. ‘This was money they were supposed to get, as everybody saw it.”‘
Once again, Morris’s account has been shown to be false by the Pillsbury Report. Madison Guaranty’s $2000 a month retainer was never once picked up in person by either of the Clintons. Payable to the Rose Law Firm, the money was deposited into an escrow account as an advance against billing. “There are a number of reasons,” the Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro investigators concluded, “to disbelieve McDougal’s story” that he was in effect bribing Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton’s “alleged economic motivation makes no sense.”
Part of the retainer was never earned and was returned to the client. Also, a law firm’s revenues never go straight to the bottom line… Even if all the retainer had been earned in fees, Mrs. Clinton’s share would have been less than $20 a month.3
Even after state and federal regulators forced McDougal out of Madison Guaranty, Morris charges, the greedy, reckless Clintons joined him in yet another wildly speculative venture called Lorrance Heights, an 800-acre tract purchased from International Paper in October 1986.
But the Pillsbury Report establishes conclusively that McDougal used the shell of the all-but-defunct White-water Development Corporation to buy the property without the Clintons’ knowledge or permission, and then surreptitiously transferred it to yet another of his real estate companies, leaving Whitewater stuck with the debt. The Clintons knew nothing about the International Paper de…al. “Their signatures,” notes the Pillsbury Report,
do not appear on the relevant documents. McDougal’s letters to them do not mention the transaction. The transaction did not benefit Whitewater or the Clintons; in fact, it left Whitewater with a large mortgage but no corresponding asset, and eventually it led to litigation and the entry of a judgment against Whitewater.
Indeed, at McDougal’s trial for bank fraud in Little Rock last spring, the prosecutor, Ray Jahn, shrewdly cross-examined Clinton about this very transaction, clearly hoping to persuade the jury that McDougal was a shady manipulator who lied when it suited him. The national press, preoccupied with its own quest for White-water gossip, failed to get the point. The jury did.
What should have become clear to the publishers of Morris’s book, then, is that there is scarcely a statement of fact anywhere in Partners in Power that can be taken at face value. Particularly about state troopers, sex, and drugs. The real shocker in Partners in Power is supposed to be Clinton’s involvement through a one-time supporter named Danny Ray Lasater—a millionaire restaurateur and bond dealer who did time in a federal prison for giving away cocaine to his friends—in a multi-million-dollar CIA drug-smuggling ring run through an airport in Mena, Arkansas.
We know all this not only from the “confidential sources” Morris says he relied on, but because an Arkansas state trooper named L. D. Brown, a friend of Roger Perry and Larry Patterson of “Troopergate” fame, told Morris a story about flying down to Nicaragua with a convicted drug smuggler named Barry Seal. He even gave Morris a specific date: October 23, 1984. When he told Bill Clinton about it, the governor supposedly told him to forget about it, it was “Lasater’s deal.” Seal, a DEA informant, was later assassinated by Colombian hit men in Baton Rouge. An imaginative rogue with a flair for publicity, Seal did for a time keep a C-123 cargo plane at the airport in Mena, Arkansas. He was the subject of at least two federal grand jury investigations—neither ending in an indictment—but his name is kept alive as the source of the most lurid of all Arkansas conspiracy stories. By the reckoning of most Arkansas journalists, Morris’s claim that Clinton had some involvement with Seal and Lasater in smuggling drugs is either the fourth or fifth version of the Mena airport tale. (In fact, there’s no reason to believe Seal and Lasater ever met.)
The Lasater charges have to be assessed along with the other accounts from state policemen who have made trouble for Clinton. If “Troopergate,” so-called, had been greeted with anything like the detailed skepticism accorded FBI agent Gary Aldrich’s recent book-length “revelations,” we wouldn’t be talking about the Mena airport and much else today. In effect, however, the national press and television, specifically The Los Angeles Times and CNN, filtered out the obvious absurdities in Perry and Patterson’s accounts, concentrating on what they thought they could prove, which turned out to be almost nothing.
That’s what makes David Brock’s more comprehensive account in The American Spectator indispensible to the student of Arkansas political mischief. By laying out all the fantasized details of the troopers’ tales, Brock made their full absurdity evident. Do you believe that Hillary Rodham Clinton purred like a cat in heat while Vince Foster publicly caressed her breasts at a Rose Law Firm party in a Little Rock restaurant? David Brock did. In fact, the restaurant in which this incident allegedly happened denied to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that any such party ever took place there. So did the Rose Law Firm. The idea that Foster, whose reticence and sense of propriety were well-known, would have done anything of the kind is almost as grotesque to his friends as the notion of Mrs. Clinton’s permitting it.
Were you aware, moreover, that since their moment in the spotlight back in December 1993 Perry and Patterson had joined the Vince Foster conspiracy industry? Perry and Patterson told the London Sunday Telegraph that a White House aide named Helen Dickey phoned the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion hours before Foster’s body was discovered in a Washington park. Supposedly Dickey told them Foster had shot himself that afternoon in a White House parking lot, which could only mean—so deduced the Telegraph reporter, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard—that Foster’s body had been moved and a White House cover-up had begun.
Why, then, are you very likely reading about this for the first time? Because when Perry and Patterson were subpoenaed to appear before Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s Whitewater committee on February 16, 1996, they suddenly decided they didn’t want to repeat that story under oath. D’Amato even apologized to Ms. Dickey for the pain and embarrassment his own credulousness on the subject had caused her. Within thirty-six hours, trooper Perry was regaling a shocked Pat Robertson and his700 Club audience with the tale. There are, of course, no perjury penalties for what one says on an evangelical talk show.
It’s the timing that’s significant here. Because if such a phone call had, indeed, come from the White House on July 20, 1993—the day Foster died—then you’d think the troopers would have mentioned it to Brock and the others who reported the “Troopergate” stories five months later. But either they kept it to themselves, or the reporters did. Take your pick. Either way, it gives the troopers something of a credibility problem.
And it’s through the same group of troopers that we know about Dan Lasater’s intimate friendship with Bill Clinton—how he was constantly slipping in the back door of the Governor’s Mansion. “Day and night, weekends, all day,” one told Morris, “he just came when he wanted to.” But Lasater recently testified under oath to the Senate Whitewater committee that he’d visited the Mansion exactly twice—both times on public occasions, one with Bob Hope. If D’Amato’s Senate investigators knew differently, they kept it to themselves.
Like his pals, trooper L. D. Brown has been milking the Clinton presidency for all the attention he can get. He’s turned himself into a kind of Arkansas Everyman, willing to confirm to reporters hostile to Clinton almost every aspect of “the Clinton Scandals.” During one week in October 1994, Brown was quoted in the Washington Times confirming one of the convicted embezzler David Hale’s accusations against President Clinton. Then apparently he took it all back. The result was that on one memorable day the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran two stories side-by-side: “Arkansas Trooper Said He Saw Clinton Pressure Judge for Money,” and “Trooper Denies Story on SBA Loan.” If independent counsel Kenneth Starr thought L. D. Brown had any credibility, he’d presumably have used him to back up Hale’s story about Clinton’s “pressure” at last spring’s trial. He didn’t.
But there’s an even more elementary problem with L. D. Brown’s story about flying in Barry Seal’s C-123 from Mena, Arkansas, to Managua, Nicaragua, and back on October 23, 1984. This trip provides the basis for Roger Morris’s thunderous conclusion that Bill Clinton and Dan Lasater were involved in a CIA-sponsored cocaine-smuggling ring. Seal’s airplane did in fact make a flight that day, one of the two days it left the ground that year—as Arkansas State Police files no doubt revealed to the troopers who looked into them. But it turns out Seal had a different passenger: a TV newsman, John Camp, of WBRZ in Baton Rouge, was making a film on Seal’s activities as a smuggler-turned-DEA informant. This program was shown in November 1984. Camp, now a correspondent with CNN “Special Reports,” had flown up from Baton Rouge with Seal before dawn that morning, spent the entire day with him, and returned with him to Louisiana late that night.
This will probably not discourage either L. D. Brown or Roger Morris from making up more stories; but the publishers, editors, and reporters who have been taking them seriously should be asking themselves why they have been had.
August 8, 1996
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. ↩
During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial campaign, Nichols filed a lawsuit charging Governor Clinton with using public money to support five mistresses. Among them was Gennifer Flowers, who not only denied the charge—like all the others questioned by Little Rock reporters—but formally threatened a libel suit. In January 1992, Nichols released a letter to the press apologizing to the women he’d named—wholly on the basis, he admitted, of rumor passed to him by unspecified persons. “I want to tell everyone what I did to try to destroy Governor Clinton,” he admitted, out of anger over his firing. After Clinton became President, like Gennifer Flowers before him, Nichols changed his story. The women he’d named, it bears mentioning, also made the list put forward by state troopers Larry Patterson and Roger Perry four years later. ↩
A Supplemental Report on the Representation of Madison Guaranty Savings & London by the Rose Law Firm. Prepared for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation by Pillsbury Madison & Sutro LLP, February 25, 1996, pp. 24-25. ↩