The Swag Belly of Arkansas And Its Clinton-Hating Spawn

The Hunting of the President: The 10-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton , by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. St. Martin’s Press, 413 pages, $25.95.

“You boys have to remember, I don’t give a fuck who the governor of Arkansas is,” Lee Atwater said back in 1989, echoing the sentiments of a nation. But Atwater knew more than we did, and was a good deal meaner. “My only job as chairman of the Republican National Committee is to get George Bush re-elected. The media’s full of talk about Mario Cuomo or Bill Bradley. We know how to paint them up as Northeastern liberals like Dukakis. That’s easy!” No, what worried Atwater was a Southern moderate or a conservative Democrat–”and the scariest of all, because he’s the most talented of the bunch, is Bill Clinton.” Atwater sniffed around Little Rock for a few days, making it clear that if the Governor ran for President, the Republicans would “throw everything we can think of at Clinton–drugs, women, whatever works.”

The tarring of Governor Clinton started out modestly, more George Bush than Lee Atwater. Remember the “$8 gallon of milk”? That was George père (“Middle America, watch your wallet”) foundering on the stump in 1991, trying to scare you into believing Bill Clinton was the walking embodiment of Carter-nomics, the return of malaise and “double-digit inflation.” When Carter-baiting died next to the Governor’s unbearably suave touch with the town hall format, the Bush camp panicked and began raising the Red specter of Bill Clinton’s student junket to the Soviet Union. Conveniently blurring his language, Mr. Bush made it sound as if his opponent had conducted antiwar demonstrations in Moscow (he hadn’t–he demonstrated against Vietnam at Oxford). When the Arkansas Governor objected to this as a gross mischaracterization, Mr. Bush replied with a trope that has dogged the First Couple ever since: “vintage Clinton … a pathological pattern of deception.”

Ah, “the pattern of deception,” what an evergreen that turned out to be. In the absence of any wrongdoing, Jim Leach bruited it about in the House Whitewater hearings; in the Senate, Alfonse D’Amato followed suit, while journalists looking to push stories to the front page or the top of the broadcast happily played along. On the verge of unseating a twice-elected President, House Republicans, hovering stiffly over their flow charts, summoned it one last time, urging Americans to see the “pattern” in Bill Clinton’s behavior, that “events and words that may seem innocent or even exculpatory in a vacuum may well take on a sinister or even criminal connotation when observed in the context of the whole plot.”

How on earth we could have ever arrived at impeachment by “criminal connotation” is the implicit subject of The Hunting of the President , by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Mr. Conason is the editor-at-large for this paper, Mr. Lyons a veteran Arkansas reporter and editor, and together they have unearthed a pattern of their own: Terrified of Bill Clinton since the late 1980′s, the Republican Party conjured an aura of wrongdoing around the First Couple so pervasive they would always seem guilty, if nothing else, by association with themselves and each other. And the message could be narrowcast: For tabloid junkies, News of the Weird was perpetually minting fresh evils–coke smuggling at the Mena Airport, a black love child, and of course, Vince Foster. For the discerning consumer, there was The Washington Post and The New York Times , where, pitted against visions of losing out on a Watergate-size scoop, the impulse to downplay a scandal with thorough reporting sometimes got lost.

Mr. Conason and Mr. Lyons lead us back, past the conniving resentnik Linda Tripp, the downmarket literary jade Lucianne Goldberg, past even that mealy paragon of Huis Clos tedium himself, Kenneth Starr, to uncover the entire history of Clinton “opposition research.” The story begins with Lee Atwater’s 1989 visit to Little Rock, aimed at snuffing out Mr. Clinton as a national candidate with talk of a “skirt problem,” and culminates in the group of Federalist Society lawyers who, given the authors’ reading of events, may have coordinated the Paula Jones lawsuit and the Starr investigation of Monica Lewinsky to ensure Mr. Clinton’s sexual peccadillo rose to the level of criminality.

It should be pointed out, the authors remain fairly agnostic on the open issues: Did then-Governor Clinton assault Juanita Broaddrick? Were there, in fact, dozens of bimbos waiting to erupt? Why would Susan McDougal prefer 23-hour-a-day lockdown to testifying before Mr. Starr?–but a book like this can be used for two purposes, exoneration or sociology, and perhaps the latter (knowing that the President lied to us) is more compelling. Into the great swag belly of Arkansas we go, where (as Mr. Conason and Mr. Lyons illustrate) two mentalities dominate the impressive roster of Clinton-haters. The first is a cloak-and-dagger puerility that lingers on after the demise of the Cold War, a deep attraction to intrigue, which a certain sort of Republican–in the tradition of the old Nixon “ratfucking”–can’t seem to outgrow. Thus a decent share of the Arkansas portion of the book reads like Don DeLillo’s Libra –socially isolated men seek a purpose in conspiracies that are largely projections of their own prurient imaginations, fomenting wild stories about the Governor’s sexual and narcotic appetites.

It’s no accident, as the authors demonstrate, that the fantasy of Bill Clinton as sexually potent and ubiquitous–crawling out of virtually every bed in Little Rock–is strangely reminiscent of the old race propaganda about blacks. As a young man just graduated from Georgetown University, Bill Clinton chauffeured Senator J. William Fulbright around Arkansas for his primary fight against Jim Johnson, the last of a breed of Southern politician whose fraternity included, as the authors point out, George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Ross Barnett. Mr. Johnson fought integration, branded his opponents “nigger-lovers” and openly courted the support of the Klan and the White Citizens Council. Crossing campaign paths with Mr. Johnson, young Bill couldn’t help blurting out, “You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas.” As the future President grew up to be the paradigm of the New South politician, Jim Johnson and his Old South cronies largely faded from the political scene, but they hardly disappeared: Mr. Johnson himself remained a devoted Clinton-hater, and an expert in the smear demagoguery he had brought to the race-war politics of his heyday.

The authors paint a remarkable portrait of the jealousy and “white fear” that went into concocting the portrait of Bill Clinton (in Jim Johnson’s words, “a queermongering, whore-hopping adulterer; a baby-killing, draft-dodging, dope-tolerating, lying, two-faced treasonist activist”) that his more “mainstream” critics still draw upon today. Mr. Johnson, ensconced in his country estate (White Haven), shared his views with the meddlers from The American Spectator who came to Arkansas searching for dirt on the President. In fact, Mr. Johnson’s slimy trail wends its way through The Hunting of the President : He seems to have been in nearly daily contact with David Hale, the only witness other than Jim McDougal to come forward, in all of the various Whitewater trials, and directly accuse Bill Clinton of doing something wrong; and editorials Mr. Johnson once wrote blasting a judge as “friendly” to the Clintons seem to have played a role in the removal of that judge from the trial of Jim Guy Tucker, the only prominent conviction Mr. Starr has been able to win.

That Mr. Starr would find recourse in Jim Johnson’s “triple hearsay” screeds is meant to underscore another of the book’s clear implications: Though the standard the independent counsel repeatedly applied against the President was, fish or no fish, “fishiness,” Mr. Starr’s own office must have smelled like something of a canning factory. We’re all familiar with the complaints against Mr. Starr: He failed to resign his law partnership, a fairly whopping hypocrisy given that his predecessor (the respected New York lawyer Robert Fiske, who had effectively exonerated the Clintons) was removed for a remote appearance of conflict of interest, while Mr. Starr himself continued to represent tobacco litigants; he was promised a deanship at Pepperdine University that turned out to be the brainchild of Richard Mellon Scaife, chief sugar daddy to Clinton tormentors; and, most extravagantly dubious, before being appointed independent counsel, he had drafted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in favor of the Paula Jones harassment lawsuit, at one point even serving as a paid consultant to Ms. Jones, via attorney Gilbert Davis.

But devout fans of Joe Conason’s impeachment columns know what the proverbial “money shot” in this book will feature: the tight-knit cadre of young Federalist Society lawyers, two of whom ended up working behind the scenes for Paula Jones, one of whom ended up on Mr. Starr’s legal team. I must say, after reading The Hunting of the President , it is no longer possible to believe that the Arkansas troopers ever told the truth about anything, that Ken Starr was even remotely impartial, or that the Jones suit was anything more than a vehicle for the public humiliation of the President. But I don’t believe the authors fully deliver on their most daring implication, which is that the Jones team and the Office of Independent Counsel were in active collusion in the person of Paul Rosenzweig, the Starr lawyer who was both personally and professionally very close to Richard Porter and Jerome Marcus, who essentially worked for Ms. Jones. They come very, very close: And given how shamelessly Bill Clinton’s enemies have been willing to chum up the waters around him with talk of “patterns,” it is certainly curious that “Mr. Starr hired an ambitious young lawyer at a time when the Whitewater investigation and Filegate, Travelgate and the Vince Foster investigation were near completion,” that that lawyer spoke with Ms. Jones’ lawyers frequently and, finally, that he met them for dinner only days before the Lewinsky sting.

Such implications must be allowed to hang, at least for now. In the meantime, Mr. Conason and Mr. Lyons have done some service–enormous service–if not to the state, then to the citizenry. From the bait shack to hate radio, from hate radio to The American Spectator , to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times , conjecture and half-truths were allowed to float their way up through America’s opinion hierarchy–and once something has nested in the Lexis database under the imprimatur of the “paper of record,” it more or less takes on the indelible coloring of established fact. Thankfully, the authors have interposed themselves here, before “fact” has been allowed to become history.