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The Small-State President : To Understand Rose Firm, Think 'Political Machine'

March 20, 1994|Ben Joravsky | Ben Joravsky, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, is the author of "Race and Politics in Chicago" (CRS Press)

CHICAGO — It's been clear since the first whiff of Whitewater wafted north from Little Rock, Ark., that what we have here is not so much a scandal as the death of a Great Political Machine.

Obviously, this Machine's a little different than most, at least in appearance--not a fedora or pinky ring in this bunch. Still, the tell-tale signs are there: You've got a cast of characters nestled together for far too long in the insulated confines of power. For 10 years, their friend, Bill Clinton, was governor. And for 10 years, they ran Arkansas state government. They enforced the laws and doled out contracts and awarded jobs and sat in the leather-bound, swivel chairs, gavels in hand, of state regulatory boards and commissions at their command. Few dared challenge them. Those who did were banned from the kingdom.

It turns a few heads, untempered power. Those so blessed easily conclude that their power is like the divine right of kings. There's nothing they can't do, no wrong they can't fix.

Each day, the papers bring new tales of their machinations. Vincent W. Foster Jr., Beverly Bassett Schaffer, James B. McDougal, Susan McDougal, Dan R. Lasater, James B. Blair and David Hale--if they didn't work for or with the state, they worked for or with the Rose Law Firm, Hillary Rodham Clinton's old firm. Or maybe they were somehow linked to Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the failed S&L owned by McDougal, the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater Development Corp., a vacation-home development deal that also went bust.

Did I mention Webster L. Hubbell? Mayor of Little Rock, state Supreme Court justice, partner at Rose--this guy had it made. A few days after the 1992 election, he was pictured with the President-elect, sitting in a golf cart on a golf course at some exclusive, all-white country club. Clinton's chomping on a sandwich. Hubbell's chortling. A couple of good old boys, running the show.

Hubbell went with the Clintons to Washington, but recently he had to step down from his Justice Department job on account of an embarrassing feud over legal fees he's been having with his old partners at Rose. Now there's a dispute that never would have surfaced had the Clintons stayed in Little Rock. Clinton could have settled it over a game of golf, appointing someone to a state commission, if that's what it took.

But that's the way it goes with Machines. The Big Boss dies or goes to jail or leaves town or otherwise gets distracted, and everything falls apart. Old friends turn to foes. Long-simmering envies and resentments boil over. There's always someone with a grudge, someone feeling slighted. The first sign of weakness brings a batch of prosecutors, subpoenas in hand, and soon everyone's ratting. Of the turmoil engulfing Rose, one Arkansas lawyer recently said: "They are not a firm but an association of lawyers who don't want to lose money. And they are willing to turn on each other to do it."

The Clintons say they've committed no crimes. They say the whole Whitewater affair has been distorted and exploited by ideological enemies determined to stymie the drive for mandatory national health insurance.

Could be. These things have happened before. In 1929, Big Oil rumbled with rage when Louisiana Gov. Huey P. (Kingfish) Long proposed to tax oil production. They primed legislators with liquor, women and cash and masterminded a call for the governor's impeachment on various charges of corruption. It almost worked--except Long got enough legislators to sign a pledge vowing to vote against impeachment regardless of the evidence. Afterward, to show his thanks, Long took his boys to a coastal resort, fed them lobsters and got them drunk.

Of course, old Kingfish is a tough act to emulate. He was a big-time Boss, and he ran a mighty Machine. He built highways, hospitals and schools, dams and bridges. Unlike Clinton, he ran his state even after he went to Washington. For two years, Long was governor and senator. His reign might have lasted forever, except he was shot--and even then his Machine rumbled on for another 25 years under the aegis of his younger brother, Earl.

In their day, the Longs were rivaled only by Kansas City's Tom Pendergast, whose Democratic organization was so resourceful it once squeezed 20,000 votes from a district of fewer than 20,000 people. Pendergast diversified. He built a business empire of hotels, taxicabs and race tracks--enterprises regulated by the very state officials who owed their jobs to him. It was a neatly woven system that worked well--at least for Pendergast.

It collapsed, legend has it, after a turn-coat flunky, lips loosened by liquor, stayed late in a bar, babbling about a political "fix." The feds got wind of the scam and launched an investigation. Eventually, Pendergast spent several months in Leavenworth for failing to pay taxes on thousands of dollars in payoffs he received from insurance companies.

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