SPRINGDALE, Ark. — He is an unlikely looking millionaire kingmaker--a balding, impish man whose trademark khaki work uniform belies his wealth and power.
Still, Donald Tyson, who succeeded in building his father's small poultry business into a multimillion-dollar food-processing empire, has been widely portrayed as a driving force behind the political ascendancy of Bill Clinton.
Indeed, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Texas billionaire and independent candidate Ross Perot dubbed then-Gov. Clinton "chicken man" because of his close relationship to Tyson and to Arkansas' poultry industry.
And Clinton himself drew attention to the association when he acknowledged to a campaign audience that he had sacrificed the environment in Arkansas to create more jobs for the state's poultry farms.
Now the alliance between these two men has become a cause celebre once again. Critics of the President contend that a relationship that benefited both men during their days together in Arkansas still provides mutual rewards today.
The Agriculture Department's failure to impose tougher standards on Tyson Foods Inc. and other poultry processors has prompted widespread criticism--as well as a Justice Department inquiry. And the Commerce Department has been accused of rewriting regulations to benefit Tyson Foods' fishing interests in the Pacific Northwest.
Furthermore Tyson--acting through his lawyer, James Blair--is now said by critics to have played a role in Hillary Rodham Clinton's recently disclosed commodities trading profits during the late 1970s.
These allegations remain unproven--and some stories circulating about Tyson and Clinton are plainly false--but they demonstrate the way in which the President continues to be dogged by questions over favored relationships with his old friends in Arkansas.
While such accusations can haunt any President, they have been particularly troublesome for Clinton--in part because he pledged that his White House would be free from the cronyism of presidencies past. In addition, the inherently close-knit nature of Arkansas' political and financial elite seems to fuel the suspicions of Clinton's critics.
Tyson, a liberal Democrat, freely acknowledges that he considers the President an old friend and that he has generously supported Clinton's political career with campaign contributions and other assistance over the years. But he staunchly denies that the relationship has ever gone beyond that of patron and public servant.
"When you do business in Arkansas, you need to know who the people who are running the government are," Tyson said in an interview. "We never got anything we didn't deserve because of who we are--a business leader in this state."
Tyson made it clear he was not amused by a steady drumbeat of unflattering news reports questioning the motives behind his friendship with Clinton.
His aides point to many fictitious stories that have found their way into the press in recent months--reports that Hillary Clinton once served on the Tyson Foods Board of Directors, that Tyson slept at the White House on the night of the President's inauguration, that Tyson hosted a dinner for the Clintons at an exclusive restaurant in Washington.
"I am quickly growing weary of the insinuations and allegations that the company bearing my family name is in some insidious way benefiting as a result of the fact that the former governor of Arkansas now resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington," Tyson recently wrote to several newspaper editors.
Likewise, Administration officials have been quick to deny the allegations. White House aide John Podesta scoffed at the idea of favoritism toward Tyson, and Agriculture Department officials have condemned as "faulty" suggestions that the Tyson-Clinton connection has in any way influenced the government's poultry inspections.
Yet if their relationship is nothing more than one of mutual admiration, it would run counter to local Arkansas lore.
Larry G. Patterson, an Arkansas state trooper and former bodyguard to Clinton, says he remembers that the then-governor once told him if Tyson rendered a favor, the poultry scion would always expect a favor in return. "There is a dark side to Don Tyson," Patterson recalled Clinton saying.
Nor is there any doubt among locals here that Tyson has played an important role in Clinton's political success. The evidence includes $18,500 in campaign contributions from Tyson Foods executives to Clinton's 1992 campaign, as well as generous contributions to other Administration officials.
Stanley Greenwood, a local Republican businessman, said he remembers encountering Tyson, Blair and another man in a local restaurant in the early 1980s. Even then, he said, they were plotting to get Clinton elected President.
"The person who put Bill Clinton in the White House is Don Tyson," Greenwood said.