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A Cabal of Rival Politicians

August 11, 1996|Harry S. Ashmore | Harry S. Ashmore is updating the account of the Clinton administration in his book "Civil Rights and Wrongs," for a new edition to be published in the spring of 1997

SANTA BARBARA — Historians tell us that every American president, with the possible exception of George Washington, was subjected to some degree of character assassination when he stood for reelection. It will soon be Bill Clinton's turn. And it should come as no surprise that the Republican campaign to unseat him will include a portrayal of the president as a duplicitous small-time politician surrounded by ignorant/venal aides imported from his benighted home state of Arkansas.

This kind of cultural demonization necessarily entangles the first lady, the senior White House staff, Clinton's associates during the five terms he served as governor of Arkansas and the feckless constituents who kept on reelecting him. It conforms to the media's long-standing stereotype of the state as a kind of atrophied Dog Patch, and it has bemused many a political writer.

In a New Yorker article, for example, David Remnick concluded: "If the 'affair' called Whitewater has so far failed to come up with much in the way of crimes and misdemeanors, it has certainly revealed a political sociology: a low-rent atmosphere in which a few dozen people run the state, know one another all too well, and do right by one another."

The existence of such a primitive, closed-end cabal was essential to the Whitewa ter criminal cases brought by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Without it, there would have been no basis for reopening the investigation of a failed Arkansas savings and loan headed by James B. McDougal, onetime partner of the Clintons in the ill-fated Whitewater venture.

McDougal and his former wife, Susan, have been tried and convicted of conspiracy to defraud two federally backed financial institutions. Even so, he hardly qualified as a political shaker and mover in Arkansas, so a Democrat who did, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, was also indicted in the savings-and-loan scandal. Tucker, identified in the media as Clinton's hand-picked successor, was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in the same trial.

But, as a jury familiar with the reality of Arkansas politics was aware, treating Tucker and Clinton as bedfellows was preposterous. They had been bitter rivals since they emerged in the 1970s as the golden boys of a new political era. Clinton had all but destroyed Tucker politically in the course of two vitriolic gubernatorial campaigns; when Tucker was elected lieutenant governor in 1990, Clinton saw to it that he was kept away from the reins of government.

The lack of connection between the two politicians was underscored in federal court, when Tucker was indicted for fraud in a cable-TV venture in Florida. In the absence of any showing that Clinton had a role in these transactions, Tucker's lawyers challenged the standing of the special prosecutor to bring the indictment. U.S. District Judge Henry Woods ruled that Starr had exceeded his Whitewater writ in going after Tucker.

Starr appealed, submitting a package of newspaper clippings to support the disqualification of Woods on the ground that he was known to be a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A panel of three judges on the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Starr, but another district judge, Bill Wilson, entered the fray. He charged that the appeals-court judges had acted on the basis of "hearsay, hearsay on hearsay and triple hearsay contained in media reports."

Wilson, in a letter circulated to all jurists on the 8th Circuit, cited an article in Starr's exhibit by "a thoroughly discredited, save-your-Confederate-money-boys, die-hard segregationist, Justice Jim Johnson." Since they were not Arkansans, he said, the three appeals-court judges who made the ruling without a hearing had no way of knowing that Johnson, the founder of the Arkansas chapter of the White Citizens Councils, had for more than 40 years subjected the state's political leadership to "scurrilous allegations made of the whole cloth."

The partisan controversy generated by the Whitewater scenario now involves all three branches of the federal government. And it also points up the fallacy of the media treatment of Arkansas as a state held in thrall by a handful of like-minded highbinders.

As executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, I was present at the creation of the ideological division in the state's political establishment. There hasn't been anything resembling a conventional political machine in Arkansas since Orval Faubus temporarily built one out of popular resentment against school desegregation. In my day, and even more so in Clinton's, the most striking aspect of the political scene has been the infighting that breaks out at election time.

There are, of course, power brokers in Arkansas. They operate on the principle enunciated by the late Jesse Unruh, the longtime Assembly speaker in the California Legislature, who cited money as the mother's milk of politics. But the special-interest influence I witnessed in Little Rock never reached the level that now prevails in Sacramento.

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