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On the Clinton Story From Start to Finish

August 14, 2000|ANN O'NEILL

Paul Greenberg won't have William Jefferson Clinton to kick around much longer, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and editorial writer from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette already is feeling tiny pangs of loss.

Not that he loves Bill Clinton. Far from it.

Ever since he helped coin the Clinton moniker "Slick Willie" in 1980, Greenberg has enjoyed a unique position chronicling the Man From Hope's rise to the presidency and his struggles in office. It is, Greenberg recalls with genteel Southern modesty, "a unique position that was shared by everybody in Arkansas."

As his local story grew into a national drama, Greenberg found himself and his newspaper, circulation 275,000, suddenly in the spotlight.

He became a must-quote for the national press pack. Every time a new investigation was launched or something went wrong at the White House--and it often did--scribes from out of town beat a path to his door.

Greenberg had the pedigree. He'd won his Pulitzer in 1969 for editorials at the Pine Bluff Commercial about civil rights and school desegregation. But nothing could prepare him for the wild ride that began when he joined the Democrat-Gazette just as Clinton was rising from the governor's mansion in Little Rock to the White House in Washington.

He knew before the rest of us did.

Greenberg was among the first to see the character flaws of a politician with a potential for greatness--and, he says, a casual relationship with the truth.

Sipping coffee in a hotel bar in Los Angeles, Greenberg describes Clinton with a mixture of admiration and disappointment. "He's just a good ol' boy with remarkable skills who's been terribly casual," he said.

In 1992, Greenberg took an unusual step. While his newspaper doesn't endorse presidential candidates, Greenberg advised his readers not to vote for Arkansas' native son for president.

Then, and now, Greenberg takes great pains to avoid any smug "I-told-you-sos."

"Sometimes, even a blind hog can find an acorn," he quips.

Following Clinton's election to the presidency, there was a brief period of what Greenberg calls "Arkansas chic," when the nation seemed enamored with everything Razorback. That was eclipsed by Troopergate, Travelgate and Whitewater--investigations that portrayed Arkansas' politicians and their cronies as a corrupt La Bubba Nostra. Some of the state's best and brightest politicos were indicted or run out of office.

The scorched earth Clinton left behind did not play well back at home.

An overwhelming lame-duck malaise descended after the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal that continues to this day. Greenberg says he "can't wait until Jan. 21, 2001," when Clinton leaves office.


Although he is politically conservative, Greenberg is not your typical Clinton-basher. He says the Whitewater investigation was a terrible waste and that Clinton's political enemies "make sleaze look good."

He knows the Clinton story has been good for his newspaper, and his career. But maybe it hasn't been so great for his state, or his personal peace of mind.

"When you write about a politician for so long, you have to wonder if you aren't going a little nuts and becoming obsessed," Greenberg says.

On Sunday, Greenberg had planned to accompany the Arkansas delegation on a tour of Universal Studios and its theme park. But the last eight years have been enough of a thrill ride.

He stayed behind and reminisced. And then he retired to his hotel room to write. Again.

By the end of Clinton's first term as president, Greenberg had written enough columns to fill a book--"No Surprises: Two Decades of Clinton-Watching."

The book tour brought obligatory appearances on CNN and C-SPAN, but Greenberg did not join the ranks of TV pundits. "I am not good at it, and I don't enjoy it," he says.

As Clinton prepares for his swan song tonight at the Democratic National Convention, Greenberg is trying to score a floor pass. He says he wants to watch what he expects to be "a classic Clinton performance. Sometimes in the middle of a speech, he'll just take off. He'll either ascend to heaven or he'll wet his pants."

Either way, he says, "it will be a great act of self-abnegation. He's a self-correcting politician."

After decades of covering Clinton, Greenberg says he now feels only emptiness and a sense of "Clinton fatigue." The end, he believes, "is going to be such a relief because of everything we've been through. It's not that we're escaping some sort of evil period. It's just been so meaningless."

Greenberg is 63, and he knows his own career is winding to a close. He looks forward to rooting through documents at Clinton's presidential library and telling Clinton stories on bar stools.

"I'm going to miss him. I just don't know it yet."

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