The Arkansas Project Unmasked
The Hunting of the President: The Ten-year Campaign to Destroy Hillary and Bill Clinton
This is the most disgustingly fascinating political book I’ve ever read. As the subtitle indicates, it is the anatomy of a would-be political murder. I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of laying out the corpse than Joe Conason and Gene Lyons have done. (Conason is a longtime New York reporter, national correspondent for the Village Voice in the Eighties; Lyons, a former Newsweek editor, wrote Fools for Scandal, about the media’s response to Whitewater.) The Hunting of the President is the “story of the most successful and long-running ‘dirty tricks’ campaign in recent American history, fomented by a handful of professional Republican operatives and corporate lawyers, and funded by a network of wealthy conservatives.”
At the center of this cabal, the authors tell us, were
longtime Clinton adversaries from Arkansas and elsewhere: an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists…. Indeed, the effort to destroy Clinton began early on in the highest councils of the Republican National Committee, and included aides to former president George Bush. Arguably, not even the chief justice of the United States held himself aloof from the great crusade.
If ever there was a time when the nation needed, and didn’t have, the protection of an alert, fair-minded press, it was in the years when the right-wing was hunting the President. Even at its best, the press would have had its hands full. The hunters were a tough crowd. The guiding members of this Republican conspiracy were, by any commonsense ethical standard, evil right down to the bone. As for their troops, witting and unwitting – the state cops who boasted of pimping for Clinton when he was Arkansas Governor and the bimbos who went public and all the others in that seemingly endless line of rumor-hucksters – they don’t seem to have had enough imagination to be rated as evil. They were mostly just primitive capitalists, in it for the money (of which some of them got a great deal) and can be classified simply as (to use that good old Southern expression) white trash.
Hillary identified them as “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” She was right, although the membership was pretty loose. The conspirational side was underscored by the secrecy of those who put together what they called “The Arkansas Project”: a four-year, $2.4 million effort to dig up enough dirt to ruin Clinton. There was no shortage of kooks in the Arkansas Project, but perhaps the most important kook, because most of the money came from him, was Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to a big hunk of Mellon oil-and-steel billions. He had poured many millions into right-wing causes over the years – our authors estimate $300 million – and now he didn’t mind spending a few more, as he told friends, “to get that goddamn guy out of the White House.”
With that aim, he subsidized newspapers, magazines, book publishers and their writers to portray Clinton as (1) an international drug trafficker, (2) the murderer of Clinton’s longtime friend and White House aide Vincent Foster, who committed suicide shortly after arriving in Washington, (3) the defrauder of an Arkansas savings and loan, and (4) the ravisher of half the women in Arkansas. Scaife and his numerous allies managed to get the mainline press to give some attention to most of these fantasies, a lot of attention to a couple. And, of course, they had no trouble getting all accepted as gospel by the right-wing press and on talk shows with the help of guys like Rush Limbaugh, who even embellished the Foster “murder” by telling his audience that it was committed in an apartment owned by Hillary.
For the Arkansas Project, Scaife’s chosen outlet of anti-Clinton propaganda was the American Spectator, “the country’s premier venue for right-wing muckraking” and the favorite reading of conservatives looking for titillation. Its playboy publisher, R. Emmett Tyrrell, loved to indulge in fantasy and pure gossip.
Another member of the Arkansas Project who subsidized that kind of stuff was Peter Smith, head of an investment bank in Chicago. He wasn’t filthy rich like Scaife, but he was wealthy enough to spend $80,000 on private detectives and to subsidize American Spectator reporters in a hunt for the black baby that Clinton was rumored to have sired. (That rumor was launched by the supermarket tabloid Globe.).
Among other notable mud-slingers in the Arkansas Project was Little Rock attorney Cliff Jackson, a religious fundamentalist who had been Fulbright scholar at Oxford when Clinton was there on a Rhodes scholarship. Perhaps out of jealousy, he stirred up plenty of trouble for his old schoolmate. He was the main source of data (not all of it accurate, of course) supporting the profile of Clinton as a draft-dodger of the Vietnam war. The authors point out that “Jackson himself got a medical deferment.” Jackson also tipped off Peter Smith that four of Clinton’s former bodyguards were ready to spill the beans about their boss’s debauchery – for a price.
Perhaps most symbolic of the Arkansas Project’s spirit and motivation was Jim Johnson, a crafty racist who pined for the good old days when whites could kill blacks with impunity. Despite the solid support of the Ku Klux Klan, Johnson’s one effort to become governor failed, but he was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Clinton liked black people, appointed dozens of black officials, and “Judge” Johnson hated him for it. You could fairly draw that assumption from Johnson’s appraisal of Clinton as “a queer-mongering, whore-hopping adulterer; a baby-killing, draft-dodging, dope-tolerating, lying, two-faced, treasonist activist.” Yes, even low enough to be an activist.
The Klan and its up-scale affiliate, the White Citizens Council (of which Johnson had been the statewide director), once had a very active spy system, and many of their members were still around to supply Johnson with rumored dirt on Clinton, which Johnson then passed on to any reporter who would listen. Quite a few did.
Especially willing to print any and all of this gossip was the Washington Times (owned by Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon, a very generous patron of Republican presidents) whose editor was Wesley Pruden, a native of Little Rock and the son of the former chaplain of Johnson’s White Citizens Council. As journalism, the Washington Times is pitiful, but it is influential with conservatives in the nation’s capital.
If I seem to be emphasizing the role of propaganda in the anti-Clinton crusade, that’s because nothing was of more importance. And that’s why Lyons and Conason have made The Hunting of the President not only an account of right-wing Republican villainy, but also an account of the mainline press’ incompetence and stupidity and gullibility on a monumental scale. If you believe Conason and Lyons (as I certainly do), you will finish this book determined never again to read The New York Times or Washington Post coverage of political scandals without having several pounds of salt handy at your side. The Times likes to be know as the nation’s “newspaper of record.” What a joke. Conason and Lyons show the Times and the Post and their imitators repeatedly getting sucked in by con men, missing the point in vital legal quarrels, playing unfair with the facts, sometimes by distorting them, sometimes by ignoring them, sometimes deliberately misquoting the Clintons (the authors give a stunning example of ABC’s doing this). Both papers were too arrogant to admit their mistakes, even after they became obvious. Worst of all, the rest of the press, or most of it, took its lead from the Times and the Post, so the pollution of their coverage seeped into numerous other newspapers and of course into the copycat television networks.
Atwater, Nelson, Nichols, and Flowers
The campaign to destroy Clinton was launched in 1989 by the late (thank goodness) Lee Atwater, whom most political observers (even Republicans) rate as the dirtiest political strategist of the twentieth century. Because he put together President Bush’s winning campaign in 1988 – a campaign infamous for the “Willie Horton” TV ad that portrayed the Democratic candidate as a defender of black rapists and black murderers – Atwater was named head of the Republican National Committee. His job was to re-elect Bush, and he was worried. At a meeting of Republican honchos in Little Rock in 1989, he said, “What scares me is a southern moderate or conservative Democrat, and the scariest of all, because he’s the most talented of the bunch, is Bill Clinton.”
The best way to eliminate Clinton from the 1992 presidential race would be to defeat him in the 1990 governor’s race. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their nominee, Sheffield Nelson, had used his influence as a top state bureaucrat to sell one of the richest natural gas fields in North America to one of his pals, Jerry Jones, for the give-away price of $15 million; ultimately, Arkansas had to buy it back for $175 million. (Jones spent part of his enormous profits to buy the Dallas Cowboys.) For some reason, voters got the impression the state had been screwed.
By constantly implying that Nelson was a crook, Clinton was easily re-elected. But Nelson would get lots of revenge for his defeat. Over the next several years, he helped launch some of the juiciest (and usually false) rumors about Clinton’s sins. Conason and Lyons seem convinced that he was behind the black baby rumor, and also the story that Clinton had raped the proprietress of a nursing home. They are also convinced it was Nelson who triggered the Whitewater scandal. That makes Nelson a major player on the Arkansas Project’s team, for the Clinton-hating cabal never had more than two things to work with: Whitewater (the details of which the public never really understood) and sex. For a long while, Whitewater was by far the most important matter, because until Monica Lewinsky came along, the Clinton-haters were seldom able to lift the sex charges above the level of burlesque.
That was evident in both Clinton’s 1990 gubernatorial race and in his 1992 presidential campaign, when his sexual escapades were first made a public issue. Sheffield Nelson may have been the hidden instigator, but fortunately for Clinton, the man out front making the charge was Larry Nichols, whose reputation was pretty lousy. One Arkansas Congressman considered Nichols a “nut case,” and he had been fired from state government by Clinton’s chief of staff, Betsey Wright, because she considered him a “dangerous con artist.” On the eve of the gubernatorial election, he filed a lawsuit accusing Clinton of spending state funds to support five mistresses. Because it was merely a state election, and because tales of improper sex have been wrapped around virtually every Arkansas politician of modern times, it wasn’t taken seriously by the voters or the Arkansas press.
But Nichols wasn’t through. On the evening of the 1992 presidential primary in New Hampshire, he was back, and so was one of the mistresses he had named, Gennifer Flowers. If she was after money, she was successful, ultimately pulling over $500,000 from girlie magazines and supermarket tabloids. Alas, if the poor girl ever possessed any credibility, she came out of this with none. In her book, Passion and Betrayal, she claimed numerous trysts with Clinton between 1978 and 1980 at Little Rock’s Excelsior Hotel – which wasn’t built until 1983. If Sheffield Nelson, who by then was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, had orchestrated the Flowers story, he did a bum job. Almost every claim in her résumé was easily revealed as false: she wasn’t a graduate of a fashionable Dallas prep school, and had never attended one; she didn’t have a University of Arkansas nursing degree; she had never been, as she claimed, Miss Teenage America. Her “twin sister Genevieve” also turned out to be imaginary.
The Flowers/Nichols episode was farcical, yes, but as Conason and Lyons note, it was also ominous in showing how, with the help of the national press, “a pair of rank amateurs with almost no credibility among journalists in their hometown were able to make national headlines, turn themselves into minor celebrities, and earn a substantial amount of cash in the bargain.” It set a considerable political precedent.
Friends of Bill
Spreading sex stories must have been satisfying to Sheffield Nelson, but his role in triggering the Whitewater Scandal was much more important – not in itself, but because it ultimately led to the appointment of Kenneth Starr as independent counsel. Starr, long after Whitewater was dead, kept hanging around and snooping hither and yon, until, voilá! – he stumbled upon Monica Lewinsky, down on her knees. Though the press kept Whitewater in headlines for years, it didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and didn’t qualify as a scandal at all. Even if there had been some financial shenanigans connected with Whitewater, the authors sensibly ask, “How much scandal could there be in a gravel-road real estate development in which the Clintons had ultimately lost money?”
Anyone who, like Clinton, is successful in politics all his life, inevitably winds up with a jillion “friends.” Not all turn out to be so friendly. For Clinton, one of that caliber was Jim McDougal, with whom he borrowed money to buy a piece of land they hoped to sell at enough profit for each of them to walk away with about $45,000. That was nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1978. When they started out as partners, McDougal was teaching political science at little Ouachita Baptist University. But he was a smooth talker, very likable, a natural con man, and he managed to put together enough money to buy a small bank and start up a savings and loan.
There were occasions when McDougal did not act rationally (he spent time in a mental institution). As a banker, he became addicted to shifting money around in fishy ways, and his bookkeeping was atrocious. Accounts became hopelessly muddled. Money disappeared. By the time the Clintons discovered what was happening, their investments had been wiped out and the Whitewater venture was kaput. Ultimately, McDougal’s S&L also went belly up, and taxpayers had to pay for his folly. Federal agents spent years going through his messed up books, trying to figure out what the hell had happened.
Meanwhile, McDougal was broke, sick, living off charity, and desperate. He asked Clinton for help. Clinton wanted nothing else to do with him. That made McDougal furious. Enter Sheffield Nelson again, and the plot thickens. In 1992, he learned of McDougal’s fury and, according to McDougal, “gleefully” got in touch with Jeff Gerth, one of The New York Times’ preeminent investigative reporters. Down came Gerth, and McDougal plied him “with documents and canceled checks allegedly showing the Clintons had taken improper tax deductions” and in other ways had acted unethically. In the past, Gerth had shown considerable savvy in handling investigations involving finances. This time, with the bungling assistance of his editors, he fell on his face. The mistakes, Conason and Lyons demonstrate, began with the headline and continue through the details. For one thing, Gerth wrote that Governor Clinton had dumped the sitting Arkansas security commissioner and replaced him with a political ally to grant special favors to McDougal’s thrift. Actually, Clinton’s appointee had taken steps to shut down McDougal’s thrift. The official who was allegedly dumped – a Republican who had simply resigned to enter private law practice – called the Times story “unmitigated horseshit.”
Gerth’s story was so poorly written and edited, and so confusing, that it had little immediate impact on whatever might be called the public’s mind. But it was the small noise that dislodged what would become the “Whitewater Scandal” avalanche. The Clinton-hating cabal loved it, because it gave them a way to cry, “Cover-Up!”
Enter L. Jean Lewis. Lewis, who had grown up in a military family in Texas and proudly identified herself as a conservative Republican, was hired as an investigator for the federal Resolution Trust Corporation, although she was neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and had no training in law enforcement. The R.T.C. had been set up to hunt down crooks who in the Eighties had caused hundreds of savings and loan organizations to collapse, costing taxpayers an estimated $500 billion. From her office in Tulsa, Lewis sifted through the records of failed Arkansas thrifts looking for evidence of criminal fraud. At the top of her list of suspects were two thrifts that together had cost taxpayers $1.5 billion. At the bottom of her list – and properly so – was James McDougal’s Madison Guaranty, the failure of which had cost taxpayers one-twentieth as much.
That was until Lewis read Gerth’s Times story, when her priorities abruptly and radically altered. Although neither the Whitewater operation nor the Clintons had ever borrowed money from McDougal’s thrift, it now jumped to the top of her list, and she made a criminal referral of tiny Madison Guaranty, naming not only James and Susan McDougal as suspected felons but also every contributor to a 1985 Clinton fundraising event held at Madison Guaranty. Bill and Hillary Clinton were cited as “possible witnesses,” as were former U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and several other top Democrats.
Lewis filed her criminal referral just two months before the 1992 presidential election. The timing was so embarrassingly obvious that it pissed off the Little Rock F.B.I. office and the U.S. attorney. They told their bosses in D.C. that it looked like Lewis was playing politics, and that in their opinion there was “absolutely no factual basis to suggest criminal activity on the part of any of the individuals listed as witnesses,” including the Clintons. But later Lewis tried again, this time charging that deposits in McDougal’s S&L had been illegally diverted to Clinton’s campaign fund. When, once again, her charges fell into a void, friendly reporters, who had been getting loads of leaks from her, began to imply that she was the victim of a bureaucratic cover-up. The cry of Cover-Up, once sounded, reverberates for a long time, and it made Lewis something of a heroine to the right wing. She was duly called to testify at the Senate’s Whitewater hearings, run by Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato (also known as “Senator Shakedown,” because of his own ways of raising money). But the Democrats were ready for Lewis. As they began reading the Justice Department’s low opinion of her grasp of the law, she began to tremble, and then fainted dead away. While thousands watching C-SPAN saw her swoon, the Times and Post reporters were apparently looking elsewhere, because neither paper reported it, nor mentioned the Justice Department’s stern judgment.
Let us pause for a moment, to speak once more about the conduct of the press during this period. Not all of the reporters were unfair. But it is certainly true, as the Times’ Anthony Lewis wrote: “On Whitewater, the press too often seems an eager accomplice of the accusers…. Some of the coverage of Whitewater reads as if the reporters or editors were committed to finding something wrong – as if they had an investment in the story.” Nowhere was this biased investment more evident than in the press treatment of the “Pillsbury Report.” The Resolution Trust Corporation, as part of its oversight, had hired (for $3.6 million) the San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, to investigate thoroughly the allegations made against the Clintons concerning Whitewater. Bear in mind, Pillsbury is a conservative, establishment law firm, right down to its roots, and the White House had good reason to fear it would undertake a partisan investigation. Instead, write Conason and Lyons, “Based on the Clintons’ sworn interrogatories, interviews with 45 other witnesses, and some 200,000 documents, the report concluded that the president and first lady had told the truth about their Whitewater investment,” and that, “There is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct.”
Here was major, major development. It was the first long-term, meticulous study – several volumes plus appendixes – of everything relating to Whitewater, and it had been performed by a law firm of unmatched integrity. So how did the press receive it? The Wall Street Journal was a beautiful exception: though the Journal’s editorial page was a servile conduit for all the scurrilous anti-Clinton gossip, its reporters were straight, and they gave the Pillsbury Report full coverage. The Washington Post, on the other hand, buried the report in a brief mention inside a story on another topic; The New York Times waited two weeks before mentioning it al all, and then did so on Christmas Eve (when newspapers are little read), with a very sketchy summation on page twelve. “The major television networks,” add the authors, “predictably followed the Times and the Post. For the great majority of the Washington press corps, and thus for their national audience, the Pillsbury Report and the facts and conclusions its authors had painstakingly assembled didn’t exist.”
The press was more eager to write about mythical cover-ups. It would have yet another chance to do so, and this time the accusation would come from a source much more colorful than L. Jean Lewis. It was a source completely controlled – and welcomed as a veritable godsend – by leaders of the Arkansas Project. Meet David Hale, another of the Arkansas fraternity of master con men.
From Hale to Starr
Hale was an apparent pillar of the Little Rock community, a former national president of the Jaycees, and a devout Baptist. But he was an even more devout swindler (he even swindled his mistress’ grandparents out of their farm). While sitting as a municipal judge, he also operated an investment company, which made loans insured by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Hale loaned millions of dollars to more than a dozen dummy companies he secretly owned. One by one, he would kill off the companies and pocket the government’s insurance. (Hale wasn’t the brightest crook; he listed all the dummy companies at the same address: his office.) In July, 1993, Hale was arrested and charged with cheating the S.B.A. out of $3.4 million, of which he pocketed more than $2 million.
You might wonder why the big dogs of the Arkansas Project would be interested in a hayseed shyster like Hale, but in fact he was just what they were looking for: he was totally unscrupulous; he was a magnificent liar; he had had some financial dealings with James McDougal – and that could be stretched to mean he had had some unsavory financial dealings with Bill Clinton. Best of all, if the Project’s mighty phalanx of lawyers played Hale right, his case could be used to circumvent the regular legal system and force the government to appoint an independent counsel – and if the right counsel was appointed, the investigation could go in every direction, and last until something really wonderfully dirty turned up.
Could the legal system really be circumvented like that? The Arkansas Project had recruited some of the most powerful lawyers in the country: men such as Theodore Olson, assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration (and coincidentally, a former law partner of one Kenneth Starr); and Robert Bork, Nixon’s notorious acting attorney general in the dying days of that administration, and still a poker-playing buddy of the most reactionary members of the Supreme Court. Yes, they could do it, and they did. But first, Hale had to be coached by the Project’s propaganda team, which was run by Judge Johnson (you remember Johnson, the Arkansas Supreme Court judge beloved of the Klan).
Johnson told Hale the only chance he had to beat the fraud charges was to whip up enough public support by seeing that “all the facts were made available to the major news outlets throughout the world,” Johnson recalled. “I helped him get that project in motion.” “All the facts,” as Hale was tutored to present them, came down to this: as Governor, Clinton had pressured Hale into making a round-robin of illegal loans with McDougal’s company. Something over a million bucks would be moved around. Everyone would profit, including what Hale called the “political family” in Little Rock.
Whoa! At first the press was wary of using Hale’s yarn. How seriously should they take this scumbag? But soon the Times and the Post cast caution aside and, Conason and Lyons tell us, “this set off a competitive fray not only between the two major newspapers – reviving the old rivalry of the Watergate era – but at other papers and in the electronic media. Almost instantaneously, Hale was transformed from a recalcitrant embezzler into a credible source. Both newspapers downplayed his crimes, and their imitators did likewise.”
Having baited the hook with Hale’s fabulous lies about his closeness to the Clintons and the McDougals, his lawyers were ready to cast their line. This was their offer: if federal prosecutors would reduce his indictment to a misdemeanor, Hale would tell all about “the banking and borrowing practices of the elite political circles of Arkansas.” Of course, they didn’t expect the prosecutors to accept the offer. Call a multi-million dollar swindle a misdemeanor?! Not likely. But refusal was just what Hale’s attorneys wanted, because then they could argue that the Justice Department didn’t want Hale’s information to come out for fear it would hurt Clinton – and that the case should be transferred to an independent counsel. It worked: Hale’s offer was indeed refused, and the “Cover-Up” chorus began. The press happily joined in, with the Times and the Post editorially urging Attorney General Reno to appoint an independent counsel to take over the Whitewater investigation. Clinton caved in, and ordered Reno to do it. She appointed Robert G. Fiske, one of the country’s most respected attorneys. In his days as a federal prosecutor in New York, he was tough, non-partisan (though a Republican), and fair. Even some of the most anti-Clinton Republicans, like Bob Dole, praised Fiske’s appointment.
But not for long. After making the Arkansas Project’s most eloquent liar plead guilty to two felony counts, Fiske had his grand juries make quick work of the crackpot allegations about Foster’s death and the alleged obstruction of the Whitewater probe by administration officials. Not a single indictment was handed down. In less than six months, Fiske had swept out a lot of rubbish.
The right-wing cabal was outraged. That wasn’t the kind of independent counsel they wanted. They wanted to appoint their own kind. They were about to get their chance. On the very day Fiske released his findings, Clinton signed the newly reauthorized Independent Counsel Act. With his signature, he pushed Reno out of the picture and “returned the power to choose and supervise independent counsels to the Special Division, the panel of three federal appeals judges selected by William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court. Once appointed, an independent counsel ultimately answered to no one else, regardless of his or her excesses – not even to the attorney general.”
Result: Rehnquist, the most reactionary Chief Justice in a century, named David Sentelle to preside over the three-judge selection panel. Sentelle, a man of extremely conservative religiosity, had written articles warning that the “leftist heretics” want to transform this country into “a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state.” So it was not surprising when Sentelle’s panel (after Sentelle consulted with his infamous mentor, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina) selected Kenneth Starr to continue the Whitewater probe. Thus ended August 1994.
The Starr Chamber
Son of a Church of Christ minister, Starr is a fundamentalist who sometimes impresses judges by reading the Bible during lulls in the courtroom. But he is also on excellent terms with Mammon. At the time of his appointment, he was earning a million a year defending tobacco and auto companies against consumers, and he continued to do so even after his appointment. By working for a law firm that was suing the government, Starr thereby engaged in another of his conflicts of interest, but that didn’t seem to bother him. In other words, he was a Bible-quoter with a low ethical standard who was willing to cast the first stone: just the man the Arkansas Project had wanted all along.
The pathetic thing about this development is that it need not have happened at all. Clinton could have vetoed the new Independent Counsel Act and his veto would have held up. Many in both parties were sick of the very costly and mostly meaningless investigations that had been carried out by independent counsels in recent years. Although the ultra-conservatives of the Arkansas Project were eager to use the new power to shaft Clinton, many ultra-conservatives, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, shuddered at the prospect of anyone having that kind of power. So why did Clinton sign it? “For all his skills,” write Lyons and Conason, “Clinton’s greatest political vulnerability lay in his eagerness to compromise with his enemies.” But, say the authors, “As he put pen to paper in the Oval Office, he muttered, ‘I may be making a terrible mistake.'”
For three years, however, Clinton’s luck held. Starr discovered that, for all his digging, Whitewater was what Hillary said it was: “a never-ending fictional conspiracy that honest-to-goodness reminds me of some people’s obsession with U.F.O.s.” Though he kept telling the press he was “getting close” to a Whitewater breakthrough, he had in fact run into such a wall that one month after Clinton’s second inaugural in 1997, Starr announced that he was resigning to become dean of Pepperdine University Law School (subsidized by that faithful old wacko, Richard Mellon Scaife). The announcement provoked such outrage from his far-right supporters, and denunciations as a “quitter” by Times columnist William Safire and others, that four days later he said he would stay on.
But for what? Sex. That was the only thing left to investigate, and at first – despite all the rumors, inflated by the tabloids, floating up from Clinton’s past – Starr had little to work with. But that would change, thanks to a malleable hick named Paula Jones, an absolute nobody who would become somebody by helping to keep the avalanche going until it smothered Bill Clinton.
The Last Bimbo
Not long before Starr settled in as independent counsel, Paula Jones attended a major convention of Washington’s most right-wing Republicans in the Shoreham Hotel, where she made her debut as a putative victim of Clinton’s lechery. She told a press conference that in 1991, when she was a state employee working at a conference at Little Rock’s Excelsior Hotel, Governor Clinton had sent a trooper to invite her to his room. Thinking it might help her win better employment, she went. To her dismay, she said, Clinton had exposed himself and asked for oral sex.
The reviews of her D.C. appearance were dismal, but her backers weren’t discouraged. “From the very beginning, Clinton’s right-wing enemies subsidized Paula Jones” – her trips, her hotel suites, and particularly her legal fees – and they decided that they would give her complaint legitimacy by suing Clinton, whatever the cost. The description of how the behind-the-scenes army of lawyers was assembled for Jones is awesome. (Indeed, Starr himself had offered at one time to write her brief for free. That offer, and the fact that some of his law partners were involved in her legal team, were conflicts of interest that would have kept a lawyer of any integrity from accepting the independent counsel job.)
The lawsuit made Jones a celebrity. It also made her very dangerous. Sensing peril, Clinton’s lawyers offered to settle, for $700,000. But in a conspiracy – a veritable cobweb of slyness – that is too complicated to summarize here, Jones’ lawyers blocked the settlement. They also persuaded the Supreme Court, for the first time in history, to allow a sitting president to face trial. As long as her case was still active, her lawyers knew it could ultimately lead to more mischief for Clinton.
In her legal pleadings, Jones claimed that because of her encounter with Clinton, she had been mistreated at work, denied raises and promotions. (After scoring 45 percent on a grammar test and missing eleven of thirty-four questions in an alphabetizing exercise, she still expected promotions?) On the basis of those claims, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright “granted the Jones attorneys broad discovery to ask about the president’s sexual conduct with other state and federal employees like Gennifer Flowers and Kathleen Willey.” But the judge’s permission, as they say, was irrelevant and immaterial, because Jones’ attorneys were already asking those questions. So was Starr. So were several aggressive reporters. Step by step, bimbo by bimbo, they were tracking down their quarry. Clinton, vulnerable privately if not publicly, was almost in their grasp.
What had begun, years before, as an investigation of a failed Arkansas land deal, had finally would up as an investigation of Oval Office sexual dirt. The late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (quoted twice by jurists in The Hunting of the President) had been right about prosecutorial abuse:
Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor; that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than the cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him.
Robert Sherrill is the author of The Accidental President, The Oil Follies of 1970-1980, Why They Call It Politics, and several other books.