Special late report: Whitewater guilt

Convictions keep issue alive, darken clouds for the Clintons

Published May 28, 1996 7:04PM (EDT)

The sweeping extent of Tuesday afternoon's guilty verdicts in the Whitewater federal trial are bound to give the moribund scandal new life. Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of one count of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy. President Clinton's former business partner, James McDougal, was found guilty of 18 of the 19 fraud charges against him. His wife, Susan, was found guilty of all four counts against her.

Immediately following the announcement of the verdict, we spoke to Gene Lyons, political columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who has contributed commentaries on Whitewater for Salon and is the author of the forthcoming "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater," to be published in June by Franklin Square Press.

You have persistently written that the Whitewater "scandal" is for the most part phony. Do the verdicts surprise you?

I'm very surprised that they convicted Gov. Jim Ray Tucker of anything. The general thinking among most journalists here in Little Rock was that they did not have a case against him.
I'm not surprised Jim McDougal was convicted, though I'm surprised it was across the board. And I am surprised they convicted Susan McDougal, considering that they had so little evidence against her. I guess the jury must have assumed what most people would assume regardless of evidence: that you don't not know where a $300,000 loan is going.

What does this do for independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who has taken a lot of hits lately?

It certainly gives him a shot in the arm. Had he not gotten a conviction against Tucker, then Whitewater, to all intents and purposes, would have been dead. The spin will be that the jury took Starr's chief witness, David Hale, seriously, even though they threw out the other counts against Tucker that Hale testified about. Tucker was convicted in relation to the Castle Grande matter, and Hillary Clinton's name has come up here, although the Pillsbury report said it was most unlikely she was involved in any wrongdoing. The verdicts also possibly give (Sen. Alfonse) D'Amato a way to have more hearings. I think he could now haul Jim McDougal up there if he wants to. He would like Hale, but Hale has said he won't testify.

What happens to Gov. Tucker?

I assume he'll have to resign. I'm sure he'll announce his appeal, and I doubt he'll be sentenced until after the appeal. Lawyers in town say there are grounds for reversible error, although the Eighth Circuit (which covers Arkansas) is almost entirely Republican, so there is very little chance of Tucker prevailing. I think what will be debated long and hard here is the huge gamble Tucker's attorney took by not putting him on the stand. Politically though, he'll have to resign; it's pretty shocking to have the governor convicted of a felony.

Clinton testified for the defense. I guess that testimony didn't look so good.

I don't think the jury considered that. They considered the evidence that he wasn't in any of the meetings, and that he had no knowledge of the alleged crimes one way or the other. If you look at his testimony closely, it was very damaging to Jim McDougal. It was at odds with what McDougal said -- as the prosecution stated in its final argument.

Still, this is not a good day for the Clintons.

My immediate reaction is because of the crudity with which the story is generally received -- that if anybody's guilty in Whitewater then everybody's guilty -- that this is not good for the president. But I don't know how really bad it is. It should be emphasized again that Clinton never borrowed any money from Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan (which McDougal owned); in fact he had no business with it, except that McDougal put the Whitewater checking account there. The Clintons never did any business with David Hale -- or so they have testified. And Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker are not only not business associates, they're not even friends -- in fact, they're rivals.

But I suspect things being as they are, there are going to be a lot people who are going to try and blame all this on Clinton, to try and suck him into this again.

The young inherit the Sierra Club

New 23-year-old leader brings tougher attitude to old-line environmental group


The Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the country, is undergoing a revolution. Members fired the first shot two months ago when they supported a ban on all logging on public lands in the U.S. The vote, a two-thirds majority, was a stunning renunciation of the compromise policy favored by the club's board of directors, and came just one year after a similar "zero-cut" initiative was roundly defeated. Then last week the same board of directors "unanimously" elected Adam Werbach, a 23-year old student activist, as Sierra Club president -- the youngest in the organization's 104-year history.

Werbach's rise signals a profound shift in culture and policy for the 587,000-member organization, away from a staid assemblage of white, middle-class mountaineers and hikers to a politically uncompromising, and decidedly more youthful, advocacy group. A national board member for two years, Werbach led a strike force of 30,000 volunteers calling themselves the Sierra Student Coalition. Their goal is clear and singular: to roll back the assault against environmental legislation wrought by the 104th Congress. "The only way to do that," said Werbach, in an interview with Salon, "is to make the environment the number-one issue on voters' minds."

A cautious Werbach refuses to describe his victory as a coup. Instead he calls it "a continuation of the Club's proud legacy -- you know...... John Muir, Ansel Adams, David Brower." Significantly, he omitted retiring president Robbie Cox and Cox's predecessor Michelle Perrault, who ran hard against Werbach for the powerful position. Indeed, the apparent unanimity of Werbach's election was misleading, as the open vote of the full board was preceded by a bitterly contested secret ballot in which Perrault, wife of conservative board member Philip Berry and former member of the President's Commission on Sustainable Development, was defeated by just one vote.

Cox and Perrault represented an era of polite, conciliatory environmentalism that began with the firing of the Club's forceful former executive director, David Brower, in 1969. Increasingly dissatisfied with the Club's direction, members voted to put Earth First co-founder, Dave Foreman, on the board of directors in a previous open election. It was Foreman who nominated Werbach, while Brower, also a recently-elected "dissident" board member, acted as Werbach's unofficial campaign manager. "We need a new generation of leaders," asserts the 83-year-old Brower.

Werbach says he plans to make the presidency a full-time job, accepting a small stipend and expenses to travel the country from chapter to chapter, and to "lead the club into its second century." But he is careful not to position himself as a dissident or a radical, despite the fervor of his supporters. "I certainly had feelings about logging in national forests," he admits, "but I stayed out of that fight and took no public position." He won't say how he voted on the "zero-cut" resolution.

When asked whether he planned any major changes in club leadership and senior staff positions, including current executive-director Carl Pope, Werbach paused for a moment. "The club should be run by its members," he replied. "I want to encourage democracy in every way I can." As for his own youth, Werbach dismissed notions of Generation X as "a myth." "It's time we stepped up and acted on our values," he says, calling the environment "the primary issue that prompts my generation to take social and political action."

Werbach is confident that the environment will be a key issue in the November elections. "This year, an unprecedented number of Americans who are worried about the erosion of our nation's environmental protections will use their power at the polls," he says. But the southern California native questions the effectiveness of the Club's lobbying efforts on federal and state legislatures. "We can't buy congressmen. They cost too much," he says. Sierra Club advocacy under Werbach will concentrate more on the media and, through the media, on the voters themselves, he says. "Only that way can we turn this government around."

Mark Dowie is the author of "Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century" (MIT Press).

Quote of the day

The dental theory of history

"General Franco's stern conservatism and crotchety temper should be attributed largely to bad teeth... Franco's mouth was always seeping pus, and this constant torment made him bad-tempered
and aloof, and may have produced a profound sense of sexual insecurity. The life-long fear of losing all his teeth may have greatly heightened Franco's political conservatism."

-- The Times of London, describing a new biography of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, "Los Dientes de Franco" (Franco's Teeth), by Julio Gonzàlez Iglesias, professor of odontology at the University of Madrid. The dust-jacket describes the just-published book as a "patho-biography of Franco through the revelations of his dentists."

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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