LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton says there's a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to destroy her husband and reverse the results of the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. Given no concrete evidence, most pundits have dismissed her accusations as a combination of White House spin and a steely eyed determination by the first lady to stand by her man, particularly if it means keeping him in the White House.
But those pundits don't know what Hillary Clinton has known. Had they been in Arkansas before the Clintons went to the White House, they might have been less inclined to laugh off her accusations as Oliver Stone-like ravings.
In fact, they might have conceded that while Clinton went a little far, she does have a point: that there were interconnections, originating in his home state, between the president's bitterest and most unscrupulous political enemies. That a loose cabal indeed has existed since at least the Arkansas gubernatorial race of 1990 to smear Bill Clinton with sexual innuendo and destroy his political career.
And if the members of the fourth estate were to truly look into their souls -- rather than the sham breast-beating we are currently witnessing -- they might have to acknowledge their own role in creating an image of a man that is almost wholly unsupported by the facts, but may contribute to his downfall.
Let's start with Gennifer Flowers.
She is crucial to a consideration of President Clinton's current imbroglio, because, as we are being reminded ad nauseam, if he lied about not having had an affair with her, then how are we supposed to believe his denials about the Monica Lewinsky affair?
On Jan. 26, 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton
appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to confront Flowers' lurid account of a 12-year affair with the candidate in the supermarket tabloid the Star, for which she was paid, according to the Wall Street Journal, upwards of $140,000. Flowers earned another untold sum for an even more sexually explicit Penthouse version accompanied by a pictorial layout. ("I dare Hillary to bare her butt in any magazine," Flowers taunted. "They don't have a page that broad.")
On "60 Minutes," correspondent Steve Croft asked Bill Clinton about Flowers'
allegation of a 12-year affair. "That allegation," he replied firmly, "is false." In response to a follow-up question, Clinton added that both he and Flowers herself had previously denied the affair. He went on famously to acknowledge having "caused pain in my marriage," adding that he trusted voters to understand what he meant by that.
In effect, Clinton had admitted adultery, although Croft never asked the conclusive "have you ever" question, and
Clinton certainly never answered it. In a contemporaneous ABC News poll, 73 percent of respondents said they agreed with Clinton that whether or not he'd ever had an extramarital
affair was between him and his wife.
The next day, Flowers held a press conference in a
New York hotel ballroom. Dressed in a scarlet dress with matching lipstick, she played excerpts from tape-recordings of several telephone conversations with Clinton, and declaimed, "Yes, I was Bill Clinton's lover for 12 years, and for the past two years I have lied about the relationship. The truth is I loved him. Now he tells me to deny it. Well, I'm sick of all the deceit, and I'm sick of all the lies." Soon after that, Flowers set up a 900 number for callers to listen to the famous tapes. In 1995 she published a book, "Passion and Betrayal." Last year, a sequel, "Sleeping with the President: My Intimate Years with Bill Clinton," was published, appropriately enough, by Anonymous Press.
Fast forward to January 1998. As a sidebar to l'affaire
Lewinsky, some mischievous sprite leaked to the press a story that President Clinton admitted having an affair with Gennifer Flowers during his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Immediately taken as gospel truth amid the general media freakout over the Lewinsky tapes, it led to the remarkable spectacle of Flowers lecturing the president on sexual morality on "Geraldo" and "Larry King Live."
A few days later came a counterleak. Time magazine reported Clinton had testified to having had sex with Flowers just one time, in 1977. A dalliance, a fling or a roll in the hay, most would agree, but hardly an "affair." Flowers propositioned him on a later occasion, the president allegedly testified, but he turned her down.
That Clinton may have caused "pain" -- with more than one woman -- during the early years of his marriage in the late 1970s is widely believed (although not proven), even among his supporters. But Arkansas locals were always skeptical that Clinton had a lengthy "affair" with Flowers.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett, who has covered Clinton for more than 20 years, wrote that according to "my sources ... around 1977-78, and maybe a little later, she mentioned to friends that she was having a fling with Clinton ... They heard nothing from her after 1979 about a relationship with Clinton."
In a more graphic version, her ex-roommate Lauren Kirk told Penthouse that she believed Flowers to be lying for revenge and money: "She just can't accept the fact that he came, wiped himself off, zipped up, and left. He was probably using her, and she just doesn't like being used. She likes to use."
There are dark explanations as to why Clinton might have
chosen to admit a one-night stand with Flowers in a sworn deposition 21 years after the fact. Maybe he feared that Flowers had kept a
semen-stained dress, cunningly anticipating the
advent of DNA testing. Or maybe he thought that a not-so-damaging
confession of a long-ago indiscretion would make subsequent lies regarding, say, Monica Lewinsky, seem more credible. But the simplest explanation that fits the available facts is that Clinton's testimony is far closer to the truth than Gennifer Flowers', and that Flowers was merely the opening act in a long-running "dirty tricks" campaign to destroy him.
Larry Nichols is a former high school football star from Conway, Ark., who recorded advertising jingles for a living. For several months in 1988, he worked as a marketing consultant for the Arkansas Finance Development Authority, the state's centralized bonding agency. Nichols had quite an imagination, telling people, among other things, that he was a CIA operative. In September 1988, the Associated Press reported, Nichols made 642 long-distance calls at state expense to Nicaraguan contra leaders and politicians who supported them. Nichols at first claimed the calls had dealt with Arkansas municipal bond sales, but that story collapsed after reporters made closer inquiries. Gov. Clinton demanded his
resignation. Nichols, it turned out, also faced "theft by deception" charges in several Arkansas counties. He avoided prosecution by promising to make restitution, but later filed for bankruptcy and never paid.
A few weeks before the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial election between
Clinton and Republican Sheffield Nelson, Nichols held a press
conference at the state capitol. He handed out copies of a lawsuit against Clinton alleging that he'd been wrongly fired from his state job, and appended a list of five mistresses upon whom the governor had allegedly spent state money. One of them was Gennifer Flowers.
Reporters from the two Little Rock papers contacted the
women, all of whom made vehement denials. Flowers and her lawyer threatened in writing to sue anybody who published or broadcast what she characterized as a libel. Faced with denials all round, and Nichols' reputation for tall tales, every media outlet in Little Rock made the same decision: The women's names were not published.
Nichols took his case against Clinton into the political arena.
Reporters learned that Nichols held meetings with state Republican Chairman Bob Leslie. Copies of Nichols' lawsuit against Clinton were readily available at Nelson's campaign headquarters. Faxed copies began appearing at out-of-town newspapers and broadcast stations all over Arkansas. With one exception, nobody used them. A judge soon dismissed Nichols' suit for lack of evidence. The Nelson campaign filmed at least two campaign commercials charging Clinton with drug use and sexual misbehavior, but feared they might backfire and never aired them.
Undeterred, the former jingle writer has gone on to become one of the biggest stars of Clinton-phobic talk radio, inveighing regularly against the president's imaginary high crimes and misdemeanors. Nichols, along with "Justice Jim" Johnson, a bigoted Arkansas pol whose 1966 gubernatorial candidacy was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, is the narrator of two bizarre videos, one called "The Clinton Chronicles," the other "The Mena Connection." Produced by a California outfit called Citizens for Honest Government, the tapes make scores of wild charges regarding Clinton's tenure as Arkansas governor. They include cocaine addiction, rape, gun-running, drug-smuggling and murder. Even the fiercely Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has written articles detailing their near-delusional inaccuracy. Still, the tapes were good enough to be promoted and distributed via Christian television by former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell.
While Nichols' lawsuit against Clinton was dismissed by local and regional media, it did find a home on supermarket news racks nationwide. Exactly one week before the Star published Flowers' account of her alleged 12-year affair with Clinton, the tabloid ran a similar "exposé" based upon Nichols' lawsuit: "DEMS' FRONT-RUNNER BILL CLINTON CHEATED WITH MISS AMERICA."
The Miss America in question was the 1982 winner, Elizabeth
Ward of Russellville, Ark. By no means shy and retiring -- she once posed for Playboy -- Ward, to this day, vehemently denies the charge, even to her closest friends. So do all the other women on Nichols' list, including Gannett newspapers columnist Deborah Mathis, an outspoken, witty black woman who once anchored Little Rock's top-rated TV news program. "If I ever had slept with that fat white boy," Mathis joked with friends in the Little Rock media, "he'd still be grinning."
In October 1991, Bill Clinton announced that he would likely seek
the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. He and Hillary began a statewide pilgrimage for the laying on of hands. Soon, Flowers began a series of phone calls to Clinton that would eventually serve as her putative "proof" of their 12-year affair. The story she told couldn't have been better calculated to bring out Clinton's well-known tendency to empathize with women down on their luck -- especially, a cynic might note, good-looking women with long blond hair and long-ago shared secrets.
Flowers' gambit was that because of the allegations in Nichols' lawsuit, which he had recently re-filed, she was being pestered to distraction by tabloid newspaper and TV reporters.
The candidate returned one of her calls late one night from the campaign trail. According to a transcript provided by "Clintonwatch," a newsletter published by the right-wing agitprop organization "Citizen's United," the conversation went as follows:
"Gennifer, it's Bill Clinton." An odd way for a long-term lover to
announce himself, one might think.
Flowers commented that he didn't sound like himself. Did he have a
cold? "Oh it's just my ... every year about this time I ... my sinuses go bananas."
"Yeah, me too."
"And I've been in this stupid airplane too much, but I'm OK."
Clinton's allergies act up in the spring and fall. His voice gets hoarse and his nose swells up like W.C. Fields'. That and his brother Roger's cocaine-dealing conviction were the main reasons for persistent rumors of the governor's own drug habit.
Listening to the tapes, it sounds as if these two people scarcely know one another. Flowers launched into her tale of woe. Forces unknown had broken into her apartment and rifled the joint.
"There wasn't any sign of a break-in," she explained, "but the
drawers and things. There wasn't anything missing that I can tell, but somebody had ..."
"Somebody had gone through your stuff?" Clinton asks. "But they
didn't steal anything?"
"No ... I had jewelry here, and everything was still here."
Possibly that's why Flowers never reported the purported break-in
to the Little Rock Police Department. In a January 1998 interview with Geraldo Rivera, however, Flowers would pin the blame for the non-burglary upon Clinton himself.
At no point in this, or any of Flowers' tapes, did Clinton say anything that could reasonably be construed to indicate a long-term sexual relationship. Indeed every one of their taped conversations centered around the same issue: Larry Nichols' accusations, and Flowers' fear and loathing of the tabloid press.
In one conversation Clinton advised her that it would be "extremely valuable" if she would sign an affidavit explaining -- as she'd
told Clinton, and would repeat at her Star press conference -- that an Arkansas Republican had offered to pay her $50,000 to point the finger at the candidate. He repeatedly expressed regret that Flowers had to get dragged into the political maelstrom, and made no bones about who he thought responsible.
"[Sheffield] Nelson called me," Clinton told Flowers, "and said 'I
want you to know we didn't have anything to do with that.' I said, 'Yeah, you sent your little lawyer to the prison system to find inmates who would trash me ...' He was calling people off the street, trying to get people to say I'd slept with them."
Thanks in large measure to the Clintons' "60 Minutes" appearance,
Flowers' allegations failed to sink Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. In Little Rock, she was widely disbelieved. Within days, stories in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has never endorsed Clinton in any of his election bids, had effectively demolished her credibility. Among other things, Flowers' résumé claimed degrees from colleges she'd barely attended, membership in a sorority she'd never joined and jobs she'd never held. Her claim to have won the Miss Teenage America crown proved false. Much
was made locally of her claim to the Star that she and Clinton had many torrid assignations during 1979 and 1980 at the Excelsior, Little Rock's fanciest downtown hotel. The Excelsior didn't exist until November 1982.
A registered Republican, Flowers had donated $1,000 to a GOP state
senator who first denied, but later was forced to admit to reporters that she'd performed substantial volunteer work in his own 1990 campaign. An expert analyst told the Los Angeles Times that Flowers' tapes had been "selectively edited" and opined that a raunchy remark by Flowers about "eating pussy" had been overdubbed. That the entire affair was little more than an elaborate Republican "dirty trick" seemed all the more likely. Not for
nothing did President Clinton's lawyers spend a reported seven hours deposing Flowers last month. If Flowers testifies at the Paula Jones trial, things could get ugly.
Why would the Flowers tapes have been doctored? One likely motive would be money. Such sensational allegations are red meat for national tabloids with fat wallets, as was apparent, for example, in the big fee the Star paid her for the story.
One week after Flowers' February 1992 press conference, Larry Nichols wrote an open letter to Bill Clinton and released it to the Little Rock media. In it, he confessed, "I set out to destroy [Gov. Clinton] for what I believed happened to me." He apologized to the five women he had named, explaining that persons unknown had plied him with rumors about Clinton's personal life -- of which he had no independent knowledge. Then he added that tabloid reporters had offered him upwards of $500,000 to dish the dirt on Clinton, which Nichols professed to find shocking.
Nichols was not so shocked, however, that he eschewed the opportunity to go after some of the cash himself. He had teamed up
with a Little Rock private eye named Larry Case, who was a former investigator for the state Alcoholic Beverages Commission. Case, a colorful character of linebacker proportions who liked to wear cowboy hats and gold chains, had a long history around Little Rock of digging for dirt on public figures. During the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Case had approached the Clinton campaign with tapes purporting to document Sheffield Nelson's own illicit adventures, supposedly in the company of his running buddy Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
Between them, Case and Nichols managed to cultivate working
agreements with such "cash for trash" outlets as the Star, the National
Enquirer, "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair." They also formed jocular, mutually beneficial relationships with reporters from such mainstream outlets as the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and CNN. Unknown to many of his new friends, however, Case tape recorded seemingly each and every telephone conversation he ever had.
For reasons best known to himself, Case last summer delivered a suitcase filled with tapes to this reporter and my colleague Max Brantley of the weekly Arkansas Times. One reason may have been a bitter falling out he had with Nichols in 1992. Both on the tapes and in interviews with Brantley and me, Case berates Nichols
as a liar and worse.
Before their falling out, the two had been occupied full time, rushing hither and yon to interview women of all ages and descriptions willing to make accusations of sexual impropriety against Clinton. With Case's tape recorder whirring quietly away, the pair regaled each other and their reporter friends with bawdy imaginings about everything from Hillary Clinton's alleged frigidity to the "distinguishing characteristics" of her husband's genitalia. (Sound familiar?)
The duo was unable to find so much as a single episode of hanky-panky that met even the tabloids' standards for publication. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Acting on hints provided by Los Angeles Times reporter William Rempel, with whom Case recorded scores of lengthy conversations, the detective spent a great deal of time trying, without success, to persuade a 38-year-old Oklahoma City woman to go public with her tale of an extended affair with Clinton in the mid-'80s. For her story to be true, as narrated to Case on tape, Clinton and his entourage of troopers would have had to slip out of Arkansas 40 or 50 times over a two-year period, meet the woman in a downtown Oklahoma City motel approximately 400 miles from Little Rock, then slip back to the state capital, without arousing undue curiosity.
On another tape, Nichols can be heard telling Case how he
coached an eager woman on how to present her story of a torrid love affair with Clinton to the press. Above all, he laughed, she should avoid all mention of the "demons" she told him about. Somebody might get the mistaken impression she was crazy.
Less amusingly, Case and Nichols pursued several women linked
to Clinton by rumor -- some of them public figures -- interviewing ex-husbands and former lovers, pestering co-workers and acquaintances with their suspicions, even trying to obtain the birth records of the women's children.
For all the effort, the pair were unable to document a single provable instance of adultery by Clinton, let alone compromising photos, videos, motel receipts or love letters.
Then, Case got what seemed to be a big break in the
form of a phone call from a Little Rock lawyer named Cliff Jackson. A Fulbright scholar in England during the 1960s, when Clinton was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Jackson developed something of an
obsession with what he saw as Clinton's character flaws. During the 1992 campaign, Jackson was often cited in the press as a
high-minded opponent who knew Clinton all too well.
Clinton biographer David Maraniss, author of "First in His Class," took Jackson's opinions very seriously, indeed. Jackson provided Maraniss with contemporaneous -- if not terribly accurate and unfailingly nasty -- letters he'd written home from Oxford 25 years earlier detailing Clinton's efforts to avoid the military draft. (Jackson himself had a medical deferment.) Now Jackson wanted to offer Case something else: a racy photograph he thought so damningly explicit it would doom Clinton's presidential candidacy and end his political career.
"Is the photo good?" Case asks on a taped conversation. "I mean, is it better than what
we've seen around here? Because I've seen a bunch of photos, but nothing that's really spicy."
"This one is spicy," Jackson assures the detective. "I haven't
actually seen it, but I know what's in it ... Again, I told them I didn't want to get in the middle of this type stuff. That I'd pass it on to someone who can say what the market is ... Let me just tell you this. My perception of it? If it's what's been represented to me, it ought to be worth $2 million ... If this woman has what she says she has, it'd be totally incriminating ... I think It'd absolutely do in the campaign."
Jackson's client, whom he described as a friend of a friend, wanted cash -- no
checks, no wire transfer. And Jackson wanted his own fingerprints kept off the transaction. Despite his eager assurances, Jackson was never able to produce the $2 million
In other venues, Jackson continued to represent himself as a principled opponent of Clinton's political opportunism. He was used as a source by mainstream reporters, whose taped conversations with Case reveal that they knew of Jackson's attempts at trafficking the elusive photo, but continued to treat him as a credible source.
In a phone interview with my colleague Brantley on Tuesday, Jackson declined to confirm or deny his role in the affair. "I tried to put this stuff behind me in 1994," he said, "and that's where I want it to stay."
But in 1993, Jackson was still very much in the anti-Clinton business. He negotiated "personal
service" contracts guaranteeing jobs to Arkansas Trooper Larry Patterson and fellow troopers who told salacious fables about the Clintons' sex lives to the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator.
The December 1993 American Spectator story, by David Brock, was widely credited by the mainstream media, despite the self-evident absurdity of some of the troopers' tales.
Believe what you will about the
president's libido; but can anybody truly believe that Hillary Clinton allowed the late Vincent Foster to caress her breasts at a Rose Law Firm party in a public restaurant,
while she squirmed and purred like a cat in heat?
Well, that was what the troopers told Brock she did. And that's what the American Spectator printed.
Within a week of the "Troopergate" bombshell, Jackson released an open letter to President Clinton in which he expressed
his hope that the public washing of his allegedly dirty laundry would bring about the "best possible future for you and our country."
"I feel for your pain and that of your family," Jackson wrote.
"Forgive my role as an attorney for the troopers (a role which I did not seek and undertook only with great trepidation when the truth of their allegations became apparent) in inflicting such public pain upon you and yours." A couple of months later, Paula Jones made her public debut standing at Jackson's side at a Washington meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee.
Jackson wasn't the only Clinton-phobe to fall in with Case and Nichols. In 1992, Floyd Brown, chairman of the far-right group Citizens United, had the two flown to Washington, D.C., for a meeting in connection with Brown's forthcoming book, "Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton." Besides Case and Nichols,
Brown's other main Arkansas source was none other than the racist "Justice Jim" Johnson, who is fulsomely thanked in the preface.
Brown's earlier claim to fame was for creating the "Willie Horton" ad that played so pivotal a role in sinking the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Also present at the Washington meeting was Brown's ace
investigator, David Bossie, credited by many for keeping the Whitewater scandal ticking with timely, if one-sided and ultimately inaccurate, leaks to the press.
Bossie's headquarters during his expeditions in search of anti-Clinton scuttlebutt was the law office of Clinton's fierce Republican opponent, Sheffield Nelson. Bossie would later work for Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., on the Senate Whitewater committee. That's the same Lauch Faircloth who had lunch with Judge David Sentelle just before Sentelle's panel, in a highly questionable move, appointed Kenneth Starr to replace Robert Fiske as special prosecutor in the Whitewater affair. More recently Bossie transferred his services to the campaign fund-raising probe of
ultra-conservative Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.
Another attendee at Brown's meeting was Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund. A frequent critic of the Clinton administration on TV talk shows, Fund's presence at a meeting of partisan political operatives was nevertheless regarded as highly unusual, if not downright unethical, by many journalists.
At the meeting, the indefatigable Arkansans regaled their
audience, including Fund, with wild tales of Clinton's perfidy -- his scores of
mistresses, his looting of the state treasury, the lot. Case came away with a $65,000 contract from Citizens United in return for agreeing to provide documents and videotapes dealing with
the 1985 conviction of Roger Clinton for cocaine distribution.
Alas, the deal fell through. Instead of a
big payday, Case found himself in a fistfight with Bossie at the Little Rock airport a couple of weeks later. He accused Citizens United of trying to make off with a suitcase filled with his investigative materials without making payment.
By late September 1992, with Clinton's victory over George Bush
looking more and more certain, Case and Nichols began to worry. What if an angry President Clinton were to exact vengeance upon his Arkansas enemies? In a phone conversation taped by Case, the pair discussed their prospects.
"We're the people that when he gets in, he's gonna be pissed at us," Case frets. "And we're the people that if he don't get in by some quirk of fate, we're gonna get blamed for it."
Case however, had thought of a backup plan.
"What the hell would they do," he asked "if you brought the Republicans in now? What would the Republicans do to you?"
"What the hell can they do? They ain't gonna be in power."
"You think you could roll [Arkansas Republican Chairman] Bob
"I know I could."
"You got a paper trail on everybody?"
Nichols proceeded to name as his collaborators in smearing Clinton
virtually every name-brand Republican in Arkansas, and claimed to have documentation to prove it. While reluctant to make new enemies, he'd consider turning for the right price. "You'd be amazed at who I've got on that phone," he chortled. "You'd be amazed at the phone numbers on there."
Nichols' claims against Republicans, of course, cannot be
taken any more seriously than his bizarre charges against President
Clinton. But the wild charges against Clinton, which have been bubbling up from the gassy swamps of Arkansas politics for over a decade, continue to pollute the national dialogue, now more strongly than ever. There exists among the mainstream media the notion that a sharp line can be drawn between the Arkansas-based "Clinton-crazies" on the one hand and Clinton's "responsible" critics in Washington on the other. That distinction is much less clear than the media would like to think.
Maybe Clinton did indulge in a tragicomic Oval Office
tryst with a young intern. He'd be far from the first oversexed politician to be ushered from the stage with his trousers around his knees. But it won't be because a fearless, independent press exposed his shenanigans through vigorous reporting. Instead, the Beltway media have bought the image of Clinton as an out-of-control sex fiend from a bunch of dubious Arkansas characters with dubious motives.
Indeed, to many of us homefolks, the
single greatest irony of the Clinton presidency has been the export of bare-knuckle, eye-gouging Arkansas political mud-rassling to an
unexpectedly gullible national press corps. And we thought we were the hayseeds.