Go home, Kenneth Starr

The independent counsel has shined a surreal spotlight on Little Rock.

Published March 22, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I've never seen Kenneth Starr, but his presence is all over Little Rock.

The independent counsel has spent what seems like an eternity investigating the lives of my neighbors -- the famous, and not so famous, citizens of Little Rock. Starr seems obsessed with Arkansas: Its shenanigans and scandals seem to have scorched his psyche permanently. Certainly this city is no more likely to forget Starr than the citizens of Atlanta are to forget William Tecumseh Sherman.

Starr's investigation has bathed Little Rock in a surreal limelight. The city was previously best (or worst) known for its association with the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis, but until Gov. Bill Clinton announced his intention to run for president in 1991, many people didn't know Arkansas' location on the map. George Bush thought the state sat between Oklahoma and Texas. (It doesn't.)

But Starr has turned Little Rock into even more of a fishbowl than the president did. Last week, camera crews descended on the city again, to cover Susan McDougal as she whisked in and out of the federal courthouse for the start of her contempt trial. Key Whitewater witness David Hale's trial starts next week. Media members continue to stake out the courthouse and hang out at Doe's Eat Place, an infamous steak joint where Clinton often dined when he lived in Little Rock, or the Capital Bar, a dark, cozy hotel pub. Strange days, when CNN's Bob Franken comes to the president's home state more than the president.

Not to be left out, Clinton graced us with his presence this past weekend, when he dedicated his boyhood home in Hope as well as a memorial garden for his late mother. As I stood out in the miserable cold and blowing rain with mud oozing into my leather shoes, I listened to the state's native son talk about his small town. He pointed to people in the crowd, singling out those who had been supporters since the 1970s. Briefly forgetting all the president's mistakes, I basked in the home-town glow.

For years, my friends have suggested I leave Little Rock to join the media hordes in New York. Now the media hordes have come to me. Why would I leave? I like my compact Southern city of 184,000 people, with their nonstop curiosity about politics and other people's sex lives. Little Rock knows sex sells, and no city, not even Savannah, sells sin wrapped in Southern graciousness and charm quite like this one. This place is like one big onion. Once you start peeling off layers, you don't know what you could find. Just ask Ken Starr.

New York, Los Angeles, even Washington, have nothing on Little Rock. We've given the country not just Bill and Hillary, but Paula Jones, Webb Hubbell, David Hale, Vince Foster and Jim and Susan McDougal. And remember Wilbur Mills and Fannie Fox? He was the Arkansas congressman and she his girlfriend, who was rescued by park police after she and Mills had a fight in the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial? They were long before Bill and ... well, insert name of choice here.

Even the civil rights crisis didn't stir up this city the way the Starr investigation has. Everyone in Little Rock knows someone caught in the tangled web. Nobody's a stranger here, so everyone's had a brush with somebody Starr has subpoenaed, investigated or indicted. My dad recalls seeing Susan McDougal walk into Madison Guaranty in the early 1980s in white hot pants, brushing sweat from her forehead and tossing the keys to her convertible on a desk. I grew up watching commercials in which Susan McDougal rode a horse around a forest to sell suburban property.

Last week, two women I once traveled with to Ireland took McDougal on a shopping spree because they thought she needed new clothes. One night in a quaint Italian restaurant, I was discussing Whitewater with a friend. I noticed a man behind me leaning back to eavesdrop. When I turned, it was Webb Hubbell looking at me looking at him.

And you've heard of Connie Hamzy, the infamous rock 'n' roll groupie who was immortalized in Grand Funk Railroad's song "We're an American Band"? She once claimed Clinton propositioned her at a local hotel's swimming pool. Yes, she lives here, too, and ran for city council a few years ago. I've seen her roller blading in a string bikini near the river, and once I dropped by her apartment to pick up a photo for a news story. She's no Jane Doe to me.

Maybe my closest connection with the Clintons is that I belong to the same church as Hillary and Chelsea. She once popped in on a Sunday morning and sat silently with her Secret Service entourage. During the offering, Hillary, a former steward in the church, passed the plate around to the congregation. A few months back, a movement began to pray for the first family. Church members talked about sending flowers and care packages to Chelsea, and a few maintained constant prayer vigils for Hillary. Gossip about Hillary bubbles endlessly in Little Rock. Will she leave Bill? Will she run for the Senate in New York ? Will she come back home?

Of course, this soap opera with few, if any, commercial breaks can become complicated, not to mention messy. Sooner or later, the dating scene feels like a tiny bowl filled with Siamese fighting fish, but it's certainly never dull. That ex-boyfriend you hate is no doubt dating a friend of a friend. Chances are you'll all end up at a party along with three other old boyfriends and two of their ex-girlfriends. Yet I love the thrill of being able to track down someone's history in mere minutes.

In Little Rock, any secret, however big or small, should never be told, not even whispered. Eavesdropping and gossiping, right behind attending church and volunteering, are favorite hobbies in the city. Forget Los Angeles. Cell phones work overtime in Little Rock. Rumors started at dawn are posted on electronic gossip bulletin boards by evening.

And if you plan to run for public office, it's best to stay celibate and live in a cave. The president had to learn this lesson the hard way.

Yes, Little Rock is small; some may even say it suffocates. It has its flaws: Not enough art museums or theater. Rock stars don't play the local arena. Foreign films don't debut here. It's hard to find good Thai food. And there are only a few -- maybe two -- all-night coffee shops.

But Little Rock makes up for what it lacks with more than its allotment of kooks, quacks and quirky places. Like the crazy bag lady wearing camouflage selling daffodils on a street corner in the prestigious Edgehill neighborhood where the president attended a private reception last weekend. Or the Jesus man who doesn't believe in material possessions and roams through the city preaching the Gospel. Everybody knows them here -- probably even Ken Starr.

I'm always surprised when friends do leave Little Rock, seduced by bright lights or better paying jobs. Once they are gone, they call and ask, "When are you leaving?" They haven't gotten it yet. Why would I leave this slow-paced city with three-lane freeways and a mini-skyline, a place where I can be in the rolling hills in 20 minutes or cotton country in the same amount of time? Why would I give up a hometown where I can decide at the last moment to rush to a movie and not have to wait in line, where I can strike up conversations with strangers in the grocery line and realize within a few seconds we have a mutual friend, or that they know a player in Whitewater? For a politics and gossip addict like me, it's heaven.

I'm staying. But I'm getting a new bumper sticker for my car. It says: Go Home, Kenneth Starr.

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton