Clintons keep up with a sprawling, yet aging, political network in Arkansas


Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton greets Mabel Harris-Webb, 95, center, who Clinton knew from her days as Arkansas first lady, at a book signing event in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Danny Johnston/AP)
August 31, 2014

While Bill and Hillary Clinton were vacationing in August at their rented mansion on a scenic bluff in the tony Hamptons, they read a flurry of e-mail updates from an earlier life.

At 7:41 one Monday morning, the Clintons received word that the elderly mother of longtime Little Rock radio and television personality Craig O’Neill had passed away.

A few days later, another bulletin: Rufus Ellis “Buddy” Tate Jr., a farmer and lumberer from Marvell, Ark., died five days shy of his 100th birthday. His only child, Sherman Tate, is an old friend of Bill’s.

Then another: Dorothy Jean Darr Martinous, who managed the bridal salon at J.C. Penney and was a prize-winning dancer of the Charleston, died at age 98. She had been active for decades in Arkansas Democratic politics.

In each case, the notices came from a 70-year-old retiree named Lynda Dixon, who worked as Bill Clinton’s personal secretary when he was governor of Arkansas and now fires off e-mails to her old boss, Hillary Rodham Clinton and their aides from her home here in downtown Little Rock, within view of the Clinton Presidential Center.

Former president Bill Clinton and former Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton, right, talk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Arkansas and LSU on in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Gareth Patterson/AP)

“Lynda’s List,” as her under-the-radar alumni news service is called, is a telling example of the Clintons’ attention to detail in maintaining and nurturing their formidable political network, which extends around the globe yet remains perhaps deepest in Arkansas. The couple’s strong ties to the state have been highlighted this year as Bill spends time here stumping on behalf of Democratic candidates in the November midterms.

After the Clintons packed up from Arkansas in 1993 to move to the White House, never to return permanently, Dixon stayed behind and kept the couple up to date with news from their sprawling — and aging — network of friends and acquaintances. Once full of wedding and baby announcements, or reports of a new job or award, Dixon’s notices nowadays more commonly deliver word of who is sick, who has died and who needs a helping hand.

“I am the one that knows who his friends were, all his constituents that were important to him — I just send notices to him and Hillary,” Dixon said in a rare interview. Unlike many Clinton hands who lead public careers, Dixon has served the couple in near-anonymity.

In anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 presidential campaign, the Clintons are keeping their Arkansas network especially active. Their allies here insist she would put Arkansas in play, even though the state has become more Republican since Bill Clinton carried it in the 1990s. President Obama lost here by 20 percentage points in 2008 and by 24 percentage points in 2012.

The Clintons have staffs in New York and Washington, but, Dixon said, those aides “don’t know the Devoe Bollingers of the world. He was one of the president’s constituents, one of his supporters, an old cattle farmer from Horatio, Arkansas.”

Dixon said she scours the obituary pages of local newspapers and calls funeral homes looking for familiar names. At the top of each e-mail to the Clintons, Dixon writes the name, address and phone number of the subject — or, in the case of death, a next-of-kin. Like clockwork, that person often gets a call from Bill. A few days later, a warm letter from Hillary might show up in the mail. And in some instances, the Clintons fly home to attend funerals, as Bill did on Aug. 15 in Hot Springs, where he bade farewell to Margaret “Marge” Mitchell, a close friend of his late mother. The former president was an honorary pallbearer.

“You may move from your home town, you may move from your home state, but you don’t forget from where you came, and Bill Clinton is the prime example of that,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime Clinton adviser and friend who serves as dean of the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service.

When Bill returned to Little Rock on Aug. 15 to address a meeting of the Southern Governors’ Association, he referred to Arkansas as “our state.”

“I’m feeling pretty nostalgic,” he said, noting that he woke up in New York that morning at 4:45 to fly to Hot Springs for Mitchell’s funeral.

At a time when the Clintons are under scrutiny for their family’s exploding wealth and extravagant lifestyle on the paid speaking circuit, reminding voters of Hillary’s Arkansas roots has political benefits. This is where she married Bill, raised daughter Chelsea, practiced law, came of age politically, and, as first lady, championed state education and children’s health initiatives.

In July 2013, both Clintons attended the dedication of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library in Little Rock, a gleaming facility where, as Bill marveled in his recent speech to the governors, “they’ve got a 3-D printer!” At the opening, Hillary read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to youngsters sitting around her feet.

Hillary returned this May for the opening of the Clinton Pres­idential Center’s temporary blown-glass exhibit by artist Dale Chihuly. And she came in June to sign copies of her latest book, “Hard Choices,” at a suburban Wal-Mart.

But in this high-stakes election year, it’s Bill who’s been an especially frequent visitor, throwing himself into Arkansas races. With his sky-high popularity — his favorability rating was 68 percent among registered voters in Arkansas in a May NBC News-Marist poll — he is trying to boost three longtime friends: Sen. Mark Pryor, gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross and congressional candidate James Lee Witt.

In August, Clinton headlined a Democratic Party fundraiser at Little Rock’s historic Capital Hotel, and associates said he is coming back in September and October to campaign.

“If he could get away with it, he’d live here for the two to three weeks before the election,” said Vince Insalaco, the state Democratic Party’s chairman and a longtime Clinton friend.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) said that when he asked Clinton’s staff if he would come to the August events, “they weren’t real high on him coming” because the Clintons were vacationing in the Hamptons. But once Beebe got the former president on the phone to personally invite him, it was easy to get to “yes.”

“A vacation from vacation is probably consistent with his personality,” Beebe said. Here in Arkansas, he added, “he soaks up information like a sponge. He’s always wanting to know the politics, he’s always wanting to know the policy, and even more often than when he comes, I’m getting a phone call from him.”

Before the Little Rock fundraiser, Clinton huddled with Pryor to talk politics. Pryor said he met Clinton when he was about 12; his father, David Pryor, served as governor when Clinton was climbing the political ladder as attorney general, and then as a U.S. senator when Clinton was governor and president.

“It’s not unusual if you’re in Arkansas for the phone to ring at an odd hour and it be Bill Clinton at the end of the line,” Mark Pryor said as he rested his hands on his Bible during an interview on a recent Sunday morning before church.

Clinton is eyeing the race to succeed Beebe with special interest. The Democratic nominee is Ross, a protege who got his start in politics as Clinton’s 21-year-old driver during the 1982 governor’s campaign.

“We had a one-car motorcade: It was him and me in a Chevy Citation,” Ross recalled. “People wanted their photo taken with him. I’d take it with one of those old Polaroid cameras where the picture shoots out the front. He would autograph the bottom and say, ‘You’ll have your picture developed in a couple minutes.’ ”

Clinton helped persuade Ross — a former congressman who graduated from Hope High School, in Clinton’s birthplace — to run for governor and has counseled him throughout the race.

The Republican nominee is Asa Hutchinson, who as a congressman in the late 1990s was a floor manager of Clinton’s impeachment proceedings following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. For many Clinton loyalists here, Hutchinson’s role still stings.

“It’s kind of like being against the Razorbacks,” Insalaco said, referring to the University of Arkansas sports teams. “It wasn’t just being against Clinton, but against the whole state. . . . Insiders remember, but voters outside, I think they may need to be reminded.”

Hutchinson said Democrats were “grasping at straws.” And he argued that Bill Clinton’s popularity would not rub off on Ross. “Arkansas is not really a coattails state,” he said.

Bill Clinton, busy reconnecting with old friends here, is trying to challenge that prophecy.

After Clinton’s August fundraiser at the Capital Hotel, George Hale, 69, settled into a couch in the lobby. When a reporter introduced himself, Hale said, “I’m an F.O.B. Friend of Bill.”

This May, after Hale’s wife died, Hale said Clinton “sent me a little handwritten note saying he was very sorry for the loss. He said, ‘Hang in there, George.’ ”

How did Clinton know about Hale’s loss? Lynda’s List, of course.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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