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Uneasiness Among Fans in Arkansas

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 1998; Page A10

LITTLE ROCK, Jan. 26 – This is where it all began for Bill Clinton, and today many of those who stuck with him through wins and losses and years of rumors desperately hoped it was not about to end.

"If the allegations are true, there's a tremendous sense of disillusionment here because he's been through this before and how can anyone who has been through this before be back in this situation," said Democratic state Sen. Mike Beebe, who was in the legislature when Clinton was governor.

But despite an aura of uneasiness that has settled over the city, hard-core Clinton supporters were still cautioning against a rush to judgment. Skip Rutherford, a public relations executive and Clinton defender who worked in the '92 campaign, said, "All we're hearing is rumor and innuendo . . . emotion is overruling reason. Let the facts come out."

From the state capitol to the local watering holes to the courthouse where Clinton will soon face another accuser, Paula Jones, supporters and critics alike were horrified that it had come down this: a 25-year career teetering on whether the president had an affair with a young White House intern.

As a cold, driving rain poured down on the River Market district – the recently selected site for a 26-acre Clinton library complex on the Arkansas River – local merchants and Arkansans seemed more saddened and disappointed than angry with Clinton.

"I'm just so tired of it," said Jean Thomas, owner of a local bakery. "When you have a family, you worry about things like health care. I'm just not interested in his personal life."

"They're out to hang him this time," said a clearly dejected Ernie Murry, a former University of Arkansas basketball player who knew and supported Clinton when he was governor here.

Arkansas Republicans were strategically silent, as they have been nationally. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee said the governor will defer comment until all the facts are in.

Privately, some seemed more embarrassed than gleeful. Said one GOP statehouse aide: "We finally seemed to move beyond this notion that we were some backwater state. And now to have to have it end like this."

But there was no question how the tide was flowing a few blocks away at Doe's Eat Place – a political hangout whose gray walls brimming with Clinton memorabilia are a testament to the local boy made good. Doe's was no Johnny-come-lately to the Clinton bandwagon. As one patron pointed out, the president still has dark hair in many of the photos.

Referring to Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, Joe Purvis, chairman of the Clinton Birthplace Foundation, complained that "after four years and $30 million, they're down to looking at his sex life."

A childhood Clinton friend, Rose Crane, added, "I have known him since I was nine years old and I have never seen him go after women, but I've seen multitudes of women go after him."

"If it all unraveled over this kind of issue, it would just be a shame," said Leslie Singer, an advertising director and Clinton friend.

Clinton was born about 100 miles away in the small town of Hope and raised in Hot Springs. After attending Georgetown University and Yale Law School, he launched his political career here in 1974 when he lost his first election for a congressional seat. He bounced back two years later by winning statewide office to become attorney general, his springboard to the statehouse. Clinton was elected governor five times and lost once.

Art English, a University of Arkansas political science professor, said the latest scandal comes as a particular blow to a state that suffers from an "inferiority complex" and takes particular pride in its politicians.

"For years, the state had to live down the embarrassment of Central High School," said English, referring to the racial crisis 40 years ago when the Army was called in after nine black students were refused entrance to the high school here as onlookers spat and shouted slurs.

"Bill Clinton represented a lot of what was good about Arkansas," added English.

Little Rock's Democratic mayor, Jim Dailey, said that as he travels around the city he hears a "mixed bag" of reaction. "I haven't heard from people condemning or judging him. They feel sad or upset and don't know how to respond. A lot of people are saying they want to believe the president."

Still, some of the old Clinton guard, who have weathered these storms before with Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, remain convinced that the charges are all politically motivated regardless of their veracity.

"Somewhere along the line the political opposition figured out that this women's issue could be an Achilles' heel and, true or not, it's an issue that resonates and distracts people," said Singer. "They spent an enormous amount of money digging, so it's not surprising to me that they'd find something. He's been attacked on a personal level since day one."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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