By Lois Romano
"The stories," said Jernigan in a recent interview, "were just everywhere -- the draft, the women. . . . People were always spreading rumors about Bill Clinton."
William Jefferson Clinton won that race in 1976 and kept running, getting elected then reelected governor of Arkansas five times. But from Clinton's very first foray in public office to his ascension to the presidency in 1993, he has been dogged by a group of hard-core, almost messianic detractors in his home state who become more energized with every scandal.
Indeed, things are positively hopping these days in this odd underworld of Enemies of Bill as Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and attorneys for Paula Jones fiercely pursue anyone who might be willing to share unfavorable, if not incriminating, information about the president. There is no shortage of takers here.
"It wasn't a month after he announced that he was running . . . that 30 percent of the voting population decided they hated his guts," said Max Brantley, a well-known Arkansas journalist who is considered a Clinton supporter. "I've ruminated on it for years."
Hillary Rodham Clinton and the White House for years have promoted the idea of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get Clinton. But those who have followed his career say pure politics is almost too easy an explanation for the persistent animosity that various mainstream, nefarious or fringe players have expressed toward Clinton over the past 30 years.
Friends and opponents alike say the explanation lies somewhere in the core of who Bill Clinton is and the effect he has had on some of those over whom he has catapulted to political power. The most relentless antagonists see him not just as an accomplished politician but as someone with an uncanny ability to skate controversy without consequences. It is an ability, they say, that earned him the moniker "Slick Willie" in Arkansas -- where the tales of womanizing and of fraudulent land deals, of promises broken and lives consumed by distrust of Clinton all began.
"Everything that caused Bill Clinton trouble he has done on his own. All of it," scoffed Republican Frank White, who holds the distinction of being the only person to defeat Clinton for governor -- in 1980. "There is no Republican conspiracy."
Said another longtime adversary: "Clinton has a way of not telling the truth that actually insults casual opponents and turns them into lifetime enemies."
Those adversaries interviewed for this article insist they are not in cahoots -- and there is no viable proof that they have worked together in any organized way. In fact, privately, most of the veteran Clinton bashers deride each other, and two even came to blows in the Little Rock Airport once in a dispute over payment for dirt on Clinton.
But for sure, their paths have crossed and at times all have been embraced by the hard right.
And in their sometimes obsessive zeal to expose Clinton as a liar and a sexual predator, the most unabashed of the detractors have been a collective force for disseminating stories that have found their way into the mainstream news media, congressional hearings, legal proceedings and the publications of Clinton's ideological foes.
There is, for instance, Larry Case. A Little Rock private investigator, he was paid by the tabloids in 1992 for damaging information on Clinton -- and during that presidential race became a walking repository of every Clinton womanizing tale. He spoke to reporters, political opponents and anyone else who had an interest in defeating Clinton. (He also tape-recorded more than 200 hours of these potentially embarrassing calls, which is he now trying to sell.)
Case said in an interview that he met with the Jones camp early on as they prepared a civil case alleging Clinton made a lewd sexual overture toward her in 1991, when she was a state employee.
Donovan Campbell, the current lead attorney in the Jones case, declined to comment on anyone from whom his team has sought information. However, most of the early Clinton detractors maintain that they were contacted at some point by either Campbell's group or Jones's previous lawyers.
Bill Clinton's headaches started, political observers say, almost from the minute he entered his first political race in 1974, unsuccessfully challenging Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R). Barely out of Yale Law School, Clinton launched his political career with a solid 30 percent of the state population firmly against him -- a statistical bedrock that has followed him throughout his career.
Politicians often have what is known as "negatives" -- things voters just don't like or trust in the person. But in Clinton's case, it always seemed much more personal, more visceral. Even mainstream Arkansas Democrats were mistrustful of him back then, uncomfortable with his style, fearful of his goals.
Rumors of his womanizing and draft dodging flew through the state during those early years -- with little or no substantiation. The most infamous story has Clinton sitting in a tree in Fayetteville protesting the Vietnam War -- at a time when he was indisputably at Oxford College in England.
Clinton allies attribute the early rumors to deep resentments that Clinton attended school on the East Coast -- Georgetown and Yale -- and hadn't kissed the ring of those who walked before him. Yet, they say, he demanded a seat at the head of the political table almost immediately upon his return.
"He emitted an intensity and restlessness that made people uncomfortable," said one prominent Democrat.
"There was distrust, a discomfort with Clinton from the start," said Republican Sheffield Nelson, probably Clinton's loudest political opponent in the state. "What you saw was not what you got."
Nelson, once a Democrat, has a personal story to tell. He and others claim that Clinton, through an intermediary, promised Nelson that if he did not challenge Clinton for governor in 1986, Clinton would step aside in 1990 to allow Nelson to run. Clinton, of course, did run in 1990, using the office as springboard to the presidency.
Nelson promptly switched parties and unsuccessfully challenged Clinton as a Republican in one of the state's nastiest campaigns ever. Those who know Nelson -- a wealthy businessman and lawyer -- say that his lifelong dream was to be governor of Arkansas. They say he never forgave Clinton.
"He did lie to me," said Nelson recently, from his offices overlooking downtown Little Rock. But he insisted he is over it. "I don't understand somebody's total ability to lie without any qualms about doing it. . . . Do I worry about it? Not a bit. There will be a day of judgment."
Some of it has already come around for Nelson. Despite his well-known feelings toward Clinton, Nelson says he was still surprised when one-time Clinton ally James B. McDougal approached him in 1992 with potentially incriminating documents on the Whitewater land deal. "We had been enemies," he said of McDougal, Clinton's original partner in the controversial deal.
Nelson put McDougal in touch with the New York Times, which broke the first story on Whitewater, eventually leading to Starr's $40 million investigation, multiple indictments and trials, and consuming the Clinton presidency for five years.
Sixty miles away from Little Rock, in the small town where Clinton grew up, Cliff Jackson -- once the most notorious Clinton haters -- says that for now he has made his peace with his feeling about Clinton, a man he says "has blurred the lines of truth for so long."
Jackson said his distrust of Clinton began 30 years ago when he was a Fulbright scholar and Clinton a Rhodes scholar -- small-town success stories studying at Oxford.
Back then, he wrote a friend that Clinton's "syrupy-sweet cultivation of friendships . . . rather grates on my nerves."
He said he later came to see Clinton as "deceitful and manipulative," principally over his efforts to "wiggle out of" the draft in 1969, and his less than candid handling of the issue when he ran for president. At that time, another of Jackson's old letters was leaked in which he told a friend that Clinton had received a draft induction notice. Clinton, who had publicly suggested that he had never received a notice despite being classified 1-A, was forced to clarify his draft record.
In 1991, Jackson formed an anti-Clinton political action committee and spent $40,000 on ads in New Hampshire opposing Clinton. But Jackson says his efforts were never meant to be partisan -- and he swears to this day that he was never financed by big-time Republicans, nor was he part of any coordinated anti-Clinton effort.
Two years later, it was Jackson whom Arkansas state troopers sought out when they were ready to tell their now infamous story that they procured women for Clinton while on the state payroll. From that American Spectator story first surfaced the name "Paula."
"For someone to speak out against and oppose a native son . . . was to ask to have your throat cut in Arkansas," said Jackson at his Hot Springs law office. "It was not easy." He said he is now "retired" as the president's chief tormentor and that he hasn't actively cooperated with any investigations.
From the small Arkansas town of Conway, Larry Nichols has made it his life's goal to bring down Clinton. He claims he was wrongfully terminated from his state job in 1988 for making personal calls to Nicaraguan contra leaders -- a charge he denies. He said he has spoken with Starr's team as well as to an investigator for Jones -- and anyone else who has called.
Two years after he was fired -- weeks before the heated Clinton-Nelson gubernatorial race -- Nichols held a news conference announcing that he was suing Clinton, alleging Clinton had used a secret state slush fund to finance his philandering. The suit listed five women with whom Clinton had allegedly been involved. Gennifer Flowers was on the list.
No one paid attention. The women all denied the charges and threatened to sue him for defamation. And while Sheffield Nelson's campaign privately flaunted the lawsuit to reporters, Nelson distanced himself from Nichols. "I was out there on a limb alone," Nichols said.
That's not quite the case today.
At some point or another, anyone who hates Clinton, or who is investigating Clinton, finds Nichols.
"I'm smut central," he said. "It all comes through here.
"When I started this it was with a little governor from a Podunk state," he said. "Who thought I'd be fighting the most powerful man in the world?"
Today Nichols sits in a small restaurant in Conway, chain-smoking cigarettes, not far from where he has set up his anti-Clinton crusade to "get my name back." He speaks of his decade-long obsession with Clinton as calmly as a man speaking about what he ate for breakfast.
Nichols no longer has a job ("Who's gonna hire me now?") and said he does nothing but spread his take on Clinton 10 to 16 hours a day, on talk shows and to reporters. Since the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke, Nichols is in demand again. But he claimed he makes no money in his crusade and, in fact, maintained that he has lost virtually everything and lives off his wife's modest salary.
There is no question that many of Nichols's accusations are considered far-fetched by those who've investigated them -- but there is also no question he's been a recurring bad dream for Clinton.
In 1994, Nichols helped a right-wing filmmaker produce a bizarre and unsubstantiated documentary about Clinton, accusing him of a range of things, from treason to drug-running. Conservative television evangelist Jerry Falwell got wind of the film and started peddling it on his "Old Time Gospel Hour." Falwell sold more than 60,000 copies of the "Clinton Chronicles" for $39.95 -- and there are many more in circulation.
Nichols also takes full credit for putting Star magazine in touch with Flowers, who -- for a large chunk of money -- described what she said was a 12-year affair with Clinton.
Nichols eventually connected with the state troopers who had achieved their own anti-Clinton infamy. "We compared how we were being used -- how reporters would come to town and buy us expensive steaks and then we'd never hear from them again," Nichols said.
Soon, he and trooper Larry Patterson would appear on radio talk shows together. But, he insisted, he was never a part of any right-wing conspiracy.
"If it exists," said Nichols, "tell me where I go to join."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company