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The Siege of Little Rock


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  • Coverage of the McDougal Trial

  • Clinton Accused Special Report

  • By Linton Weeks
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, March 27, 1999; Page C1

    LITTLE ROCK — Dog-tired, people are. Many folks in this city are way beyond sick of: Kenneth Starr, the office of the independent counsel, the never-ending media scrutiny and the more than $40 million spent on investigating the alleged misdeeds of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    Maybe there were some sweetheart deals, some stupid loans, some indiscreet dalliances. So damn what? people are saying. You can feel the city's chronic fatigue. You can taste the disgust. Motorists honk when they see the popular "I Slept With Kenneth Starr" bumper stickers. At Doe's Eat Place another sticker says simply: "Kenneth Starr Go Home." You can sense all around a level of disenchantment and cynicism that makes Washington resemble "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

    The investigation ebbs and flows in and out of everyday Arkansas life as the independent counsel's office climbs every mountain, fords every stream, follows every rainbow. Sometimes there are revelations; often there are not. The inquiry has dusted the city and much of the state like pesticide.

    And now, more than six years after the government began delving into the business of Arkansas wheeler-dealer Jim McDougal and his bubbly wife, Susan, prosecutors are pursuing her one more time and the hills are forever alive with the sounds of Whitewater. She was back in the courtroom this week on charges of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice.

    Six years. The country's longest-running tragicomedy. So many plot twists: People have resigned, committed suicide, served time, been impeached, written books, become celebrities. Folks have moved to Washington; folks have moved back home. Marriages have broken up. Careers have been made. Dreams have been dashed.

    Six years. The riverfront has been developed. Tornadoes have devastated the neighborhood around the governor's mansion. There's a new glass skyscraper on the skyline.

    Some things remain the same. The Arkansas River. The Razorback football team filling War Memorial Stadium. Susan McDougal still speaking blithely of Madison Guaranty, animatedly of her husband's quirky and quixotic run for Congress in 1982 and fearfully of an ever-present and sinister Starr.

    And there is in the wind the indomitable spirit of stubbornness and resolve. You see it in the faces of the Arkansans at the trial. The people of this lovely and complicated state, a state that has withstood wars and depressions and floods and internal turmoil and external snobbishness, may or may not prevail in this prolonged feud. But they will endure.

    McDougal's Self-Portrait

    For her part, Susan McDougal delivered her early testimony passionately in federal court this week, gazing straight into the jowls of the jury. When she took the stand for the first time on Tuesday, dressed in a white blouse and long skirt, the dark-haired McDougal appeared comfortable if emotional. Every once in a while she glanced over at her fiance, Pat Harris, a California lawyer who once worked at her late ex-husband's savings and loan here.

    Not only did McDougal break her defiant silence, which had lasted more than two years, she often talked on and on. Sometimes she cried as she remembered her salad days. She sketched her then-husband as a grand-planning entrepreneur who battled manic-depression and poor health. She painted a self-portrait of an obedient, plucky, can-do, youthful wife.

    Her attorney Mark Geragos of California, in dark suit and matching mustache, asked his questions in a gentle voice. He paused now and then to let his client collect herself and dry her tears. Nearby, Starr's prosecutors Mark Barrett and Julie Myers -- affable, capable, focused -- scribbled notes and exchanged glances. They objected to certain tactics.

    The judge said again and again that he was giving both sides "considerable leeway."

    The government believes that McDougal, who steadfastly refused to answer questions before a federal grand jury investigating the failed Whitewater land development, in which she and the Clintons were partners, might know something about the Clintons' business dealings that could prove damaging to the president. If convicted, she could go back to jail and be fined up to $750,000.

    Later in the week, under questioning from prosecutors, she said she did not remember specific business deals, though there were records of her participation. But during that first afternoon, Geragos ushered his client through a rambling reconstruction of her life in Arkansas. She grew up in Camden, where her parents still live. She choked up when she recalled meeting her husband-to-be. Jim McDougal was a professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia; she was a student 15 years his junior. They married and moved into a rustic "goat shed" just outside the college town. Over the years they bought a bank and an S&L. And they developed subdivisions, including Whitewater.

    When she proved to be a fumble-fingered bank teller, she said, she was instructed by her husband to go sit by an early version of the automatic teller machine and teach customers how to use it. Jim McDougal told his wife to pose on a horse to advertise one of their developments. She believed in him. "Jim had replaced any sort of faith in my life," she said.

    As the businesses began to flounder, so did the marriage. Jim had a catastrophic stroke and Susan was left holding the bag. The woman who testified that she had no idea how much money was in the family checking account was all of a sudden answering questions about a falling financial empire.

    The jury watched and listened. Some took notes. Like the presiding judge, they showed almost no emotion.

    The Clintons and other family friends abandoned her husband in his time of need, she told the court, and when Jim recovered from his stroke, he set out to get even with the Clintons.

    "He told me," she said with a broad smile, "that he was going to go down in history."

    Judge Howard did not smile back.

    All Rise

    Not a smiler on the bench, this judge.

    Every workday George Howard Jr. climbs into an older Mercedes and drives the 45 miles from his childhood home of Pine Bluff to the federal courthouse on Capitol Street.

    In his office, Howard looks small, slump-shouldered in his big leather office chair. The tie peeking out at the collar of his robe is not garish. He has a thin, reedy voice that rises in pitch every few words. He wears tortoise-shell glasses. He does not draw attention to himself. He has impeccable manners.

    A 1954 graduate of the University of Arkansas, Howard was appointed by then-Gov. Clinton to the state court of appeals in 1979. Then President Carter named him to a seat on the district bench. He's a 33rd-degree Mason and past president of the Pine Bluff chapter of the NAACP.

    Over the years, Howard has gained a reputation among Little Rock lawyers as a fair and honorable, if uninspired, judge. He's known for his ponderous ways. He presided over the 1996 trial of Clinton's successor, Jim Guy Tucker, that resulted in the governor's felony conviction and resignation. Jim and Susan McDougal were also defendants in that trial.

    This courthouse has seen its share of Whitewater and Paula Jones pleadings, trials and grand jury activity. And some other high-profile cases, including one that's going on in another room two floors up from the McDougal trial: White supremacists Chevie Kehoe and Danny Lee are on trial for the killing of an Arkansas gun dealer.

    Howard doesn't say much, according to longtime observers, but what he does say, he says over and over. He has pet phrases like "considerable leeway" and "I'm persuaded that we do have an intelligent jury." He pointed out that the jurors -- seven men, five women; three black, nine white -- take copious notes. (Are they thinking book contracts?)

    It's a small courtroom. There are seven pews. One is reserved for the McDougal family, another for the Office of Independent Counsel and another for the Media Committee, a group of reporters selected by Howard that makes sure newspapers and TV networks are treated fairly. During the McDougal trial, Howard has practiced an open-door media policy. He has allowed reporters and sketch artists to traipse back to his chambers whenever he's meeting there with lawyers.

    One morning, McDougal's lawyer Geragos begged the court's indulgence. He wanted to pass along some information to the judge.

    It seemed the volunteer chaplain of the prison where the defendant had served time told McDougal's father, James Henley, that a friend of the chaplain's named Tommy had heard from a friend of his named Evelyn Gentry that Evelyn's brother Charles C. Adams was a juror in the McDougal trial. And the chaplain said that Susan ought to know that Adams didn't like the Clintons hardly at all.

    In Arkansas, there are usually far fewer than six degrees of separation.

    The chaplain and Tommy and Evelyn, as it turned out, all work together at the Remington plant.

    "I'm not about to let the system be manipulated," said Howard, who was wearing a light olive suit, a pale shirt and a floral-print tie.

    If juror Adams does indeed despise Clinton and the McDougals, Geragos said, the court should know. Otherwise he would be "a stealth juror."

    The judge said he would send a marshal for Evelyn Gentry and the court would get to the heart of the matter. Geragos said Gentry might be reluctant to appear in front of all the reporters.

    "I'm sorry she doesn't want to be involved," Barrett chimed in. "That's what this case is all about." Later that afternoon Evelyn Gentry arrived, wearing a black sweater and clutching a black pocketbook. In the judge's chambers, she sat in a large white chair.

    Her brother the juror, she said, thinks Bill Clinton should be impeached, and "he likes Ken Starr."

    Geragos requested that the juror be dismissed. Howard heard patiently from both sides of the table and made a ruling: Charles Adams, the judge said, swore that he could be objective and so should be allowed to remain on the jury.

    "I don't want this system to be manipulated," Howard said.

    Arkansas Embodied

    His eyes are sad and sagging. His face is wrinkled and worn. His hair is shaggy. Rough on the outside, he is surprisingly urbane on the inside. He's been humiliated by the Office of Independent Counsel. He's scared, he's angry, he's distrustful, he's wiser. He will spend the rest of his life earning back his good name.

    Stephen Smith is Arkansas.

    A former business partner of the McDougals', Smith now teaches communications at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

    Through Smith -- and other witnesses for the defense -- Geragos hoped to demonstrate a pattern of prosecutorial harassment and intimidation and to explain to the court why his client had not been more cooperative with the OIC: She was scared.

    Smith said that he was afraid to not cooperate with the government. In 1995 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for misspending part of a $65,000 loan. He paid a $1,000 fine. When he was summoned to appear before a Whitewater grand jury in 1996, Starr's office provided Smith with a "script" that Smith said contained lies and mischaracterizations of people and events. "They asked me to implicate others in a criminal conspiracy," he said.

    The government maintained that Smith was fully aware of his rights and responsibilities. Several times it was pointed out that prosecutorial conduct is not always a pretty sight. Barrett and Myers tried to convince Judge Howard that Smith was not a pertinent witness in this particular trial, but they failed.

    Smith has written a work of fiction based on his experience with the independent counsel's office. It's called "The Star Chamber." His pen name is John Wilkes.

    Before getting on the stand, Smith said of Starr, "I think he's lost his judgment. He's Ahab."

    Of Susan McDougal he said, "I think she's shown a lot of courage."

    During Smith's testimony, he was asked about a matter of law. Starr's lawyers challenged his legal expertise. In quiet, unassuming Arkansas fashion, Smith let it be known that he had taken, and even taught, a few law courses.

    Had he taught a course at the local college?

    Smith cleared his throat. On the faculty of law at Cambridge University in England and as a visiting scholar at the Stanford University law school, he replied.

    Near the end of his stint in the witness chair Smith was asked if he was scared that he might be investigated again.

    Yes, he said.

    In the windowless courtroom, the air is steamy and stuffy. And with all the talk of strong-arm tactics and living in fear, it felt a little like a Graham Greene novel.

    In Need of Fresh Air

    And so the people grow numb and number.

    At the Wallace Grill, spitting distance from the Old Statehouse where Clinton celebrated his presidential election in 1992, owner Harry Hronas, 46, said the Starr investigation was "old news. I'm tired of hearing about it."

    Ed Valentine, 51, in green hip boots and a winter cap, seconded the emotion. "It's getting to be old," he said as he cleaned out a fountain in front of the Doubletree Hotel, formerly known as the Camelot.

    James Kelley, 31, works at Stax convenience store in the Hillcrest neighborhood where Hillary and Chelsea used to go for yogurt. "I paid attention when it all first began," he said, but no longer. Life has intervened. Kelley's too busy making ends meet. He's too busy enduring.

    "I'm working double shifts now," he said. "I can't watch the 10 o'clock news anymore."

    If he had, he would have seen McDougal become less loquacious on Thursday as the prosecutors conducted their cross-examination. She couldn't remember this; she couldn't remember that. The government played a videotaped TV interview with her from a few years ago. She said on the tape that she hated the prosecutors and wanted them, and their children, dead.

    In Little Rock, most people don't feel that strongly about Kenneth Starr and his staff. But no longer is the issue innocence or guilt. Everybody's guilty; everybody's innocent. Mostly Arkansans are ready for springtime. It feels as if they've been trapped in a too-long winter and their beloved home has become as stuffy and uncomfortable as that closed-in courtroom.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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