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Webb Hubbell's Sorry Story

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 1997; Page B01

Webb Hubbell wants to apologize. But does anyone care?

Poll after poll shows that most of America 1) doesn't understand Whitewater and 2) doesn't care to. If Americans remember Hubbell at all, it's probably as a hulking fall guy, somehow associated with the interminable Arkansas land scandal that may lead to the White House. Or may not.

The more educated Whitewater fan may know that Hubbell, 49, spent 18 months in jail for bilking his law clients and his former employer, the Rose Law Firm of Little Rock, Ark. Also, that he, Hillary Clinton and the late Vince Foster were close friends at Rose before they all came to Washington, swept in with Bill Clinton's 1992 election.

So, if the average American has any image of Hubbell, it's probably as an affable, drawling Arkansan, a buddy of the first couple who turned out to be a felon. The general public may have neither the time nor the inclination to listen to Hubbell's apology. Unlike Nixon, he's not grand enough to seem malignant. And unlike Robert McNamara – whom people very much wanted to hear apologize, even if they didn't believe him – Hubbell hasn't become a linchpin for history. Hubbell already feels as far away as Bert Lance.

And he's not denying any of this.

"I don't need forgiveness from people. The one person I needed to get forgiveness from, I got a long time ago – that was God," he says. "But I needed to apologize."

He does so at length in a book released today: "Friends in High Places: Our Journey From Little Rock to Washington, D.C." Whitewater junkies and conspiracy theorists might be disappointed by the book: There are no shattering revelations, no smoking gun, no damning details. A lot of people – including Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr – think Hubbell knows more than he's telling. Some think he's the link that can take Whitewater to the White House. Asked why he didn't write a tell-all book, Hubbell laughs with exasperation:

"I keep telling you: I don't know all!"

Of course, there is another possible reason: Hubbell is still under investigation by Starr, this time for about $500,000 in consulting fees Hubbell received after he resigned from the No. 3 post at the Justice Department in March 1994. Some of the money was paid by the Lippo Group, the Indonesian-based conglomerate at the center of inquiries into Democratic fund-raising. At least one congressman has wondered aloud if it was "hush money" paid to keep Hubbell from singing to the feds about what he might know about Whitewater and the Clintons. Hubbell won't comment on the consulting money he was paid, saying that, even though he gave up his law license, he is still bound by attorney-client privilege.

So this book has another purpose: It is the most accessible documentation of what Hubbell says he knows. Starr unsuccessfully tried to have the manuscript subpoenaed before publication.

Finally, Hubbell had another reason to write: The need for cash. Since he was sent to a federal minimum-security prison camp in Cumberland, Md., in August 1995, Hubbell's wife, Suzanna, has been the family's chief breadwinner, with her $70,000-a-year job at the Department of the Interior. Hubbell himself, who made $124,000 a year as associate attorney general, now makes less than $20,000 a year at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, where he works on issues such as seeking prison release for elderly, nonviolent first-offenders. He himself is in the first year of a three-year supervised release from Cumberland. (He served 18 months on mail fraud and tax evasion charges after admitting he swindled more than $390,000.)

The Hubbells live, with their youngest daughter, in a rented town house in Northwest Washington. Both the rent and their daughter's private education at Maret School are partially underwritten by Hubbell's sister. If he has further legal fees, Hubbell says, he'll have to foot them.

"No one will touch me," he says. "If you're seen having dinner with Webb Hubbell, you could be subpoenaed the next day." He says he has not heard from the Clintons, or old friends Mack McLarty or Vernon Jordan, since his release. He is not bitter, he says. He says he understands he is "poison." He wears his shame like a hair suit from the Big-and-Tall men's store.

Now, he is, like any author, out drumming up publicity for his new book, trying to assure that it will at least recoup his $400,000 advance. Yesterday, over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, he recounted the writing process, which began in prison, and ended with ghostwriter James Morgan, a Little Rock author and journalist.

"There was so much I wanted to put in," Hubbell says. "It's hard to condense your life into 400-some pages."

Hubbell kept an extensive journal of his prison life (where he acquired the nickname "The Big Easy," for his even-tempered manner) and the memories of his life. He considers the writing – along with the psychological counseling he received just before he pleaded guilty to the charges that led to his imprisonment – to be his therapy. He joins the long list of tainted public figures – from Charles Colson and Marion Barry to Hugh Grant and Marv Albert – who now publicly seek "healing" and "closure."

He is an emotional man, who, in the book, admits to getting misty when he watches "Brian's Song." He lists gushing novelist Pat Conroy as one of his favorites, and says Conroy wrote a letter of condolence to Lisa Foster after her husband's death. Hubbell says he admires the way Conroy writes about the South but allows that "he's a little caught up in his father."

Hubbell's own father was a strong influence in his son's life. An engineer himself, he urged Hubbell to get an electrical engineering degree and encouraged his son to play football, after he grew eight inches between the 9th and 10th grades.

The younger Hubbell went on to be a star left offensive tackle for the University of Arkansas Razorback football team that won the Sugar Bowl in 1969, his senior year. The left offensive tackle has one responsibility that stands above all others: protecting his quarterback from a blind-side blitz by sacrificing his body if necessary. Investigators wonder if he's doing the same for the Clintons.

The funny thing is, Hubbell says, he never liked playing football. It was "too violent." Like most other things in his life, he says, he played football to please others – his family, his friends, his coaches.

He writes: "I liked looking up in the stands and seeing a wall of people cheering for me. I liked knowing that my father was part of that crowd."

Such youthful experiences appear to have contributed to what became a dangerous combination of insecurity and egotism. He enjoyed being The Man in Arkansas – star football player, Little Rock mayor, chief justice of the state supreme court, golfing buddy of Bill Clinton. At the same time, he felt insecure about his status and his income – his wife had come from a wealthy family and he wanted to maintain her standard of living. He wanted to give his four kids a good life. He joined an exclusive country club because it made him feel accepted.

But in the evenings, he'd walk past modest houses and fantasize about downscaling his life, getting it under control. Yet he continued mounting up debt.

"Back in those days, you were getting credit cards sent to you in the mail," he says. "Instead of cutting them up, I was using them."

Finally, he began secretly billing Rose and his clients for personal expenses, trying to remedy gluttony with theft. "It can be like alcoholism," he says – overspending being a self-defeating compulsion that he couldn't, or wouldn't, stop.

Trace elements of his internal contradictions still linger: At breakfast, Hubbell consumes a fruit plate – and a side order of sausage patties.

Because of his sheer size – he is 6-foot-5 – he seems to overwhelm the table and his flatware. His constantly refilled coffee cup seems on the verge of being crushed by his huge, thick, vibrating hands. When he entered prison he weighed 320 pounds. By the time he got out he was down to 210. Now he's back up to 250. He said his weight has fluctuated so much, his wedding ring doesn't fit anymore.

On the way out of the restaurant, a waiter greets Hubbell. The waiter used to work at a restaurant across the street from the Justice Department, Hubbell explains, where he and Attorney General Janet Reno would eat lunch.

"So long, Mr. Hubbell," the waiter calls from across the restaurant, loud enough for many to hear.

No one looks up. Perhaps they're being polite. Or perhaps the name doesn't ring a bell.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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