Big, leafy oaks shade the streets in and around Dilworth, a genteel Charlotte neighborhood of historic homes with big porches and an ambience of understated affluence.
A tour of the environs might start at the stately brick home of Paula Broadwell. You remember her from a few scandals ago, right? The biographer/mistress of Gen. David Petraeus? Rielle Hunter, the videographer/mistress of former Sen. John Edwards, lived a short drive away.
And then there’s the small, rented brick townhouse on the corner with the sticky front door. A lumbering man with a vaguely familiar face stands waiting there. His presence gives this stretch of North Carolina’s largest city the aura of a Bermuda Triangle of National Scandal.
Webb Hubbell — the Arkansas Clinton buddy who went to prison in the 1990s after getting caught up in the interminable Kenneth Starr investigation of the incomprehensible Whitewater affair — has lived here quietly the past few years since shedding his old life in Washington. Almost no one recognizes Hubbell anymore, or they’re too polite to say so. His 18-month prison sentence for bilking his former law partners has the whiff of ancient history, even as Hillary Clinton — a close friend he brought into his law firm so many years ago — plays the role of front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
In Charlotte, he has occupied himself doting on grandchildren and attending local political salons, where he sits in the back of the room and seldom speaks. (“I almost get the feeling he deliberately tries to hold back,” says Rachel Kubie, a librarian who attends the salons.) He has been writing political and religious blog posts, and he just produced his first novel — a political thriller called “When Men Betray,” set in Arkansas — that was released Wednesday.
In some ways, the novel is a coming-out for Hubbell, who had purposefully and — he insists — contentedly disappeared. He had found some measure of peace in obscurity. He liked the solitude of writing, and of course, he wrote what he knew. But he did it without venom — which, his friends say, is exactly how he lives his life now. Time has sanded away the sharp edges.
“I have no scores to settle,” says this man who once occupied the most privileged of perches in the Clintonian inner circle. “That’s just not who I am.”
A life-altering event nudged Hubbell out of Washington and back to the South, where his viscous drawl and chummy manner is closer to the norm, rather than a novelty. In 2010, Hubbell was dying. He suffered from nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, a potentially fatal liver disease. He was desperately awaiting a transplant match and was “the sickest puppy” in the hospital. He was so close to dying, he says, that his old friend, Bill Clinton, flew in to say goodbye.
In one version of the Webb Hubbell legend, Hubbell is the Clinton fall guy — the loyal friend who went to prison because he wouldn’t rat on his golfing pal, Bill, or his former law partner, Hillary. In another, he is the inconvenient friend, a flawed character whose proximity to the powerful threatened to undermine an entire administration.
It’s tempting to imagine those two versions being reconciled in what might have been a final conversation between the two men at Hubbell’s rented house in Tenleytown. But if they were, Hubbell isn’t saying. (Neither is Clinton, who did not respond to interview requests.) The old friends talked about what they always talked about, Hubbell says: “Baseball and the Razorbacks,” the mascot of their beloved University of Arkansas, where Hubbell had been a star lineman on a Sugar Bowl-winning team.
“We didn’t talk about politics,” Hubbell says. “He talked about his new diet.”
In the years since, Hubbell says he has spoken with former President Clinton from time to time but hasn’t kept in close touch with Hillary Clinton. “She’s kind of busy,” he says. He keeps in regular contact via e-mail and phone calls with many of his old friends from his days in politics, including capital powerbroker Harold Ickes and former White House insider Marsha Scott.
Over and over, he says how he’s not bitter about how things turned out. Politics was something that he used to do, but can live without. His happiest days, he says with only a hint of wistfulness, were not spent in the churning cycle of Washington power but rather in the more cloistered realm of the Arkansas Supreme Court, where he served as chief justice.
Not long after Clinton left the Tenleytown home, Hubbell got lucky and a match was found. In June 2010, he underwent an 11-hour transplant procedure at Georgetown University Hospital. When he awoke, he says, his wife asked how he was feeling.
“George and I are doing fine,” Hubbell answered.
It was a response that required explanation. As it turns out, Hubbell had decided on the spot to name his new liver. And, for reasons that he couldn’t explain, he dubbed it “George.”
His wife, Suzy — a former Interior Department official who now sells real estate — wanders downstairs as Hubbell is telling the story. She simply shrugs at the memory.
“He’s a weird guy,” she quips.
The story got weirder, the couple says, when they learned that the young man who died in a hunting accident and whose liver was now sustaining Hubbell’s life was named — George.
Getting a new liver gave Hubbell the sense that he had been given a second chance, though in reality, he’d had quite a few second chances over the years. He had been a hugely successful attorney in Little Rock, had been appointed state attorney general by Gov. Clinton, had been a kingmaker on the Clinton presidential team and a top official in the Justice Department.
Hubbell met the Clintons at “the state mental hospital,” he dead-pans, waiting for the quizzical look that always comes when he cracks that one. The hospital is where the bar exam was held, he explains with a wry smile. He talks of the Clintons with affection. Some of his friends complain that Clinton didn’t pardon Hubbell, but not him.
“He ended up being screwed in the end,” says his friend Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “I’ve never heard him complain about that. I think he just simply felt it was his life and it was his responsibility to pick up the pieces and move on.”
Stroup and Hubbell became friends after Hubbell left prison, and they worked together at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a group that provides assistance for people in the criminal justice system. Later, Hubbell helped Stroup press life insurance companies to provide coverage to “responsible marijuana users.”
Hubbell is a large man with thick facial features and a particularly pronounced lower lip that he levers back and forth when making a point. He worries about his weight, and says he’s now back up to 260 pounds after having shed a few pounds. At 6-foot-5, he walks with slow, deliberate strides on knees battered by years on the gridiron.
He once made big money, but now he lives modestly, saddled with large legal debts. (He won’t say exactly how much he owes, but places his remaining debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.) He lost his law license after going to prison, and he found there wasn’t a huge market for him as a public speaker.
While he talks, his hands tremble. This is not a function of age — he is only 66. But, rather of a condition, known as an essential tremor, that he says he has had almost his entire life and that worsens when he’s fatigued. In college, he could barely grasp a water glass after football practice his hands shook so.
He has a gracious and self-effacing manner. “Affable” is the word that almost everyone uses to describe him, so much so that he’d probably have to be described as (D-Affable) if he ever ran for office, though, of course, he wouldn’t. He describes his time in prison as his “sabbatical” and his experiences being investigated by Starr’s independent counsel’s office as “my stuff.”
In his novel, Hubbell imagines a lunch meeting between Starr and the Clinton attorney, David Kendall. Asked whether he would share a meal with his former pursuer, Hubbell says without hesitation that he would. “Maybe The Washington Post could set that up,” he cracks. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy when I say this: I never personalized it to Ken Starr. I actually thought his deputies were running the show. I thought he should have reined them in more.”
In the years since his 1997 release from prison, Hubbell has informally counseled many men who were about to go on “sabbaticals.” Once a friend introduced him to a lobbyist who had gotten into trouble: a guy named Jack Abramoff, who was about to be imprisoned in a 2006 corruption case. They went to lunch in Washington, where Hubbell remained after being released from prison. Hubbell struck Abramoff as this “very normal guy.”
“Not this corrupt horrible villain that he was made out to be. A very decent, honorable person,” Abramoff says in an interview from his Washington area home. “He was certainly made into a cartoon character and I was certainly made into the ultimate cartoon character.”
Hubbell says he prefers writing fiction to nonfiction. With nonfiction, someone is always going to quibble about facts large and small. Some reviewers thought his much-publicized 1997 book “Friends in High Places” mischaracterized key elements of the Whitewater saga. And then there was the woman — whom he’d rather not identify — described as a blonde in the book. She called and screamed, “I’m a brunette,” he says.
In his novel, Hubbell does nothing to suppress his feelings about some of the institutions that factored into his dramatic fall. The press is viperous and the main character’s law partners are greedy and craven. The hero of the book is a Hubbell clone, a likable Arkansas attorney, and he winks at his own narrative on the very first page by creating a secretary character named Rose — the name of his former law firm that became so enmeshed in the drama.
But he says he purposely avoided writing caricatures of other figures from his life. An Arkansas governor and his former sorority empress wife figure heavily in the plot, but they’re not Bill and Hill, he says. “I can’t see Hillary as being the sorority queen,” Hubbell observes.
Hubbell says he is at work on another novel. But he doesn’t worry that his small-scale re-emergence will become an uncomfortable reminder of past scandals as Hillary Clinton gets closer to a decision on whether to run for president. People move on, he says with a hopeful tone. He has. But when asked, he doesn’t shy from questions about the political future of his old friend.
“Do I think she’s running? Yes. Do I hope she’s running? Yes,” he says. “She would make a very good president.”