Editor’s note: This story was originally published on January 31, 1992.
LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- Outside the city limits, and certainly outside the borders of Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s tacit acknowledgment of infidelity poses a fresh challenge to the American voter. Here it doesn’t. They’ve been living with the Clintons for a long time, and with the womanizing stories too.
People the Clintons’ age or younger can barely remember a time when the governor was named something other than Clinton. He is the reigning monarch of this small kingdom, a virtual Franklin Roosevelt of incumbency, and the squire of Little Rock, where the political life of the state is lived.
Bill Clinton’s personal failings, in that sense, are everybody’s business here. Or it’s everybody’s business to decide that they are nobody’s business.
People talk about him at times as though he were their energetic and imperfect nephew: someone whose career they have tracked at least out of the corner of their eye, hoping for good things from him, proudly noting his achievements, ever critical of his weaknesses, willing to punish him harshly. The nasty little Republican interregnum of 1981-83 was an instrument of punishment: Bill Clinton had stepped out of line.
His reelection, and reelection, and reelection, and reelection, and the seeming blithe tolerance of Clinton’s baldly broken promise of two years ago not to run for president in 1992, suggest an astonishing capacity for forgiveness.
Arkansans’ defense of the Clintons’ privacy amounts to a nearly maternal protectiveness of them. It also bespeaks an honest willingness to search your soul, to ask yourself about judging and judging not. That may be a new experience elsewhere, but in Arkansas, Bill Clinton and the business of redemption are an old habit.
“Most people are willing to forgive and forget,” says Bobby Roberts, a onetime Clinton appointee, “particularly if Hillary does.” He adds, as most people do, the standard proviso that Clinton had better not be found to have lied about Gennifer Flowers. He also adds that all bets are off if -- as one fellow getting his hair cut in the old Donaghey Building downtown put it the other day -- “something else comes out of the spittoon.”
When Clinton said on “60 Minutes” that the American people would “get it,” avers country lawyer and former insurance commissioner John David Harkey, “he told us he committed adultery. When he tells me he made mistakes and caused pain, he’s telling me, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ But we don’t have to pillory the man.”
Even as KARN radio broadcast the Flowers tape across Arkansas, the polls here this week began to show -- as they did elsewhere in the country -- widespread comfort levels with Clinton and disaffection with news coverage of allegations about his past. Some here felt vindicated. “We’ve had the same information about Clinton for years and we came to the same conclusion long ago that folks elsewhere just have,” says Mara Leveritt, a writer and local chief of Amnesty International.
Stephen Engstrom of Little Rock says it’s a milder version of the Liberace theory: “The little old ladies knew what Liberace was, but they just didn’t want to talk about it. The public really doesn’t want to decide whether or not Clinton was faithful.” A more cynical view, or a more realistic one?
You’d think, if you were an outlander armed with preconceptions about the local intolerance of sin, that people around here would be hot and bothered about Clinton’s indiscretions, such as they may be. But one local, not born and bred in Arkansas, begs to differ.
At liquor stores here, she says, there’s what they call a “Baptist window” where customers, Baptist and otherwise, who wish to buy from the privacy of their autos may do so unobserved. A double standard is the accepted protocol, she says: “There are two levels of rectitude.” What you do in private and what you do in public follow very different rules.
Marshall Purvis, a longtime Clinton critic, admits he hadn’t expected the post-Flowers closing of ranks among Arkansans. “It does surprise me -- not that people will accept adultery, but that they could be so disbelieving of those tapes” Flowers and her attorney played. Some people who know Clinton well, in fact, were insisting straight-faced early in the week that it was not even his voice.
There’s denial and there’s sheepishness. “I wished he had shown more incredulity” about what Flowers was saying on the tape, rues one Clinton admirer. “Or hung up.”
That sort of wishing on Clinton is a clue to the way the state deals with its governor -- this errant son. “He ought to be a good governor, but he isn’t,” remarks a Little Rock businessman. Nate Coulter, a young lawyer and former Clinton staffer -- and continued supporter -- agrees: “Some of his harshest critics are people who expected more of him.”
Yet even a generation of chronic impatience and perilous familiarity has not eroded a broader impulse to cheer Clinton on, a son of Arkansas going for the big time. The state has produced its recent share of distinguished political figures -- Winthrop Rockefeller, J. William Fulbright and the current senators, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, are regularly cited. That moderate Southern progressive tradition is being carried forward by Bill Clinton. Writer Dee Brown (”Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), a longtime Little Rock resident, says Bill Clinton’s rise from country boy to handsome prince has the appeal of an operetta.
Bobby Roberts thinks the impact is palpable: “A poor rural state like ours has had an inferiority complex. He’s helped us to overcome that, and we have to overcome that.”
Betting on Hillary Stand by your man? Hillary Clinton mocked the words in her slam at Tammy Wynette’s song Sunday on “60 Minutes,” suggesting she wasn’t that kind of woman.
May be. But standing by her man is what Hillary Clinton seems to be doing, convincingly enough for a lot of people around here who know her.
“It would be much easier for her to play the role of the bitch or the scorned woman,” says her friend Connie Fails, a dressmaker on west Little Rock’s boutiquey Kavanaugh Boulevard. “That’s the pattern that women my age learn, what TV and the movies tell us is the position a woman should take.”
But those who know the marriage aren’t surprised at its tenacity and resilience, no doubt the fruit of a long struggle to stay together, as they imply themselves. “They are light-years ahead of me in terms of how they handle their relationship,” says Fails. “You have to really love someone to work that hard.”
The sheer physical dynamic working between the Clintons during their joint “60 Minutes” interview, clasping each other’s hands and arms without self-consciousness, would suggest as much. Among those watching was their friend actress Mary Steenburgen, perhaps the most famous person to come out of North Little Rock, the burg across the Arkansas River.
“What was so difficult for me, watching them, was to know the truth about somebody and to hear the truth twisted,” she says. As for Gennifer Flowers’s television performance, Steenburgen says, “Speaking strictly as an actress -- get the hook!”
Steenburgen, speaking from her place in Ojai, Calif., goes on: “I know the stresses on a marriage like that, and I’ll bet on that marriage any day of the week.” And one of the reasons she feels qualified to judge is that she’s Bill Clinton’s friend too. “Bill is very capable of being a friend to a woman -- and not every man can do that.”
Their friends say the Clintons have worked hard to make a normal life for themselves and their 11-year-old daughter, Chelsea, despite the pressures and invasions of public life and their role as the main frogs in a smaller-than-average pond.
This is, of course, what every candidate and his acolytes will tell you. Take it as you will, the marriage here is one busy yuppies will recognize. But then you’d expect that from a boomer candidate.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has a well-defined reputation of her own. Sooner or later while talking about Bill Clinton people will get around without any prompting to paying Hillary a compliment. Usually it runs something like this: “Nice lady. And smart.”
Sometimes the praise is a veiled critique of her husband, but in any event it is seldom patronizing. Hillary Clinton doesn’t bear patronizing. “Lots of wives are good women,” observes Harkey, who’s been watching Arkansas politics all his life. “But they’re not all good advisers, good confidantes. And that old Hillary is a great one.” His formulation about Hillary, interestingly, can be bracketed with Steenburgen’s about Bill.
No one doubts her ambition, and there’s always talk that she might herself run for office, perhaps her husband’s, and be a formidable candidate. She has a political agenda of her own -- for instance, the Children’s Defense Fund -- and a commanding speaking style. She is a lawyer and by every account one of the best in the state.
More than one of the old Southern gents who know her speaks of her prowess. One senior Clinton adviser refers gently to her direct manner, motioning his hand like a hatchet. Others speak of her as someone with an edge. “It’s not that she’s an ice maiden,” says a friend, “but when she thinks she’s right you’re not going to tell her differently.”
They do eke out time for the happy banalities of family life. A visitor recalls sitting in the kitchen at the governor’s mansion with Diet Pepsis and carrot sticks (amid the swirl of preparations for an official dinner); another friend remembers Hillary telling Bill, who’d arrived late after missing dinner, that he could go steam himself some vegetables in the microwave.
They’re hands-on parents, say their friends, who treat Chelsea with respect and have (successfully) encouraged in her a well-informed and opinionated nature: Amy Carter for the ‘90s. Chelsea, for example, takes a different position from her father on the death penalty, which he has come to support over the years.
A year ago Hillary Clinton, Fails, Steenburgen and ABC correspondent Nancy Snyderman, another former Little Rock resident, met in San Francisco for a weekend with all their daughters. There were no schedules, the participants said, just strolls in Chinatown and other leisurely stuff. For Hillary Clinton it meant among other things anonymity. “Nobody recognizes us,” she said gleefully to Fails. “They’re all on Steenburgen and Snyderman.”
Fails, the dress designer, has been thinking about what she could do for the Clintons, something to commemorate the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary. She’s come up with a soft sculpture, a little “Hillary doll,” wearing a little T-shirt that says: “If that’s not enough for people then, heck, don’t vote for him.”
What the Critics Say Not everyone in Arkansas loves Clinton, or will ever forgive him this or any other trespass. Forty percent of the electorate regularly votes against him, and the capital press beats up on him pretty consistently. Some think he might have lost his job long ago if the state Republican Party had presented remotely credible opposition.
Some of the dislike of Clinton goes with the territory of being a smart boy who worked hard and made good in a state where that still inspires people -- even as it inspires them to meaner emotions too. Clinton, by this widespread view, is overeducated (”So what if he’s a Rhodes scholar -- my daddy built roads all his life” goes the chestnut.) And that fancy education, early rise and glamorous life on the national stage make him a crypto-city sophisticate, never a good thing for an American politician anywhere to be.
The rules of the game are that you disclaim personal ambition, but to investment banker Jon Jacoby, “He has always desperately wanted to be somebody. And that isn’t all bad. We all do. But he has packaged himself to be president -- period.” In the eyes of a lot of people, observes Coulter, “He got too much too soon, and they’re never going to love him.”
For any critic, and for the many apologists of Clinton, the governor’s first term is still the point of reference, the odious comparison. Hairstyles being what they were in the Carter years, “you didn’t know the sumbitch had ears,” says Harkey. The smartass kids on his staff telling the state’s political establishment what to do. Then there was the matter of the First Lady of Arkansas -- an Illinoisan, mind you -- who was not proud enough of her man to take his last name. (She did, during the two years in the wilderness.)
The legend is now widely known, and strikingly similar to Michael Dukakis’s. Clinton tugged his forelock, never stopped campaigning and, with the help of an inept Republican incumbent, returned to office a sager and cannier man. A better listener. Certainly a churchgoer.
His return to office bred the second main complaint about Clinton. It’s well known in other capitals: Clinton is a waffler, his finger always to the political wind, a man without convictions. Stories abound of his vacillations, his temporizing, his indifference to government qua government.
This derisive perspective gives Clinton credit “only” for his talent at retail politics -- the picnics and speeches and flesh-pressing -- and his affinity for the ceremonial duties of being a governor of a state where the office is constitutionally weak (highways, corrections and education are largely outside his domain, for instance) and the lifting is light.
“I resent the fact,” declares Marshall Purvis, “that he’s been on the political tit all his life.”
‘A Swamp of Rumors’ Little Rock is the principal city of the state, Paris to Arkansas’s France. It is, says one 20-year resident, at once a big city and a country town. “People on the outside think it’s some sleepy little place,” says Gene Lyons, a magazine and book writer originally from New Jersey. “This is the biggest swamp of salacious rumors I’ve ever seen in my life.” It’s no wonder people say the things they do about Clinton, he says.
Even by those standards this has been an extraordinary week. The “60 Minutes” appearance, the airing of the Gennifer Flowers tapes, Hillary Clinton’s appearance on “PrimeTime Live” last night have all dominated conversation. You’d think you were in Washington.
In a restaurant you can hear talk at every table about sex and scandal. It’s a blue streak of dubious rumor and hot opinion about Bill and Hillary and Gennifer and lots of other characters major and minor in the Clinton operetta, reeled off with the facility and obsession of a Kennedy assassination enthusiast. Even the contras are involved.
Then there’s all the national media attention. Sound men and television personalities and other news ferrets bump into each other in the halls. John Brummett, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist who is the youthful dean of political reporters and the state’s top Clinton-basher, has been holding court at the Capital Hotel bar, surrounded by other scribes scribbling avid notes for their distant new outlets.
Before departing yesterday for Moscow, he let loose a blast in his Arkansas Times magazine column about all the shallow and unheeding national media types with their tweed jackets and Land’s End bags, getting Clinton all wrong.
Journalist Mara Leveritt, for one, is incensed that Clinton is being singled out for humiliating criticism while the media ignores the sexual transgressions of other politicians. Making specific reference to old allegations about a mistress in George Bush’s life, she says, “If one guy is going to be shot out of the saddle over this, why not look at the others?”