Little Rock, Arkansas
During the weeklong lead-up to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center, I felt as though I was stuck in The College Nightmare. You know the one: Every professor you have is giving an exam concurrently, and you don't know which one to take. It just didn't seem fair. There were so many ways to celebrate President William Jefferson Clinton. How could I pass up any of them?
I wanted to take all my meals at Doe's Eat Place, Clinton's famous roadhouse-meets-steakhouse hangout, where the manager told me Clinton used to pop into the kitchen and snatch handfuls of fries right out of the fryer basket. But then, my hotel was next-door to his regular McDonald's, which boasted "The McRib is back!" in honor of the special week. Like millions of other Americans, I wanted to see Clinton's New Balance jogging shoes and the actual pair of shades he wore while blowing sax on Arsenio Hall, both of which are on display at the Old Statehouse. But then, the same actual sunglasses are purportedly on display at his new library. (Perhaps one pair was a stunt double.)
I couldn't shave myself in the morning if I missed "An Evening of Readings: The Poets of the Clinton Presidency." But if I went--hold on to your Maya Angelou--I might miss the lecture by White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who seemed to capture the spirit of the Clinton years when he said, "Dessert time is happy time."
And of course, Bill Clinton was our first black president. But how best to observe this? At the "Evening Reception Honoring the Diverse Legacy and Phenomenal Achievements of President Clinton," in which we also saluted "unsung heroes," anonymous little worker bees like Cicely Tyson and Quincy Jones? Or perhaps at the Clinton speech at Little Rock's Central High, where, as history buffs will note, in 1957, against the wishes of Governor Orval Faubus, an 11-year-old Bill Clinton led the Little Rock Nine to school in the country's definitive desegregation battle, shortly after he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation?
Standing in the shadow of such greatness is a humbling experience. Indeed, it was hard to measure up. I mean sure, you could participate in the kickoff 5K Presidential Fun Run, retracing the giant steps Clinton used to take when he'd pull on those silky jogging shorts. But all you'd get for your $25 entry fee was a T-shirt and a cup of Gatorade. Your run would never be as fun as Clinton's, since, as Gennifer Flowers once wrote, "Bill loved to jog in the morning, and it was an easy way to get out of the mansion without arousing suspicions. He would jog just over a mile to my place, spend a half hour or so making love to me, then have his driver drop him off a block or two from the mansion. . . . He would show up at home properly out of breath."
Hold up a second. Was that me? Did I just say Gennifer Flowers? What an embarrassing lapse--she wasn't part of the official program! The thing to realize about Clinton Week, as did the legions of celebrities and former administration types who descended on Little Rock hauling oxygen tanks and defibrillator paddles to help resuscitate the legacy of their hero, is that this wasn't some hollow exercise, but rather, a religious experience. It's why people sat in the torrential downpour of the Clinton Center's dedication day, enduring hours of speeches and U2's Bono letting loose with yet another harangue about forgiving Third World debt. Mentioning Flowers, or Monica Lewinsky, or impeachment, or the myriad other Clinton scandals that most readily defined his presidency was, to borrow a regionalism, a bit like farting in church.
There were, however, strange smells emanating from the back pews. There was the protester in front of the Convention Center, brandishing a plumbing pipe from which dangled a kneepad in tribute to Lewinsky. "I'm drawing thumbs up, as well as middle fingers," he told me. "Right now, they're running about even."
Then there was the hardy band from shadowgov.com, who ran 30 strong, including their small children, and who took to the streets in black T-shirts that read "Judge Rightly isn't some guy's name." Their message, as told through chants and signs, was elegantly simple: "Clinton Raped Juanita," a reference to former campaign volunteer Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed in 1999 that Clinton had raped her back in the seventies. As onlookers flocked to the Peabody Hotel hoping to spy Oprah or Brad Pitt coming out of what was formerly the Excelsior (where Clinton allegedly invited Paula Jones to "kiss it"), the shadowgov-ers screamed, "Clinton is a rapist!" eliciting all sorts of confused responses, from "Clinton is not a racist!" to "Who's Juanita?"
SINCE THE BEST WAY for Clintonites to remember Clinton fondly is to forget, amnesiac tendencies are hoped for and even counted on by those bringing us the Clinton Presidential Center. Exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum says the guiding lights were old Clinton hands John Podesta and Bruce Lindsey, who had editorial approval of the exhibits, along with Clinton himself, whom Appelbaum calls "the curator in chief."
Sitting on manicured parkland that abuts the Arkansas River, the glass-and-steel eco-conscious building (it has solar panels and floors fashioned from renewable bamboo and recycled tires) has been given plaudits for its design. Locals, however, deride it as a "trailer on steroids" because of its boxy resemblance to a Conex container or garbage bin (at any moment, one expects an oversized sanitation truck to pull up, fork it with its prongs, and dump the contents over the grounds, which will eventually feature barbecue pits since, as the center's landscape designer says, Clinton "likes to talk over food").
Enter the building, an airy space bathed with the light of a modern art gallery, and your senses are overwhelmed by all the squawk-boxes and tickers pounding you with policy bullet points. This is how the Clintons have always kept score. Though Clinton prides himself on coming from a southern storytelling tradition, his library has the cold sterility of a campaign brochure. With all the competing statistical claims--Clinton moved 75 percent of welfare recipients into jobs, increased classroom Internet access 77 percent--the Center resembles a busy trading floor in Al Gore's dreams.
Even by the whitewashing standards of presidential libraries, Clinton's stands out. He comes across like a president on a job interview with historians. In thematic alcoves bedecked with self-serving slogans like "Putting People First" and "Expanding Our Shared Prosperity," no accomplishment is too minor to trumpet. (He "launched a quiet revolution in adult education" and helmed the first administration to recognize Ramadan!) Hillary's alcove is worse. It features just about every meaningless award she has ever won, right down to the coveted African Ambassadors' Spouses Association statuette.
Yet when the curators try to humanize things, the results are often just as strained. Featured contributions from celebrities and dignitaries make the place come off like a gift shop at a bad tourist trap (the world-leader nesting dolls, the ceramic Buddy the Labrador lawn ornament). Equally painful is the "A time to laugh--the Clintons' humor" video display, in which we learn what natural stitches the Clintons are from the earnest voiceover: "Laughter is good medicine. And President Clinton brought a lot of good humor to nearly every challenging day during his years in office."
Some days, of course, were more challenging than others. Like the day he was impeached, or the day he faced accusations that he'd had sex with a White House intern. Library officials claim, without laughing, that Clinton deals with this forthrightly, in a little sleight-of-hand alcove called "The Fight for Power," a propaganda nook that would do Kim Jong Il proud.
In a morality tale too tortured to replicate here, Clinton traces the trajectory of his impeachment trial all the way back to the Contract With America, and decries the "radicalism of the Republican agenda." Diabolical right-wingers wanted to abolish the New Deal and starve Medicare, and it became "common right-wing practice not just to attack Democrats' ideas, but also to question their motives, morals, and patriotism." And to attack sitting presidents for getting blowjobs from interns, and lying in civil suits--but all of that is left unsaid. In fact, Paula Jones isn't mentioned, and Lewinsky's name appears only once by my count.
In the Clinton library, Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite warrants more mentions than Lewinsky (he at least gets a photo), and the entirety of the Clinton scandals is dispatched in about as much exhibit space as is enjoyed by the White House Easter Egg Roll. In a recent survey of historians, Clinton's moral-authority ranking placed him dead last among presidents, behind even Richard Nixon. But in Clinton's telling, impeachment sounds like a good break, since throughout the battle "his administration continued to enjoy high public approval ratings and to implement much of their agenda."
As I stood taking notes on the exhibit, I overheard some visitors unclear as to what the whole rigmarole was even about. When one daughter asked her father why Clinton was impeached, he replied, "I think it had something to do with Whitewater." Another man, who'd wanted to come to the Clinton library for his birthday, pointed out to me that roughly four-fifths of the exhibit seemed to be Clinton apportioning blame for his travails. Looking for Lewinsky, he said, "The only picture they have of her is right here." I pointed out that the photo of a woman in a jail jumpsuit and leg irons was actually Susan McDougal. "Oh," he said, "then I guess they don't have any."
But amateurs aren't the only ones who are confused. When I ran into former Clinton flack Mike McCurry, on his way into one of the scores of Clintonite parties, I asked him what he thought of the scandal alcove. He smiled, then in perhaps the only candid admission I heard from a Clintonite all week, he said, "What I wanted to know was what would my kids say? Would they really know what was going on? I did like the architecture."
AFTER FOUR DAYS of choking on revisionist adulation, I was in need of a good palate-cleansing. So I sought to revisit some portions of the Clinton legacy that get short shrift in the library--the amusing all-too-human reminders that no matter how grandiosely the former president strives to recast his narrative as Shakespearean drama, the footnotes tend to read like Rabelaisian farce.
However many rotating exhibits the library hosts, none will ever be dedicated to Connie Hamzy, aka "Sweet, Sweet Connie," the rock'n'roll supergroupie who was immortalized in a Grand Funk Railroad song. Connie had the distinction of being the first of Clinton's many "bimbo eruptions" when, in 1992, she told Penthouse the tale of how Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, had approached her while she was lying beside a hotel pool, and said, "I want to get with you." According to Connie, they couldn't find a hotel room, so instead they made do with a discreet corner for groping. Clinton denied the charges, and Newsweek reported that Hillary wanted to destroy Connie's credibility. Hamzy later passed a polygraph, preserving her reputation--such as it is.
The years haven't been kind to Connie. She's been arrested for public intoxication and for endangering a minor she allowed to drive her car. Today she survives on disability ("my nut money," she calls the compensation for her bipolar disorder) and earnings from a part-time job passing out strollers at the zoo. Her shoebox house in a bad neighborhood in Little Rock is a monument to cat-hair and bong smoke. When I arrive, she is finishing a photo-shoot with a photographer from Spin, who looks like he's just been through a war.
Apparently, Connie has spent the photo session on the sauce and the weed, and they've experienced all manner of creative differences. Plus, she tried to hit on him. "I told her I was gay," he says, as he hurriedly loads equipment into his car. "I've GOT to get out of here. Good luck." When I walk into her living room, Connie's still muttering about the photographer's arty pretentiousness. "Plus, he's a fag," she says.
Her house is a rock'n'roll museum, full of drumsticks and guitar picks that she earned the hard way. Connie has slept with most of the rockers in the photos, or at least their roadies. So we play a quick game of Who Have You Done? I point to a picture of Fleetwood Mac, a Clinton favorite. "Did 'em all," she says. "Even the women?" I ask. "Close, but no cigar," she sighs. Connie's a hard woman, her voice is all sandpaper and cigarettes. And being a supergroupie, she tends toward the friendly side. I'm not in her house five minutes before she grabs my behind. When I ask how old she is, she responds, "How old do you think I am?," pulls up her sweater, and bares her breasts. (She's 49; her breasts might very well be younger.)
I've already mentioned that I'm married with kids, so it's too late to play the gay card. Instead, I take her to Zac's, her favorite watering hole, or at least the favorite one she's not been banned from, reasoning that there, she's less likely to get naked. She orders a meal, as well as some extra cornbread and cheesecake "for Thanksgiving."
My largesse has put her in a chatty mood, and the subject is Clinton, who she calls "the clown prince of presidents." "I was the first woman to ever say a word about the motherf--er," she says, with no small amount of pride. And she laughs out loud at Clinton's rain-plagued library-opening ceremony. "His damn karma f--ed it up," she says. She resents being portrayed as a liar and points out, for the 24th time, that she passed a polygraph administered by the American Spectator, a fine magazine she says, even if they don't have recipes. "Every magazine ought to have recipes."
Sure, Connie realizes, she's a woman who has slept with 24 men in the course of a single Allman Brothers concert. But Clinton? He has no propriety. "He was doin' it in the Oval Office!" she says. Of her original disclosure she insists, "I don't regret a thing. I'm willing to die for this issue." And Sweet Connie is a reminder that to many, the Clinton wars will never be over. "Hillary let that old man of hers call me a liar. If she runs for prez, I'm going to be out of the chute. I might be a slut and a whore. But I'm no liar."
From there, I was off to Hot Springs to see an old acquaintance, Parker Dozhier. Dozhier, you might recall, briefly gained infamy as the proprietor of Dozhier's Bait Shop on the Ouachita River. He was one of the Arkansas point men in the American Spectator's much ballyhooed "Arkansas Project" (which the Clinton library takes care to mention); his fortune-telling ex-girlfriend claimed he'd sought to influence the testimony of Whitewater witness David Hale, who found sanctuary at Parker's fishing camp when he was a government witness. The charges were investigated, and found not to have merit. Other than lending Hale an old beater and letting him escape the media/Clinton heat in a vacant lodge, Parker says the extent of his payments to Hale was "getting him a Coke out of the drink box at the shop. You can't bribe a witness with that."
As a fresh-from-college research assistant at the American Spectator in the mid-'90s, I never heard the term "Arkansas Project" until years after I left. But my colleagues and I were amused that so many thought it responsible for so much. The heavy breathers and conspiracy theorists in Arkansas and elsewhere that we typically peppered for "hot leads" were unlikely to find their car keys, let alone information to bring down the president.
But Parker was one of my favorites. A raconteur and Renaissance man, he bears resemblance to a handsomer Jack Elam (without the scary goggle eye), and has done just about everything a man can do. "Matt, it's like a damn explosion in a career-day class," he says. He's been a television reporter, and a trapper, and a columnist for a fur magazine (if you need to know how much wild mink pelts are going for, Parker's your man). He's done disability evaluations for "whiplash-willies and slip-and-falls," was a publicity man for casinos in Istanbul, and, oh yeah, he used to detonate bridges. So taking down a president was just "somethin' else to do."
Dozhier describes himself as "f--in' Forrest Gump." He always seems to find action, unless it finds him first. He's gotten drunk with Hemingway, and was serendipitously driving past Mt. St. Helens when it erupted. He slipped photos of the Little Rock Nine to Life magazine, back when he was a student at Central High. The David Hale charge had some irony, since most people don't know that it was Hale who used to be Dozhier's landlord many years ago. Likewise, Parker dated Gennifer Flowers (whom he calls "a straight shooter") long before Clinton did, when she was still a brunette. And he even knows Sweet Connie. They used to drink at the same bar, along with Vince Foster. He hasn't, however, known her intimately. "God awmighty," he says when I ask him. "They'd have to check you into the Mayo Clinic. She's probably got diseases they haven't even named yet."
When I tell him I saw Connie's breasts, he laughs uncontrollably. "Who hasn't?" he says. I'd asked Parker, for kicks, to go with me to the Clinton library. "Thanks, Matt," he said, "but I'd rather go to a hog-scalding." I spy a copy of Clinton's book, My Life, on his bookshelf, but Parker says he couldn't read it (though it mentions him). "It's not readable. The most disjointed sonofabitch I've ever seen. There's no policy in it, it's just wonk."
Though Parker was in the habit of dashing off white papers to American Spectator editors, which he estimates resulted in exactly one story, he still claims Whitewater stinks to high heaven--it wasn't just a failed land deal, but a successful plan to loot a savings and loan. He thinks special prosecutor Ken Starr could've put Clinton away if he hadn't lost his nerve, though he suspects there'd have been a "constitutional crisis," especially since Starr's star witnesses were convicted felons (David Hale) or dead ones (James McDougal).
The media portrayals of Parker as some backwoods hustler still pain him. "If I'm trying to coerce some lady into my web--and I'm still holding auditions," he says, "she'll punch me up on the Internet, and my God, I'm a caveman." But it's a legacy he's willing to bear, if it means that in whatever small way he contributed to Clinton's troubles. Of the library's revisionism, Parker says, "My God, man, he's the only elected president who's ever been impeached. They can't take that away from him. . . . He thinks he's Elvis. He's taken on this persona of a rock star. He's an entertainer. He's an actor. And I suppose, to be a really good actor, one almost has to be a sociopath, to believe the lies that are the lines."
FROM PARKER'S, I'm off to the elegant Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, on a mission with Dolly Kyle Browning. I have convinced her to take me to her 40th high school reunion, which is, by extension, Bill Clinton's 40th high school reunion, since they graduated together. They dated when they were kids, going to The Malco movie theater or hanging out at Cook's Ice Cream shop or going "to see the duck," as the kids used to say, referring to the drive up West Mountain where they would park and make out on a bluff that overlooked the city lights, which formed the shape of a duck.
But it is for her alleged two-decade-long, off-and-on, adulterous affair with Clinton that the former real-estate attorney from Dallas is most famous. She detailed it in her roman à clef Purposes of the Heart (published in 1997 by her husband, Doc, an athletic trainer who also sells "the finest ginger cookies in the history of the world" on the Internet). The book recounts her, or rather "Kelly's," affair with a libidinous and amoral southern governor named Cameron Coulter, who is saddled with a loveless marriage and a thick-ankled wife named Mallory Cheatham.
Dolly, a blonde with self-described "sea-mist green eyes," is brassy and sassy, witty and tough. (She carries an unregistered .38 in her purse, and keeps a finger on the trigger when she walks to her car.) Dolly dismisses the Flowers affair as a "12-year one-night-stand." By contrast, she and Clinton used to have real feelings for each other, she claims, though that ended after she got religion and also was threatened in no uncertain terms that if she talked, as Flowers had, she'd be ruined. She began writing her book as a "codependency journal" during her therapy for sex addiction, and took it public in response to what she considers Clinton's boorish behavior.
Pre-reunion, she spins me around their old town, a former gambling mecca, whose restorative hot baths (still a feature of bathhouse-row hotels) used to attract everyone from rheumatics to clap sufferers drawn by tourism literature that claimed, "Here tottering forms, but skin and bone, are rescued from the grave." Throughout our drive, she seems disappointed. "That used to be pretty," she'll say, or, pointing to new construction, "Look at that ugly monstrosity--somewhere along the way, someone without taste moved in and took over."
Dolly's Clinton roots run deep. Her sister, before marrying, dated both Roger Clinton and Jim McDougal. Her late daddy, she says, had a fling with Clinton's late mother, Virginia. "Welcome to Arkansas," she says. She drives me past Clinton's boyhood homes. One's now boarded up with fire damage, though Dolly says "the fence is new. It's plastic--Virginia loved plastic." The other sits across the street from an abandoned Bonanza Steakhouse cow, grazing in the parking lot of a drive-thru liquor store. Clinton's schools haven't fared much better. His high school has punched-out windows and anarchist graffiti. His grade school is the headquarters for a ramshackle church run by an Internet radio talkshow host/UFOlogist who tells me that he thinks the Clinton library "is a big trailer on stilts." "At least it's a double-wide," chimes in Dolly.
Dolly abruptly cuts off the tour so that she can shed her jeans and Fox News hat (Sean Hannity is on her speed-dial), and go back to the hotel to "get beautiful." I tell her she already looks better than most of her classmates that I've seen milling around the hotel bar. "I don't want to be winning by a nose," she says, "I want to be winning by a mile." I ask her if the nostalgia tour makes her wistful for her days with Clinton. After all, the no-tell motel they sometimes shared just out of college is two-tenths of a mile down the block. "I'm nostalgic for it like you are for typhoid fever after you finally get over it." Well, who then is she anxious to see? "Whoever I look better than," she says.
We expect Clinton to show at the reunion that night, but he doesn't, we're told, because of post-bypass-operation fatigue. "One more opportunity to be the big star," Dolly sighs. "He must've been really exhausted, or else Hillary stuck that nose-ring in him and dragged him back to New York." For Dolly and me, the reunion is a bit of a disaster. I try to fit in, and play it low key, slipping off to the bathroom to scribble notes every few minutes, making people wonder why the guy who's 25 years younger than everyone in the room has the weakest bladder. But then I tell people who I am and what I'm doing. The disclosure earns me a tail, a snappish woman who looks like she captained the school's Sumo wrestling team. A former reporter for the school paper, she warns everyone not to talk to me since I'm from a conservative magazine. (I demand that we dance and make up, an offer she curtly rebuffs.)
Dolly, while earning plenty of ogles and good wishes from male classmates, is, with several exceptions, either snubbed outright by the women or talked about behind her back. As he leaves, Phil Jamison, Hot Springs High's 1964 class president/tailback/track-sprinter ("now running interference for Clinton," as Dolly says), pats Dolly on the shoulder, and says condescendingly, "We don't mind at all that you came." "Why would you?" Dolly responds icily.
Over a post-mortem breakfast the next morning, Dolly waves off the Clinton homers who are her detractors. "They're such weenies. This is their whole world, and I'm rockin' it." Of Clinton, she says, "His whole program ever since he got into politics was to rewrite who he is. He wants to come across as a statesman, when in fact, he's the consummate politician. I don't think there's been very many better than he is. But it's unfortunate that he never developed character so that he didn't have to make up a legacy as told by the Clinton library--my sister calls it 'the adult bookstore.'"
At least, I suggest, maybe all the Clinton-centric divisiveness that plagued us throughout the nineties is over. Dolly looks at me like I'm drunk. "It's never over," she says. "The legacy is just starting to be rewritten. How could you say it's over when they just opened that LIE-berry?"
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.