The Magazine

The Big Creep

An attempt to rehabilitate Bill Clinton is in full bloom. Unsurprisingly, the would-be hagiographers leave a lot out.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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There has never been a man who manifestly loves to talk more than Bill Clinton. His fluency, like his ideas, is of a particular kind. It’s unimpeded by any need to be concrete or precise; words in the Clintonian sense are less a means of conveying information than a perfume spritzed around whatever image he hopes to project at a given moment: rumination, wonder, amusement, deep concern, or a rueful acknowledgment of the stubborn lack of conscience shown by his political opposites. This Clintonian gift of gab is on display, and how, in another landmark of the Clinton revival: a nearly four-hour documentary called Clinton that airs this week on PBS. 

Four hours can be a very long time, viewers will discover. Those of a certain age may find themselves growing sleepy, sleepy as the old Clintonian phrases float from the TV. “I will be a repairer of the breach” and “We will build that bridge to the 21st century” and “I feel your pain.” And the names, too, waft aimlessly, half-remembered: Betsey Wright, Bruce Lindsey, Susan McDougal, Webb Hubbell, Sidney Blumenthal .  .  . 

The documentary draws to a close with testimonies from admiring staffers and journalists, who agree that Bill Clinton is an especially complicated man. But then, at that moment, for a few viewers something will snap: They will be roused by the rustling memory of words and names they haven’t heard during their four-hour slog. Bill Clinton is even more complicated than the producers have let on. They have dutifully included Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, but where’s Marc Rich? John Huang and Roger Tamraz and James Riady? And Juanita -Broaddrick—how about her? And if it’s memorable phrases you want, what about “You better get some ice for that” and “You make my knees knock” and “I was never alone with Monica, right?”

Many people swept up in the Clinton revival are simply forgetful of the Clinton reality, or too young to remember it, and to them these other signature phrases and names will be foggy or un-familiar. The ignorance is easy to correct. Excellent narratives like Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton and Truth at Any Cost, by Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf, collected the crucial facts at the time. The true nature of the Clinton administration was as closely documented as any in history. Tireless congressional committees released exhaustive reports on matters ranging from the Clintons’ business dealings in Arkansas, to the president’s fundraising once in office, and then finally, in a kind of climax, to the series of felonies touched off by his dealings with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. 

Republicans controlled the investigations, of course, and the partisan impulse that sent them sleuthing was undeniable—and often used as an excuse to ignore the unseemly facts they turned up. And a few of the probes, such as Rep. Dan Burton’s study of the suicide of the president’s deputy counsel, Vincent Foster, seemed less partisan than paranoid. The hatred that Clinton stirred among his political opponents was staggering in its ferocity. Nothing of its kind would be seen again in American politics until the next president came along. 

But it’s also undeniable that something fishy was always going on around the Clintons—a constant furtiveness, the ineradicable stink of prevarication and subterfuge: crucial evidence suddenly gone missing, fastidiously kept records with improbably convenient omissions, and above all an Ozark omerta that bound the Clintons’ toadies and attendants from Little Rock to Washington. Even under the heaviest prosecutorial pressure, very few of them flipped. Investigations into the Clintons’ dealings with a sleazy owner of a failed savings and loan stopped halfway when the owner’s wife, a former Clinton mistress named Susan McDougal, went to jail rather than testify. Webb Hubbell, a law partner of Mrs. Clinton’s, did the same—and secured more than $600,000 in consulting fees from people close to the Clintons. 

One of them was a longtime financial supporter and Indonesian businessman named James Riady. The story, as explained in Isikoff’s indispensable book, was typical of the Clinton method. Having donated heavily, Riady was invited to several White House meetings. After one of these, Riady took Webb Hubbell to breakfast. Then Riady went to the White House again, meeting privately in the Oval Office with the president. He brought with him a man named John Huang, who ran the U.S. subsidiary of Riady’s Indonesian financing company. Riady then met with Hubbell again, over lunch this time. Within four days, Riady’s company had paid Hubbell $100,000 in consulting fees. Despite a plea agreement, Hubbell never cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation of the Clintons. 

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