MAY 29, 1996
JIM LEHRER: Rex Nelson is the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. He joins NewsHour regulars Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Rex Nelson, the eyes of Arkansas were certainly on that jury and what it did. How did they do what they did yesterday?
REX NELSON, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: (Little Rock) I think there's probably a sense of relief here more than anything, Jim. I mean, not only that jury but all Arkansans have been living with this trial for weeks now. The prosecution took about nine and a half weeks to present its case. It's one of the longest federal trials in Arkansas history, and there was that sense of uncertainty now that is removed. We know Governor Tucker is leaving office, that Republican Mike Huckabee will be moving in, so I think more than anything it was a sense of relief this morning that it's just over here in Arkansas.
JIM LEHRER: A sense that justice was done?
MR. NELSON: I think there probably is. In fact, we did a statewide poll about a month ago that showed that only 19 percent of registered voters in the state believe that Governor Tucker was telling the truth when he said that he was innocent of the charges against him. More than 50 percent said they thought the governor was lying. So the governor's attempt to portray this as outside Republican carpetbaggers coming in to prosecute Arkansans I don't think played. I think the governor had run out of political capital long before this trial even started, and I think the sense around the state, however, was we think he's probably guilty, but you'll never find a jury to convict him. Well, this jury and--that we just heard from proved them differently. And I think most Arkansans probably do think that justice was done yesterday.
JIM LEHRER: Now outside Arkansas--I won't speak for everybody outside of Arkansas, but this trial was portrayed as being about the Clintons even though it wasn't about the Clintons. I mean, the Clintons were not charged with anything, however, there was a lot--the Clintons had a lot riding on this. Is that the way it was viewed in Arkansas as well?
MR. NELSON: No, I don't think so. And I talked to some national radio shows today have tried to portray it that way. I think that Arkansans clearly knew than this was about Jim McDougal, Susan McDougal, and Jim Guy Tucker. Indeed, Bill and Hillary Clinton were business partners with the McDougals and Whitewater Development Corporation from 1978 to '92. But Whitewater was not an issue. Whitewater Development was not a part of this trial, and people here in Arkansas knew that rather than being close associates, Jim Guy Tucker was actually a political enemy of Bill Clinton. Those two gentlemen came of age politically about the same time. They were bound to square off at one time or another, and they did square off in 1982 in the Democratic primary won by Bill Clinton here in Arkansas, and that gubernatorial primary was one of the most bitter, one of the most heated--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. NELSON: --contests we've seen in this state--
JIM LEHRER: They didn't like each other.
MR. NELSON: --in the last couple of decades. Oh, no, not at all.
JIM LEHRER: They didn't like each other at all, did they?
MR. NELSON: Not at all, and I, again, I think that people here in Arkansas were able to make that distinction, and they knew that this was not about Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And it was not seen as the jury had to believe either David Hale or President Clinton in determining which way they would decide?
MR. NELSON: No, Jim, again, I think that's something that was presented by the national media. I mean, everybody that I talked to wanted to present this as a case of David Hale versus Bill Clinton. What it actually was, was the U.S. Government versus Jim McDougal and Susan McDougal and Jim Guy Tucker. I think that's how Arkansans saw it, and I think that's how this jury saw it. Now, interestingly enough, as you know, we have another trial coming up, a couple of bankers that did business with the 1990 Clinton gubernatorial campaign, and it's kind of ironic. I think that trial will receive a lot less national media attention, but I think it strikes much closer to home as far as the President is concerned and is a much larger potential land mine--
JIM LEHRER: Why is that?
MR. NELSON: --for the President.
JIM LEHRER: Why is that?
MR. NELSON: Well, again, now you have the President's campaign doing hands-on dealing with a small bank--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. NELSON: --West of Little Rock called the Prairie County Bank. I mean, money was taken out of this bank. Cash transactions were taken there that were used for street money. Again, you had no direct connection to the President to these charges. I think certainly we'll see the President testify again in this upcoming trial of Herby Branscom and Robert Heel, probably again by video tape from the White House.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. You mentioned the national media. We have two key members of the national media with us whom we'll bring in now, Paul Gigot and Mark Shields. Uh, Mark, umm, what has this done for the President? You heard what, what Rex just said about how it was viewed in Arkansas. How was it viewed by all the rest of us?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I thought Lars Eric Nelson of the "New York Daily News," a respected columnist, put it well. He said, "In theory, the President was not on trial in Little Rock yesterday but in practice of politics he was." There's no question about it. And I think Rex makes a good case that this was not about Bill Clinton but these are the only two business partners that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton ever had when he was governor, Jim and Susan McDougal, uh, and he makes a very good case that they were--he and Jim Guy Tucker were, were rivals all the way through their entire political careers. I mean, Jim Guy Tucker was in many respects the real Bill Clinton, uh--
JIM LEHRER: Explain that.
MR. SHIELDS: Well, he was--Jim Guy Tucker was three years older--is three years older than Bill Clinton, went to Harvard, did the Marine Corps Reserves, came back, got elected attorney general of the state, took Wilbur Mills' place in the Congress in 1976 as the former chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, and in 1978, squared off in the battle of titans for the Senate seat held by John McCollom for so many years in Arkansas against David Pryor, the governor. Ray Thornton went on to be president of the University of Arkansas, a member of Congress at the time, and Jim Guy Tucker, a real, a real Pier Six brawl won by David Pryor, and then in '82, as Rex mentioned, Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker squared off in a really bitter gubernatorial primary, so, uh, they are not close. They've never been close, but there's been a certain, you know, shotgun marriage of convenience over the years. I don't think there's any question that for people outside of Arkansas it's, if they'd gotten the verdicts they'd hoped for, Jim, the White House, the innocent verdicts, they would have said, boy, that's the end of it, this has been a witch hunt, it's a dead end, and all the rest of it, and you can't make that--this is a day in which the White House spin doctors have more than earned their pay. There is nothing to say.
JIM LEHRER: Paul.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: They all won Oscars, the Irving Fallberg Award for lifetime achievement after today. I--it wasn't just the national media, much maligned as we are, which tried to put the President into this case. It was the defense. I mean, the defense brought him down, in essence, as a character witness for--brought down a former governor of Arkansas, now President, from Arkansas, to testify as a character witness for the current governor of Arkansas, and it didn't work. It was a bad defense strategy. Obviously there were only two defense witnesses, in fact, Jim McDougal, which was a catastrophe probably for the defense, and then the President. So it's hard to take him out of this--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. GIGOT: --in any broader sense.
JIM LEHRER: But how does it--how does this play now as far as the Presidential election is concerned? Is this--what's your reading on that, Paul?
MR. GIGOT: I talked to a Democrat today who said that this was not, as the White House expected, the end of Whitewater. Yesterday was the beginning of Whitewater, because what it did was it gave new energy to Ken Starr's probe. What it did was it said that the essential, the White House has had two defenses really. One was the sort of Gertrude Stein defense that what she once said about Oakland, there's no there there. Now you have something that was there--a crime, fraud, and conspiracy. So they can't say this is--there's nothing to it. And the other one was that it's all political, that this is just an Al D'Amato witch hunt, and Ken Starr is part of the team. Well, in fact, 12 Arkansans said there's something to it, and it's very hard to dismiss it all as partisan politics.
MR. SHIELDS: I think it is hard to dismiss it as partisan politics. Anybody who listened to Ms. Wood on our broadcast with Elizabeth or heard the interviews of the other jurors, uh, I'll tell you this--it goes a long way toward restoring public confidence after O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles. I mean, these were people who were thoughtful, conscientious, they heeded the judge's instructions. They went through it with deliberation. I mean, that was impressive, it truly was. And I have to say the other thing. I thought Jim McDougal, uh, handled, handled the verdict yesterday quite manfully. He did not whine. He said the jury and the judge had been fair and open, and I thought, I thought the President handled it well last night as well, but it remains, Jim. It is a very serious political problem.
JIM LEHRER: But what--in what way does it remain--if, if, if you take what all of you have said, that, that at this stage--nothing has yet been proved on the Clintons.
MR. SHIELDS: No.
JIM LEHRER: That they did anything wrong.
MR. SHIELDS: No.
JIM LEHRER: Or improper--
MR. SHIELDS: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: --or whatever. How does it continue to hurt them--
MR. SHIELDS: Okay.
JIM LEHRER: --if it doesn't go any further than this?
MR. SHIELDS: First of all, it diverts attention, energy, and effort at the White House. I mean, people are concerned about it. They're trying to figure out how to handle it and all the rest of it. That's the first thing. But the second thing is Bob Squire, who's the Democratic media consultant working for the President, very veteran guy with a lot of, a lot of campaigns under his belt, whenever he's been asked about the Republicans raising the character issue in 1996, said, hey, we had an election about that in 1992, didn't you see it? Bill Clinton won. What this does is it re-energizes and re-cycles the character question problem for the Democrats and for the President.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Paul?
MR. GIGOT: Think, think of it this way. Imagine what the election would have--what would have changed in 1992 had we known then what we know now, had we known that the President's business partners were engaged in looting an S&L, had we known that a sitting governor of Arkansas, who was then lieutenant governor, was partners with them in a way that was really troubling and would have to resign his office. Imagine if all the questions about the billing records would suddenly appear, all the questions about the testimony and the contradictions, if we had known that, it probably would have made a difference, and that's what--the point Mark is making, I think, which is this is not a question of women, which we had back in '92, but this is a question that was not considered in '92 and is going to be front and center in '96.
JIM LEHRER: Rex, does that add up to you?
MR. NELSON: Oh, absolutely. I think Mark and Paul are right in that it gives impetus to the investigation, not only what Al D'Amato is doing over in the Senate, but the important part, which is the legal part, which is what Ken Starr is doing, and Ken Starr is still rolling forward. He has an investigation here in Little Rock. He also has a Washington phase. Don't forget that we still have grand juries impaneled both here in Little Rock and there in Washington. I certainly expect we'll see more indictments before this year is over.
JIM LEHRER: Rex, let me ask you this question. Is it--do people in Arkansas believe that there would ever--that the McDougals or Jim Guy Tucker would ever have been charged with anything or ever even been investigated if it had not been for involvement of the Clintons? In other words, did the Clintons, the fact of the Clintons bring this on them?
MR. NELSON: Oh, absolutely. I think we all know that. I mean, I don't think there would have ever been charges brought against any of the three if Bill Clinton had not become President of the United States. But as I told people all along, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not guilty and certainly this jury decided yesterday that they are guilty, and, uh, I don't see a legal problem for either the President or the First Lady at this point, but everybody is right in saying it is going to be a continuing political problem at, at the very best for the President and does give some impetus to Ken Starr, and it could become a legal problem for some in the administration before November rolls around.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, Mrs. Clinton in an interview last night on the NewsHour said that all of this is being driven and has been driven from the very beginning by people who do not want her husband to be President of the United States, and that's where all of this began. Is she right about that?
MR. SHIELDS: She's right that people who don't want her husband to be President of the United States have endorsed, uh, helped, assisted, but I mean, we just had a case--we just had a jury verdict yesterday, Jim, in Arkansas, and, uh, to return to Ms. Wood and her fellow jurists, I mean, they were, they were thoughtful, conscientious citizens who had no vendetta, who liked the fact that Bill Clinton is a fellow Arkansan who's President of the United States. I think it's--it's hard to say today, uh, that it's a political--it's a political escapade, but I, I do think, uh, that there's no question that the Republicans--I mean, let's be frank about it--the Republicans didn't have much going for them. I mean, they, they were cut off at every pass. They had a candidate they were trying to get rid of. They were bad-mouthing him every time they turned around. Now all of a sudden they're energized. It's a little bit like the Democrats were in Iran-Contra. Uh, you know what I mean? They couldn't beat the gipper, they couldn't lay a hand on him, but boy, oh, boy, geez, we got Ollie North, isn't this good, and any time, any time you reduce to scandal politics, it, it really is an admission that what--your game plan isn't working, and I think even Republicans in their sort of euphoric or the anti-Clinton forces in their euphoric moment tonight, which is understandable euphoria, ought to think about that. Uh, you know, what's the case?
MR. GIGOT: Well, if Republicans only run on, on Whitewater, they'll lose. I mean, that's not the only thing this election will be about, so Mark's right in that sense. Umm, there's a--there's a real irony in the First Lady saying that politics is being played here. Of course, she's right, a lot of her husband's enemies are taking advantage of this, and waving the flag around, but she earned her political spurs on the other side of the fence, and the committee that investigated Richard Nixon, and the way our system works is that accountability is political. The other side says, all right, what can we smoke out and what can we stir up, and that's when those sides clash, you often get more facts and you, you at least come to some kind of accountability, and that's what--what happened in Watergate, and that's to some extent what's happening now.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We'll we'll see what--we know what's happened up till now. We'll see what happens next, as they say in our business. Rex Nelson, thank you very much for being with us from Little Rock tonight. Thank you, gentlemen.