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Shirley Abbott, author of The Bookmaker's Daughter, a memoir about growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She had first-hand experience of the divided nature of Hot Springs. Her father was a bookie and every Monday she watched him bring pay-off money to City Hall.

Interviewed May 28, 1996


FL: Just paint a picture of this town for us with all the elements.

ABBOTT:

Well, Hot Springs was unlike any other town in the South, and certainly unlike any other town in Arkansas. People came there from all over. There were people from big places like New York and Chicago mingling on the streets. There were people who had come there to live from far away. There was open gambling, all illegal. There was the race track, which was by the time I was growing up there in the `40's was legal. The state was running the race track. But it was a mixed world. It was in some ways a farm town with a courthouse where people came in from the farms to buy feed, yet there were all these people from all over who had come there to gamble and take the baths. So it was a quite amazing mix that gave you a real sense of the outside world. But also a real sense that here was a place with two sides. Part of it was a kind of honest, ordinary little Southern farm town, and part of it was an illegal and quite obvious gambling industry that was going on right under your nose.

FL: How about how you positioned yourself. As the daughter of a bookie, the things you might have seen.

ABBOTT:

Well, my father was a bookie. And so he went off to work every morning in his ice cream suit and his shined shoes. But he just like anybody going to work. He might as well been going to the electric company as far as I knew, but he was working in a business that was completely illegal. The state police might have come at any moment to arrest him. There were pay offs made all the time. And it was a strange mix of order and illegality that existed side by side. In spite of the fact that most of the business of the town was conducted in the open, it was against the law and at the same time it was the safest place on earth. There was no crime in the street. You could leave your car parked with packages in it on the main street and nobody would ever touch it. Nobody.

FL: The life lessons. What were the lessons for a young budding politicians. What lessons might he learn?

ABBOTT:

Well, Hot Springs was the most political place. The politics were in the water, in the air, in the food. I mean I grew up knowing the name of every single official in the place, from Dog Catcher on up. And these people were visible at all times. Leo McGlaughlin, the mayor in the 1940's used to ride up and down the street in a little gig with two horses that he called Scotch and Soda. And you saw him all the time. And you knew that those people were there to serve you. You knew that you could talk to them. Let's say, for example, getting a parking ticket in Hot Springs was different from getting a parking ticket in some other town I think.I f you had a car and you got a parking ticket, you would look at this parking ticket and your first thought would be "How did I get to be low enough in the pecking order to get this parking ticket in the first place?" And your second thought would be "How can I get somebody to fix this ticket so I don't have to pay it." I mean it never would occur to anybody to just go and pay the parking ticket. You knew that the town was run by a machine and you could go and see somebody. And that's what you did. If you had a hole in the street, you went down to the courthouse and you talked to somebody. If your kid was in trouble, maybe you went down to see the mayor and said, "My boy's in trouble." And he said, "Well he's a good boy. I'll call the sheriff and see if we can't do something about that." Or whatever your problem was, you knew somebody to take it to. And you took it. And there was always somebody there to listen. The mayor held court. He would see anybody that came in that office and he would try to do something about whatever it was that ailed that person. You know that's the beauty of a political machine. And a political machine, although I don't really recommend it as a way to run a government or a town, it has it's kind side. It has it's good side. And we were all aware of that.

And of course as the daughter of a bookie, I was also aware that there was a lot of bad stuff going on up at the top. That there was a system of bribery. That there were payoffs. That there were people who were above the law. I knew that the governor was involved. I knew that the chief of police was involved. My gosh, the same guys who were patrolling the streets giving you parking tickets, if they gave you any, were working as bouncers in the casinos at night. So politics was like an exoskeleton. You know some insects have their skeletons on the outside? Well, Hot Springs had it's skeleton on the outside. You couldn't not be aware of it. You couldn't not know how the system worked. You couldn't not grow up thinking that a politician was one of the most important people on earth.

FL: What could a young politician learn from life in Hot Springs?

ABBOTT:

Well, imagine a young politician there. Let's say Bill Clinton. He would certainly have seen men gathered around the county courthouse talking and he would have seen where they came from. That they were, some of them had come in from the farms. The feed store was right across the street from the courthouse. He would have seen people going into those offices. He would have known what they talked about. He would have understood what went on at City Hall. He would have known the names of the officials that were there. You heard stories. People talked about what had happened in the past. People talked about how the town was run. And he would have seen this strange collaboration between the legal and the illegal. And it wasn't so much that this was corrupt or corrupting, although it was, but it was a way of seeing how politics and economics are linked. You would understand that, I certainly understood it growing up in Hot Springs. But we were talking about people's livelihood, that we were talking about bringing visitors in so that they would spend money, so that there would be food on all the tables, and children would go to school in shoes. And the connection there between what went on in City Hall and the County Court House and what you ate and what you wore was absolutely visible in the air. You knew that those things were connected. And it would be a microcosm for a student of politics. It was just there, almost like a child's diagram for everybody to see and understand. You couldn't not understand it. You had to get it.

FL: You also said that things were not always what they seemed to be.

ABBOTT:

Well, one thing I learned very early is that things were not what they seemed to be. That the man, the mayor riding down the street in his little gig with his two horses, looking like a price, was in fact engaging in fixing elections and illegal activities. And one of the great friends of my family was a judge and he was engaged sometimes in sending people to the penitentiary but he himself could have gone to the penitentiary because he was breaking the law. But I think the value of this, one of the lessons would be, you learn to compromise. You learn not to make snap judgments. You would learn that there are two sides to every question. You would see that yes, people were breaking the law, but on the other hand the town was benefiting from it.

But I think the most valuable lesson you could learn was the importance of government. And I think Bill Clinton is a man that believes in the importance of government. He believes in the ability of government to something for people. That was something that was never far away from you mind in Hot Springs. Government was involved in everything and it was responsive to the people. And it could do evil and it could do good. And when the people of Hot Springs decided they didn't want a crooked town anymore, the crookedness vanished in a very, very short time. Anyone observing as he certainly must have, because he was there after I had left, and he must have observed how reforms were made, especially in the 1960's, and you would have to understand how important government could be in making those reforms, and the ability of the Federal courts to come in and say you can't rig elections any more, and the ability of honest governors who were finally elected to say you can't have open gambling out there any more. But most of all, the people finally saying "We don't want this any more." And when the people finally said, "We don't want this any more." They got what they wanted.

In Hot Springs you learn the two sidedness of things. And my father used to tell me "Don't believe everything you learn in Civics class in school because it's more complicated than that. Listen to that but look around you too. And look at human motivation. Look at what people want." Hot Springs was a place where you had to see whatever people said their motivation was, they were always quite interested in power and money whether they admitted it or not.

FL: Can you give us a few images. Some visual images.

ABBOTT:

One of the things that wasn't what it seemed is that we had a resident gangster whose name was Oney Madden. He was a big New York gangster during Prohibition and he had, it was said, retired to Hot Springs. In fact my belief is that he was still an influential mobster and was skimming off profits from the illegal activities in Hot Springs and that these profits were going into gangster pockets and into the Mafia. And yet he was, he lived in a beautiful little white house next door to the Catholic church, covered with roses. He married a Hot Springs woman. He was often seen out on the streets tipping his hat to all the women, including my mother. And he gave impressive donations to the Boys Club. He could always be counted on to come across with a little money for any good cause. And everybody said, "Oh Oney is just here. He's just retired in Hot Springs. He's just down here for the climate. He really likes it here." But that wasn't the case at all. He probably owned, I have no proof of this, they didn't write these things down, there are no records to prove this, but I expect that he owned controlling interests in almost all the gambling. He certainly brought the wire service in that brought racing results in every day so the horse books could operate. But to all intents and purposes he was just a nice old gentleman, walking around the streets. And you had to know what was under that to understand what was going on. You had to listen.

FL: What else would a young budding politician learn from this, things not being what they seem?

ABBOTT:

A young politician like Bill Clinton would certainly learn the art of compromise. He would learn that it is the politician's first duty to serve. It is his duty to listen, that it's his duty to try to understand who people are and what they want. He would understand that society has many parts. And indeed, that a little town like Hot Springs even has all these different parts. It has the churches, it has the gamblers, it has the businessmen, it has the schoolchildren. And he would learn that the art of democracy is putting these people together and doing the best you can with them. A politician in Hot Springs I don't think in those days, or even in these days, would have looked for absolutes or perfection or any of that. He would have looked for a way to make the thing run, to make it go. A way to give people jobs, a way to give people a livelihood, a way to keep the schools open. Practical things like that. Not doctrinaire things. Not ideologies.

FL: There were no absolutes....

ABBOTT:

I guess it was my father who taught me not to have moral absolutes. That things were always more complicated than they looked. He used to have a hard time with the churches because the churches were against his business. The churches wanted to put the gamblers out of a job. And he never went to church himself, but I was sent to church and Sunday school. And he would wait for me in the car on a side street, and I'd come out of the church and he'd be there ready to drive me home. And in the church, I would hear such sermons as, "Don't drink and don't dance and don't lust after any thing or any body." And although I must say I don't recall in those days, and I went to a Baptist church, but I don't recall ever hearing the preacher say we ought to hate anybody or anybody was beyond the pale, or to be shunned or scorned. Sinners were people that you went and embraced and tried to bring into the fold. They weren't people that you condemned. And then my father would be sitting outside the church in the car and he too was a religious man. But he would quote scripture in a different way. And his favorite quotation was, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone." And "Judge not that you be not judged." And, "The meek shall inherit the earth." So that there, from that alone I got some picture of how complicated things were.

FL: By it's very existence Hot Springs deconstructs the American dream of virtue and hard work. Talk about that briefly.

ABBOTT:

Hot Springs deconstructs the idea of innocent small town life and of hard work and uprightness because Hot Springs was a town where people came to play and where people's propensity to drink and gamble and have a good time, those things were catered to there for many years. And I have [a] friend who grew up in Vermont and it's amazing how different her outlook on life is from mine. She grew up where there were town meetings and where the church was the most important institution in the town. And we often laugh about how differently we see things. In Hot Springs you knew that it wasn't so much the town meeting that was important, and going to church on Sunday night, you knew that life was about money and power. You knew it was about pleasure to some extent. You knew it was about pleasing other people. And yet this wasn't a knowledge that, certainly it didn't make me cynical, and I don't think it would have made a young politician like Bill Clinton cynical. It's not the truth that makes you cynical. It's if you expect perfection and then you don't find it. That's what makes you cynical. Then you flip over 180 degrees and you say, "Well, since there's no perfection that means that nothing is any good."

But if you see the truth, if you see the complexity of human motives, if you see the complexities of political life then in some odd way that makes you optimistic. It doesn't make you cynical at all. It makes you think there's something there to work with. It makes you think, "Ah, there's something we can do with all this. We can get somewhere with this." But Hot Springs, you didn't believe in the simple mythology of the small town and it's goodness after you had grown up there. It wasn't simple and it wasn't always good.

FL: This question about fluency. Clinton's admirers and some of his detractors remark about his fluency. Talk about that in relation to the lessons of Hot Springs.

ABBOTT:

In thinking about Bill Clinton's ability to compromise, his fluency, his ability to move with sometimes terrifying speed from one side of an issue to another, I recognize a kind of student that I knew in Hot Springs High School, although of course he was in Hot Springs High School a number of years after I was. But a talented kind like that, a bright kid, would have been spotted. Hot Springs High School was an amazing place. It was ten times better than you would expect a high school in a town that size to be. It was filled with wonderful teachers and they were all talent scouts. And when somebody with potential came through they spotted this person, and they gave this person things to do.

And I'm sure, I mean I had some of the same teachers Bill Clinton had and I know how they operated. And they would have given him speeches to make and encouraged him to run for the student council and to do whatever else he might have done in high school. They would have taught him this fluency. There were kids like Bill Clinton in high school when I was there, these wonderful boys, mostly, who were encouraged to be political in the high school. Who were debaters. Who were given the leading roles in school politics. And I'm sure he began to learn his trade there.

I think Clinton must have learned his fluency from, partly from the lack of moral absolutes, partly from the fact that Hot Springs was always a town that wanted to please. That was it's business. And I think it's been said that he's a man who wants to please. He really wants to be loved. He really wants to do the things that will make people happy, I think. And perhaps he learned some of those attitudes growing up in a town whose business it was to be tolerant, to please people, to keep them coming back again. To not disturb them or upset them in any way. To give them what they wanted and in some way while they were there tell them what they wanted to hear. This would be another aspect of looking around at the complexity of life and of human motivation, and of saying, "I have to understand this. I mustn't make snap judgments. I must not deal in absolutes and ideology. I must deal in the real and the individual. I must look these people in the eye and see what do they want, what can I do for them. That's my job. That has always been the big motivator in Hot Springs. How can we make these people happy. How can we keep them coming here. And we didn't even like to have the temperature announced in the summer because it might be too hot and it might frighten somebody away. And if there was an ice storm in the winter we didn't want that known either because someone might not come if they thought the streets were icy.

FL: You also said that the economy is rooted in leaving. And the whole thing could go up in smoke in a way. Talk a little about that.

ABBOTT:


The precariousness about life in Hot Springs at least as long as the town made it's living illegal gambling, and that continued until the late 1960's. I never knew but when I might come home from school and learn that my father had been arrested and taken off to jail. That never happened but it could have happened. And this whole arrangement of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours that enabled the gambling to run. That the governor had to be happy, that the various chiefs of police and everybody else had to be happy. And I suppose Oney Madden, our resident gangster had to be happy. And the wheels had to be greased and oiled and turning, but any little thing could have set them off. And then often just before an election, the governor would raid Hot Springs just to look good and you never knew from one day to the next if it was really solid in spite of the air of peace and serenity that pervaded the town. It couldn't have been safer. It couldn't have been more secure. You'd walk down the street on a summer day and you would hear the results coming in from Hialeah. In my grade school I could hear the people at the race track yelling as the winner crossed the finish line. But in spite of that aura of sunnyness and peace, it was a house of cards. And everybody knew it could fall down. Every election, after the old machine was thrown out, I think in 1947, the old McClaughlin machine vanished. And after that every election was a cliff hanger. You didn't know if your guys were going to get in. I never knew if my father would have a job. Sometimes he didn't because there were contending groups then wanting to control all this business. And there was always a lot of behind the scenes controversy and argument. I mean this was a lot of money involved. This wasn't small potatoes at all.

And so people were contending for control. And then also there were the people who didn't want it to go on at all. And sometimes they'd get the upper hand. So my father always used to say, chicken one day and feathers the next. And that pretty much summed it up.

FL: And this precariousness would extend to many people, including Bill Clinton, in that town?

ABBOTT:

Of course, of course. I suppose that the sense of precariousness must have been even more vivid in the late '50's, early '60's than it was in the '40's because at least there was this nice stable political machine in the 1940's that kept the lid on and fixed elections and kept things under control. But by the late '50's, mid '50's and the '60's, this had turned into a kind of shark pond. I wasn't there and I can't describe exactly, I'd moved away by then so I don't know exactly who was controlling what, but I know that the stakes had grown higher. Gambling was even more open. There were big casinos running all the time, whereas formerly.

This is when Bill was a young man, all these things were wide open. Hot Springs turned into almost a Las Vegas for a time. Still all illegal. Totally illegal. So there must have been ... A lot of people didn't like it. And didn't want it to be that way. And so there must have been a real sense of, perhaps Sodom and Gomorra, as though things were about to be brought to a close. As indeed they were. The old ways were vanishing in so many ways and I think everybody must have known that that couldn't go on forever. That was part of an old way of life and it wasn't going to continue. Partly because the federal government was not going to allow it to continue. The heat was on, as people said. There were Senatorial committees investigating all this sin in Hot Springs.

FL: What about Clinton watching his uncle ...

ABBOTT:

Well, the Clintons were a powerful family and they were always a political family. But you have to remember that Hot Springs was a town where, I'm not saying there weren't classes or even castes in Hot Springs, but Hot Springs, most everybody in Hot Springs was poor. And to qualify as rich and powerful in Hot Springs all you needed to do was drive a Buick or a Cadillac. The distance between the poor and rich, the powerful and the not powerful, was not as great as it is in a city like New York.

And the Clintons, yes they were powerful people, but they were pretty ordinary people too. I mean, his uncle Raymond with the Buick dealership, and you know, a lot of political clout, certainly wouldn't look like much today when you think about political clout. That was one of the things that made Hot Springs such a good school for a politician because these distances were short. Even the richest, most powerful people in town still sent their kids to public schools and shopped in the same stores that the rest of us shopped in and went to the same churches that the rest of us went to, if we went to them. Yes, he would certainly have learned form the Clintons what it was like to have political influence, and to be part of the ruling classes. But that phrase didn't mean in Hot Springs what it might mean in a larger town.

FL: Why did Raymond Clinton have power? Why was he a mover and shaker in Hot Springs?

ABBOTT:

Raymond Clinton had always been a power in Hot Springs politics. He had the Buick dealership, and in Hot Springs to have car dealership made you somebody. That was an important business to be in. And I think Raymond Clinton was influential in throwing the rascals out in 1947. He was part of the, there was something called, the GI's, the veterans came back from the war and ran against the old machine politicians and won. And I believe Raymond was part of that group. And the Clintons were always an influential family. They were people with money and some position. All of them. But I don't want to exaggerate the money or the position. Hot Springs was a town where the distance between the rich and the poor was very narrow. To qualify as rich in Hot Springs all you had to do was drive a nice car. And maybe live in one of the nicer homes. But there, I don't think there really were any rich people in Hot Springs. The rich people sent their kids to public schools like everybody else. They went to the same churches as everybody else. They shopped at the same stores as everybody else. The lines between the classes were much fuzzier than they are in a big city.

FL: The landscape around Hot Springs. Coming out of that landscape versus Kansas. What do you think of that?

ABBOTT:

Hot Springs is the most beautiful, enchanting place. The city is set in a valley like a little jewel with two mountains protecting it. The landscape, these are old mountains, worn down mountains. They're not threatening in any way. They are heavily wooded. Everywhere you look, there's greenery. Everywhere you look there's water. That had a special meaning for me as a child. You felt no one had ever starved to death there. No one, you felt no one would ever be hungry there. No one would ever be thirsty there because in the middle of Hot Springs these lovely, drinkable hot waters bubbled up out of the ground and off in the woods there were springs. We were surrounded by lakes where people could fish for free and they did. The climate is sweet and mild. The summers are hot but the winters are mild. You never get more than one little snow and one little ice storm and spring starts again in February and fall lasts until mid-November. There are birds of every description. There are bees and beetles and snakes and fish and deer and whatever you can think of underfoot.

FL: It seems quite different from the understated scenery of a Kansas.

ABBOTT:Oh well, Hot Springs and that part of Arkansas generally, is so lush, so welcoming, so safe. There's something reassuring about it. You feel the kindness of nature there. You don't feel that some terrible storm is going to come and blow you away like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And indeed, I don't think Hot Springs has ever had a tornado. There's a sense of harmony about the nature there, and of goodness and infinite beauty. There are flowers. There are trees.

FLN: And summarizing, in a general way, what would young Bill Clinton have learned from growing up in this kind of place?

ABBOTT

Growing up in Hot Springs the young Bill Clinton would have learned the lessons of fluency, of not being doctrinaire, even of shucking and jiving, of moving around an issue. He would have seen that good is combined with bad, and the constructive with the unconstructive. And he would have certainly learned that you have to listen to everybody. That you can't just confront, you have to hear. Bill Clinton would certainly have seen, been aware of the religious mix in Hot Springs. There were Catholics, there were Jews, there were Protestants. All of whom had some share of power. All of whom had something to say to a degree that I think must have been unusual in a Southern town that size. To have all those voices. There were people from other part of the country who had power.

FL: What was the race situation when he was growing up? What would he have seen?

ABBOTT:

Bill Clinton grew up at a very interesting time from the point of view of race relations. Relations between the races I think were more genial, better There was less conflict than certainly in Mississippi, or Louisiana, or in other parts of Arkansas. The black population in Hot Springs was small. They were important economically. They were important voters. They were important supporters of the McClaughlin machine and they knew it. And they knew that they were being used, but they got something out of being used too. I think the town was always eager to put on a good face. They didn't want trouble. Nobody in Hot Springs ever wanted any trouble or at least they didn't want any trouble that anybody could see. They wanted things to be nice. But Bill Clinton would have, as a, let's see he got to Hot Springs, he started school in Hot Springs, I think, in 1952 and in 1957 the civil rights movement began in good earnest in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the integration of Central High. And for people in Hot Springs this was something you saw on TV, as if you lived in California or something.

But it was a riveting and troubling issue on which everybody took sides, whether you were for integration or for segregation, you talked about it. And I'm sure it was discussed in the schools. And I'm sure Bill Clinton's belief in civil rights and his attitude toward the civil rights movement was forged in those days when he was a small boy and as he grew up hearing these issues discussed.

FL: The town was segregated?

ABBOTT:

The town was segregated, yes. And he graduated, I believe, in 1964 from Hot Springs High, and that was the last year that the schools were segregated. They had started integrating schools in first grade and it obviously took 12 years to get the schools integrated. And I believe that when he graduated they shut down the old Hot Springs High and opened up the new school which was the integrated school from then on. So all that was accomplished while he was there and while he was watching. And in Hot Springs as least it was accomplished in order and peace. I wasn't living there at the time, I don't know what people really said among themselves, what they really thought of this. But they did say that they would comply with the law of the land. And they complied with it. I think that must have been very important for him to be there then.

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