once upon a time in arkansas
interview: paul & mary fray
Paul Fray served as campaign manager for Bill Clinton's unsuccessful Congressional race in 1974.  Paul and Mary Lee became close to Clinton, who was best man at the Frays' wedding.

Paul: And Bill P.... from El Dorado came into my little office I had and he said, "We're going to have a fellow coming here tomorrow that is Raymond Clinton's nephew. And if you would, would you kindly welcome him aboard and show him around and give him some insight as to what he would be expected to do." And I said, "Alright, where does he go to school?" And he told me he's at Georgetown. I said, "How old is he?" He said, "I think he's 19 or 20." And I said, "Okay." I said, "That's no problem." I said, "Could you give me any other information that might be pertinent about him?" And he said, "Well, I know the boy's real smart." I'll never forget that. 'I know he's real smart.'

So the point is, is that when he comes in the next day, I had mentally said that I was going to spend like 30 minutes to an hour because I had some other projects that I wanted to do. Well, I'll just make a long story short. I didn't get to the other projects until three days later because it was like my long lost brother had shown up and we had to get familiar with each other. And we clicked, quote unquote, and, you know, I made the statement to some people in my family. I said, "I have finally met the boy that I know is going to make the next United States Senator from Arkansas whenever he comes of age." Now please understand, I never in the longest day of my life, ever thought an individual from the state of Arkansas could be elected President of the United States.

So my mind set was strictly set towards somebody who's going to become a senator because we know someday Fulbright was going to have to retire and for sure John McClellan wasn't going to last forever. So you had to look at it in that light. I made him a promise. I said, "When you decide that you want to run for Congress, you make sure you call me because I will run your campaign for you." And, you know, I did that in the second day that I had met the man. I knew that he had what it took to make it happen.

Q: Tell me who were the three or four most notable young men.

Paul: Well, you could probably count them on one hand at that time that you knew that had that little something extra, that was going to count down the road. Obviously Bill Clinton was, in my mind, was the leader of the pack. My wife really liked Jim Guy Tucker and I felt like that he had a tremendous amount of savvy and ability to offer to the state. And, you know, eventually he was elected to Congress and ran for Senate and got beat. And then he resurrected his career some 12 years later and ran for governor. He had that little something extra about him.

I also felt like that Jim McDougal had abilities in that sense because of his tremendous mind power. He really had the ability to put things together and to weld a process together as it related to a campaign. He also had organizational skills that a lot of people didn't have.

Q: Smart? He was smart?

Paul: Oh, sure. No question about that.

Q: It showed?

Paul: Naturally.

Q: And you put him in that class of people.

Paul: No question. No question.

Q: Right alongside Clinton and Jim Guy?

Paul: Yes, yes.

Q: So Mr. Prewit comes to you and says, "Paul, we had this young fellow. Raymond Clinton's nephew who's going to be joining the campaign." Did the name Raymond Clinton mean anything to you?

Paul: Yes, it did. Because he was basically a person that could make things happen in a couple or three counties. And I was aware of that. I had been made aware of it in '64. He was, quote, a real strong person in Faubus' line up in the sense that Faubus could count on him to deliver the vote in certain places. Not that he could steal it, but just the fact that, you know, he knew the people to talk to. I'm sure that since he owned the Belvedere Club over in Hot Springs that he probably had some markers out on some of those people. And I mean in the sense that they had borrowed money on a gambling debt or something to that effect. I don't know that to be a fact, but then again, I would like to say that at least he made the effort to make sure that these people did what was right in his mind.

Q: Arkansas is in all of these ways, a very small place.

Paul: Oh, no question.

Q: Not just physically but, you know, sort of psychically, it's a small place.

Paul: Yes, it is.

Q: And that influences its politics and its way of doing business and way of doing politics, does it not?

Paul: Sure. There's no question about that. I think that if you look back in history-- Someone does need to write a book on the fact that a number of politicians, they have aligned themselves with certain influential bankers, businessmen, certain influential people out in these respective communities.

Q: Back in 1966, young Bill Clinton comes to you. Describe to me a couple of particulars about that. What did he look like then? How did he dress in that campaign?

Paul: Yeah. He basically wore the same old blue shirt after a while. And we all had these little blue short sleeve shirts and, you know, we had little Holt Generation buttons on. And the kicker is that he looked no different than anyone else other than the fact that he was taller than I and I'm about six two, he's close to six three. And he has real wavy hair and which he still has. And, you know, he was a very striking person. And he had a certain presence about him that no one else really possessed in the sense that he could walk in the room and you knew he was there because he did turn the heads.

And he melted me within an hour because he knew where I was coming from and he related to me as to who I was, where I was, and where I was going. And he and I had a kindred spirit because I saw where he had been. And, you know, I went to his home within a week and met his mother and met his stepfather and met his little brother. And, you know, they became very close friends of mine. Very close...


Q: In his time and place, would you characterize Bob Riley politically as being more progressive, generally speaking, than the state?

Paul: Oh, sure. No question. No question.

Mary Lee: But not liberal. Very progressive.

Paul: I mean, he basically was anti-Faubus and he taught us to be that.

It's not that he had a mill of left wing liberals down there by any stretch. But then again, you had to have an open mind to understand basically where he was coming for.

Mary Lee: We were very liberal civil rights group of-- As a school (simultaneous conversation)

Paul: Very liberal as it related to that.

Q: And so these young people who came in and out of his circle, either as students or later on meeting him after they had entered the political world, would bear from their relationship with him a Bob Riley stamp?

Paul: Yes, indeed.

Q: Did Clinton know him?

Paul: Yes, he did.

Q: And they came to be very close did they not? The Rileys to Jim and Susan McDougal?

Paul: Yes.

Q: How? How did that happen?

Mary Lee: Much later.

Paul: I think, the truth be known, that dear Riley's last days on the face of the earth, that he asked Claudia to make sure she took care of Jim. Because Jim was living in their little house that he originally had put on his property for his mother before she passed away. And they basically took those kids into their arms, you know. When he came down there in '70-- I can't remember exactly what year it was. I think it was '72, if I recall correctly, Jim was down there working. My point to you is, is that he eventually went on the faculty at Washataw. A lot of people don't know that. But Jim McDougal was a member of the faculty at that institution.

Q: What did Riley, what did the Rileys see in Jim McDougal?

Paul: That he was an overtly brilliant person. I can tell you that he had memorized all of FDR's fireside chats. He knew how to annunciate a position and he would have made a tremendous lawyer. In fact, I'll assure you that when you visit him and you ask him that question about have you ever considered becoming an attorney, and he will wax for a few minutes telling you why. Because he has the ability to annunciate a position quite well.

Q: Yes. I didn't mean to veer off into the wilderness here. It's fascinating stuff to me. But we were back in 1966. You were about to tell me your first impression of Bill Clinton, how you met Bill Clinton.

Mary Lee: I met Bill Clinton on a first personal on a basis and then it would be maybe months and months later, Paul said that we met over-- With the Frank Holt situation. Or either on campus. Bill, to me, was just the guy who had gone-- I'm from northern Virginia. I mean, it was just we sort of clicked at that time on a friendly relationship. It was never out of politics. It stayed in the role of the politic arena. I was president of the Young Republicans by this time or either just elected. And it was my job to challenge young thinkers to look into the world of the Republicans. To look into the possibility of studying the way the Republicans run versus the Arkansas Democrats...And so I was allowed to take these type of people out to dinner. Any young college student. I was not into taking businessmen to dinner, but the college students. And we went to just one of the local college type restaurants. Of course Bill was always gung ho to eat. This is a bar(?) type food and I'm going to talk about a Southern bar type. And we're talking about food, we're talking about piles of fried chicken, piles of catfish, great big dishes of green beans and lima beans and black eyed peas and cornbread. And Bill could fill his plate over and over and over again. And this was only like $2.35 with all the sweetened iced tea you wanted.

Q: And so over these meals, you would talk politics, the two of you?

Mary Lee: We would talk about the things in Virginia, international politics. Bill talked about a lot of things. We talked about world trade. How it affected the rice markets. How we could open markets more into Arkansas. We had the beautiful mountain areas, we had the pine areas. We were talking about people who were unemployed.

Q: And you had a sense even from that very early moment, that he was of Arkansas.

Mary Lee: Correct.

Q: And he didn't see himself as having gone off and--

Mary Lee: Gone to the U.N., no. No, not a big--

Paul: He never had the trappings of an individual who had been to the East Coast. Now understand--

Mary Lee: Oh, I saw it because I'm from the East Coast. [Laughter]

Paul: But he never gave you the appearance that in fact he was over educated. And, you know, there was a lot of people tried to pin that on him. But he was able to arrest those fears quickly. And, you know, he had that ability. A lot of people-- You know, I was just speaking this week with a fellow and we were talking about how he has really run into some different problems, but he always comes out smelling like a rose. And I said, "Yes." I said, "He's probably one of the few people in the world that could fall in a dung heap and come out smelling out like he had perfume on him." And I said, "The point is, is that it's because of the fact that he can rise above the conditions quicker than any individual I have ever encountered."

And you know, it's like I've always said, he's probably the smartest man I've ever met that's got common sense.

Paul: He was best man in my wedding. He and I became that close. I considered him as good a friend as I've ever had in my life time.

Q: Did you feel the same way about him?

Mary Lee: At that time, Paul and Bill were very close. I mean, where they considered themselves as brothers, as an adoptive brother. And an adoptive brother, by Jewish(?) customs, you never kick out of the family.

Mary Lee: Bill was a house guest a lot. Bill was just like a big-- a little brother that I didn't have. I mean, he had become very close with my parents. He had spent several nights in my home in Virginia. Thought nothing of eating dinner with my parents. And we didn't think anything about it.

Q: And you all saw him in his Arkansas manifestation and he had acquired along the way a deeply felt affection for this Yankee girl that he'd met at school, up at Yale, and brought her down and injected her into his life here. In his political life and then, ultimately, married her. How did you perceive Hillary fitting into his life?

Mary Lee: Bill called frequently. A lot of times it was collect and other times he would just pick up the phone and call. He was exuberant, he was excited. And we had gone to dinner and gone to the lake at Marge Mitchell's place with dates with Bill. And it was always just a date. And I was close friends to one of the girls he had dated for a very long time and it was totally different. This time, he was excited. He kept on telling me on the phone how much Hillary and I were alike, although we were different in many aspects. You had this in common and this. And we were both daddy's little girls. Both Republican backgrounds and excited about children's activities.

I was very concerned about the lack of childcare regulations in Arkansas. Anyone could just apply for license if you were clean and met very few qualifications, you could open up a daycare center. I wanted to find daycare centers that had teachers, certified teachers. Wanted more than a coloring swing day for my children. I was pregnant with our second child this time. We had done several campaigns. And Bill kept on telling me oh how I would like Hillary. And it was just he was willing to give up everything he had, all his goals, share his life with a woman. He never talked about any date. Just over the phone, I told Paul. I said, "He is madly in love. I hope he passes the semester because the bug has bitten Bill."

He was excited. Yet he had not asked her to get married that I-- There were no indications that he had proposed to Hillary, but you could tell this was the woman he wanted to share the rest of his life with.

Q: And having heard of all of this, you meet Hillary. Was there a surprise?

Paul: Yes, because I never figured that Bill Clinton would bring a person to Arkansas that did not fit somewhat the mold. And she didn't. I mean, you know, when I first met her I thought, "Oh, my gracious, this girl's a hippie or, you know, something like that." And I thought well, maybe she's a reject flower child. I don't really understand. I mean, you know, she had these round glasses and, you know, I thought, "Man, what are we looking at here?" But, you know, like he told me, he said, "She's the smartest person I ever met in my lifetime." And I can assure you, she's brilliant. Bar none.

Mary Lee: We met Hillary after she had been traveling in Bill's car. Bill never drove luxury cars after he got into law school. The Buick stage was while he was in college. But to just drive in Bill's car was enough to make a woman feel that every bone in her body had been beaten up. Hillary did not dress as the norm was dressing in Arkansas. But that was her choice. She was very clean, her hair was clean. She did not look like she was dressed to go meet her future mother-in-law as a typical Arkansan would have. Put nail polish on. Colorful nail polish. Have worn a lot of make up. I mean, Hillary was going to be Hillary. She wasn't going to put on any false pretenses for Virginia.

And Virginia was very much so into the cosmetic world. Bill's mother always wore make up. I could remember when Bill's mother wake up in the morning to fix breakfast. She was totally painted. Hillary was totally different, but he loved her. Just the way he would touch her and look in her eyes and talk about how much he loved her and appreciated her and her brilliant mind and her hopes and dreams. It wasn't Hillary's dreams, it wasn't Bill's dreams. He mentioned the word, it's ours. We're going to do this. We, ours. And Paul didn't see that. Paul wanted her to fit the mold of an Arkansan or a Southerner. I'm going to put more of a Southerner...


Q: And so Jim McDougal was what? He had political talent, you think, back then?

Mary Lee: Very much so. Jim knew the insides and out. I had met Jim in the summer of '65. Because I was not an Arkansas, Dr. Riley decided I had to do

Jim was fantastic. He never treated me as if I was a female or a person from out of state. He explained every detail. And let me feel comfortable in asking questions. Why did this happen? Why did you respond to this man on the very same situation, you took an opposite viewpoint?

And Jim was like a professor who would sit down and take time and talk to you. At that time, I never saw this hot tempered Jim. I saw a very warm person who had a very well developed skills on working with females.

Q: Your impression was he was trusted by Senator Fulbright?

Mary Lee: Yes.

Q: They were close?

Mary Lee: They were close. He had to have Jim to win. I don't think Fulbright would have won the election in '68, if he had not had Jim McDougal.

Q: What did Jim do?

Mary Lee: Jim was able to organize. Pull things back together. Fulbright was a fantastic, brilliant man.

Mary Lee: He had been a Baptist preacher and--

Q: Jim McDougal?

Mary Lee: Was a preacher. By the time I met Jim, he was-- By the time I went to the Federal Building, Jim was sober. Jim had battled alcoholism, he'd won the war and he's quit being a dependent on alcohol. And since I do not smoke or drink, I was the perfect person to have in an office with Jim because I wouldn't have a bottle tempting him or we wouldn't go to lunch and I'd ask for a martini.

Q: You knew David Hale?

Paul: Yes, I did. He was always politically active. Very much so. And we became just really close friends.

Mary Lee: He and his wife were one of my first house guests at Quapaw. When the first week we were married.

Paul: Yep. We had them over.

Q: And he went into business and?

Paul: He was a lawyer and he, you know, with his brother. And he eventually was elected to the Municipal Judgeship for this county and he had a development finance type operation where that he had, you know-- it was a capital management corporation thing.

Q: Apparently, at some point, you all lived with him or rented a house from him?

Paul: We bought the first house, to my knowledge--

Q: Tell me that story.

Paul: Okay. The Hale operation went into a thing called Hale Realty and we were one of the first homes that they ever sold and it was out in Sherwood, at Idowan Country Club. And we bought that house and eventually I let my brother take it over when I went to Fayetteville to help Bill Clinton.

Mary Lee: We sold to your brother. The house was a typical Hale project. It looked pretty outside and had all types of problems inside.

Q: What happened with the place?

Mary Lee: Well, it didn't have any plumbing in it. I started to wash the dishes, my feet got wet. There were no pipes. And just fine because it was going straight under the house. And he had painted the walls, put up wallpaper. It was a money project for them. And Paul's parents worked for the Municipal Court where David's brother was the judge. And it was sort of like a family thing. And the house was not appraised at what we paid for it. And Paul had to do a lot of work to it. We're talking about heating systems and everything were bad in it.

Q: Did this damage your friendship?

Paul: No. Friends were friends and even though they take advantage of you--

Mary Lee: (simultaneous conversation) to the wives.

Paul: It created a lot of problems. But, you know, that's just part of the process. You know, they're trying to get ahead and you can't sit there and fault them. You've just got to realize, hey, that's the way they do business.

Q: McDougal at the time. You know, knowing him in the old days as a young, smart political operator with a future. Does it surprise you that he went into the banking business?

Paul: No, because he had always spoken about the fact that he wanted to get a bank. He wanted to be a banker. You know,because he realized that bankers do control the political process. I don't care what you say about Arkansas, that's one, you know, constant, static, number one lynch pin of the whole process is the fact that, hey, everybody has got to go to the bank borrow money in order to live in a direct majority of cases.

Consequently, if you decide to run for political office, you better be connected properly in that regard because they do wield some unwieldy power.

Q: So it would be keeping with that truth of Arkansas political life that, when Jim McDougal does become a banker, when he does become a savings and loan operator, one of the things he regularly does is favor his political friends.

Paul: No question.

Mary Lee: Correct. When bankers are called--

Paul: He understood the process. He understood how the game was played. He realized that that's just a part and parcel of the whole matter. And if you're not in a position to do that, you're on the wrong side of the ledger. (simultaneous conversation) I mean, it's very simple. It's very simple.

Mary Lee: When bankers would call, their phone calls would go through. I mean, it was very important when a president would call. We're talking about necessarily doing under the table political maneuvers. We're talking about bankers at that time had the right to say whether they'd give you a personal loan or not. But bankers were on the top list to be called when anything was going to go on in their town or their area.

Paul: That's when she worked with Fulbright. She couldn't understand how the mechanics worked.

Mary Lee: Bankers were a very-- so important that if a banker had-- If you could only make one phone call and you were going to a meeting and President Johnson had called, the banker would get called back. Now I did a lot of mistakes where, you know, Jim would have to teach me things like a lot of times Jim would come in and say, "Absolutely no calls except for these." And they'd usually be bankers.

Q: Do you think that-- I mean, of this political truth about bankers and their importance, do you think that was a lesson McDougal knew?

Paul: Sure.

Mary Lee: Sure.

Paul: He well knew that rule. He well knew that. And he understood the process. Because, after all, what are you going to do in a depressed economy such as we've had here in Arkansas all these years and you've got to recognize who is really in control of the cash flow other than bankers. So if you can't be a kingpin, you best be knowing one. And that's why that he took it upon himself to get into the banking business because he knew that those people controlled the cash flow question. You know, he realized that that's the way the game is played. Very simple. He did a good job of it. He did a good job of it.

I mean, you know, I realize that he'd lost, you know, millions of dollars, but the whole point is, is that he played the game to the hilt as he understood how the game was played.

Q: Do you think Jim McDougal was a crook? Do you think he had, at bottom, did he have a larcenous heart?

Paul: No, sir. No, sir. Not one iota's worth. He never wanted to take advantage of anybody. His whole perception was this, I can do something to help the common man better himself. And he went about doing that. You will look at what we call south of the freeway on Main Street, he was the mover and the shaker down there in the sense that he was able to refurbish a good portion of that street. And, you know, he did that out of the goodness of his heart. If he wanted to be really a-- a money mongrel, he would have placed his money in something much more safe. He would have done things totally different. Instead he made the Quapaw Quarter and a whole lot of the state's what it is today.

Q: Paul, what do you think Jim McDougal and Bill Clinton saw in one another?

Paul: I think that Bill realized that Jim McDougal had a tremendous mind and he wanted to capitalize on the fact that the man wanted to make money and that he, himself, not coming from money, quote unquote, he wanted to be a part of the process and try to help the man. By the same token, Jim McDougal saw that Bill Clinton was going to be something. He was going to be a major player within the system and that, you know, he could-- It was just a mutual admiration process and I think they were trying to make a hand in glove where both could shake and keep going and both be doing well. And at one time, they did do well. No question about that.

Q: Do you think they were truly friends?

Paul: I would seem to think that that would be the case. I know some people have told me, "Well, hey, Bill Clinton's just of the old school were, you know, what have you done for me lately type of thing."

I know his heart. And I know Jim McDougal's heart and I know that both of them are good people.

Q: What about Hillary?

Mary Lee: Paul and I had two different angles on Hillary. Hillary and I disagreed politically on a lot of issues. But I do not detest the woman. I do not think she has a heart to be greedy.

Q: Do you think she saw you as an ally back in 1974?

Mary Lee: There were some situations. Bill had me to do some things for him on a personal basis. I bucked up at Paul, I bucked up at Bill. I did not want to do it.

Q: Did she know you were hiding girlfriends from her?

Mary Lee: At the end, she did. And it was very--

Q: She ever talk about it?

Mary Lee: We would talk about problems in the campaign. I tried to be as soft as I could on her. On that issue. Paul had preferred an Arkansan or a Southerner as Mrs. Clinton. It would have been easier for a political person. I saw Bill. I knew what Bill thought about her. I was the person who was told by Bill to change Hillary's mode of dress. I don't care how you do it, but do it. I mean, that's usually how Bill would talk. And we talked about fashions. I did not see that Hillary needed to change all her clothes. It was just a few accessories or a little bit of change in some things.

Q: Bill had asked you to change Hillary's clothes?

Mary Lee: But he didn't ask me to totally remake her. He wanted me to make her more appealing to the voters. Not to make her sexier. Not to take away her personality. Not to make her wear certain colors. But sometimes, just accessorizing with scarves or pins gives you a softer view. After all, she was talking to Arkansan women who were still at home cooking. They were not using canned biscuits. They were still making cornbread and biscuits the old way...


Q: Was there ever a sense at the time Bill Clinton becomes governor, this group moves up, these young politicians suddenly arrive at their moment. One of them, Bill Clinton becomes governor. Another, Jim McDougal, becomes the head of his own bank, saving-- big hot shot savings and loan fellow here in town. Did the family take care of its own? Did people reach out?

Mary Lee: Arkansans are known to take care of themselves. If there's an illness, a fire, the Arkansans will be there. This was proven in our recent tornadoes. The Arkansans are there within minutes with food, clothing, a hammer, a saw, whatever it takes. Bill Clinton had a vacation from the governor's mansion because he had built a wall and kept friends away. It was-- I don't want to say it was Bill's friends who brought him down, they didn't get behind him and support him in '80. Bill did what he thought was right. We had political issues that people were taking their own sides. Paul made a very strong stand.

I cannot say that we broke up with the Clintons and it was all because of them. I think a lot had to do was we were going our own way. Paul had political ambitions and we were still having more children. Paul Fray suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, May 20, 1977. The people who got behind me were not only our church friends, but our political friends.

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