once upon a time in arkansas
interview: claudia riley
The widow of former Arkansas Governor Bob Riley, Claudia Riley has been a long-time personal friend of the McDougals and the Clintons.  The Riley's home in Arkadelphia was a common meeting place for many of the state's risingpolitical stars.

Q: Let's just start with the very first time you remember laying eyes on Jim McDougal.

CLAUDIA RILEY: He almost appeared to be a man of a different era. I like to compare him to the F. Scott Fitzgerald people. He was charming and debonair. Very well educated. Appeared much better educated than a formal-- He had no formal education to speak of. And very charismatic person. Just somebody you wanted to spend some time with and get to know.

Q: How did he dress?

CLAUDIA RILEY:: Very well. He's always, always been a clothes horse. And there was some vanity there about his dressing. Everything was pulled together very neatly. Nothing by chance. I don't think I've ever seen Jim just throw on something to relax in. It's always been a studied effort...


CLAUDIA RILEY: My husband was an academician. He was a very, very politic person. He grew up in Arkansas politics. His father was politically oriented. And my husband started out when he was like four years helping his father campaign for, I think, sheriff of Little Rock, Pulaski County. And so who we were, as I would like to perceive it and think of us, were a college professor and his young wife and very much into students. We came here, we were invited by-- Bob was invited to come here to establish a political science department. And that's quite a coup, you know. They say come in and do it. And so this was of course the nicest thing that could have happened to a young person who was a political scientist or wanted to be.

And so we came here and then it was the open door policy from then on. And we had the students-- Our home was the students' home. And then everybody who came to Arkadelphia for anything at that time was invited to our home. And most of the time stayed here as our overnight guests or weekend guests. Because at that time Washataw was such a small place that they had no guest housing. And we loved it. So we started out that way and we continued that way.

Q: And the guest list might have included?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Orval Faubus, Bill Clinton, President Clinton, Senator William Fulbright, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter. Like a little gathering of eagles, you know. They were all here. Because those were the people who came to speak to things at the university and we were gregarious people and Bob always brought them home and I loved it. Daisy Bates and L.C. Bates, Central High School people, and, oh, on and on. Too many. They were all here. It was fun to be in politics. It was fun to know all of these people. The common goal was to enjoy what you did, represent your people, meet people. And I've heard Arkansas politics through all of this madness as being referred to as incestuous. But you know? My husband always said and other people in whom I have great faith in their thinking, you never do business with your enemies. You always do business with your friends and you support your friends. You don't support your enemies. So if that's incestuous, then Arkansas politics was.

And it's a small enough state that if you are integrally involved in the process, you begin to know everyone. And that's how it was with us. That's how my husband and Jim McDougal became friends when he was a very young person working for the various senators, McClellan and Fulbright. And then when Bob came here and established the department, then there was a liaison and placement of students and work into Washington and so forth

Q: How close were they? Jim and your husband?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Very close. I think they liked each other immediately. And if I'm not mistaken, I think that my husband knew Jim McDougal when Jim was a young Democrat and my husband was an established Democrat, Democratic party. And I think that their bond was they were both exceedingly intelligent men. They had a deep abiding love for politics. Arkansas politics and politics in general. And they were probably two of the most knowledgeable people about politics that I have known.

CLAUDIA RILEY: Jim was an only child. He was raised by older parents and he was precocious and he selected his friends from people older than he. Always. My husband and Senator Fulbright who he considered a friend. And like a father image...


CLAUDIA RILEY: Jim was an alcoholic I think at the age of 15. And yeah, it's precocious and it's heady to be in the presence of these people. It must be very heady. Even for someone who seems to be a very sophisticated person like Jim. Because those are established big men.

Q: Was that sophistication real?

CLAUDIA RILEY: What's real, what isn't real? I think that he probably-- It might have been learned behavior. But Jim always had this inclination to be something different from what his background would have dictated. And I think, in effect, it is certainly real now. He's a very sophisticated person.

But I do believe that anyone who has been through an alcohol or compulsive behavior or something is altered. And when I say altered, that can be for the better too. I think it's a very maturing happening. And I think that because Jim did stop drinking and he has-- that was long, long ago. 25 years ago. And I think it has a maturing affect and makes you a much more reflective, thoughtful person. A wiser person...


CLAUDIA RILEY: I didn't really get to know Susan until '75, early '75. But she came here on a full Latin scholarship to Washataw from Camden, Arkansas. Little town in Arkansas. But I did get to know her in '75 and Susan has reminded me that she was in our home many times and she said, "You never even knew who I was." And I said, "Did you make yourself known?" Because we always had the students in. All of them came twice a week. At Christmas time or whatever.

And I really got to know her well when Jim began to see her. I don't know for what length of time he had been seeing her before he brought her to us, but I think it must have been very-- at the very beginning. And I was enchanted by her. She was the loveliest, most intelligent young woman I had met. We've met many, many students here. But she was a charmer. Just a charmer. Beautiful, bright, fun, quiet. Very quiet. Unassuming...


CLAUDIA RILEY: Camden is, was then, a rural community and, you know, a nice little town. Because there were just a million of them in Arkansas. But Susan was one of seven children. Very large family. Very closely knit family. But I don't believe she had traveled. I don't know that she had been anywhere. And she was bright. Very bright. And always the caretaker. And when she came here on that scholarship, that told me that she had aspirations, that she had worked very hard in school.

And she came here and she found a new world very quickly. She went into-- She did theater work here. I think she would have been a marvelous actress. I think she was very gifted there. And I think though that when she met Jim, and I'm preempting maybe something that you're going to ask me, but I think that was just the beginning of a new world. Being out of Camden, being in college, that's a new experience for all young people.

Q: And then along the way you meet--

CLAUDIA RILEY: And then you meet this man, a professor, an erudite person. And I would think it would-- That would have been exceedingly heady and overpowering that Jim found her attractive and sought her company. I think that it would be something that you could not deny, that she was overpowered by this.

Because this is a small church oriented school and I expect that there were some eyebrows lifted. But they were so comfortable with each other. They were so much at ease with each other. And you know, I think that like interests supersede that age difference frequently. She was bright. She rose to his level. And then maybe Jim had not had a youth. I think he catapulted himself immediately into the adult world, too quickly. And so I think maybe-- I'm sure this made him feel very good. I can't think of a man who would not feel good about himself in the company of someone like Susan. My husband performed the ceremony. He married them.

Q: Oh, so tell me all about it.

CLAUDIA RILEY: That's it. I mean, he said, "Bob, we're going to get married. And after grad-- Well, whatever. Graduation. And will you marry us?" And Bob said, "Sure. Just tell me when." And so we all turned out for the wedding.

Q: Tell me about the wedding.

CLAUDIA RILEY:: Unique. Very, very unique. Jim had a little rent house in Little Rock and he had redone it, you know, paint, cleaned up, whatever. And it was out in an area in Little Rock that-- not bluestocking area, as we liked to call some of the upper echelon places. And Susan had a magnificent gown with a train and attendants and very much-- we laughingly walked in and we saw this archway with vines and flowers and all this and I said, "I think we're at a high church wedding." You know. And it was out in the yard and the grass. There were dogs lying around and there were what we have-- We have chiggers in the South and, you know. And we were always kind of scratching. And it was-- it was quite something to behold. The Clintons were there. President and Mrs. Clinton. Governor and Mrs. Tucker, Jim Guy Tucker. Jim Ranchino who was a political polling analyst and a professor at Washataw who was a bright star on the horizon at that time. And I really can't remember the others, but they were-

Q: Was it a high church wedding? Did it turn out to be that way?

CLAUDIA RILEY: No. No. Of course anything that-- My husband was laughingly referred to frequently as the word king because he had a suburb vocabulary and loved to use it. And so it became almost like a high church [Laughs] ceremony. And I think at one time, oh, when Bob used the word vicissitudes, Jim leaned forward and said, "Bob, we have a plane to catch to Europe in eight hours. Can we shorten this?" [Laughs] So that was the tone of the wedding. Fun, fun, fun.

Q: And where did they go on their honeymoon?

CLAUDIA RILEY: They went to Europe. They went to New York. I believe that they had misplaced the passports and I think that we had to get the Clark County Courthouse open and get copies of something. I remember something happening. It was mayday, mayday.

And I think it was a sort of a Camelot type of experience. I've referred to their marriage-- I saw that at the beginning. People said, "What did you think it was going do to be?" I said, "I thought it was going to be Camelot."


CLAUDIA RILEY: Of course we had known Bill before that time. Before he was married. And he was just absolutely charming. And these adjectives are going to be overused. But these were a group of charmers. All of them. They were the bright stars on the horizon and he was-- Jim surrounded himself with brightness.

Q: Who were the bright stars? Give me the list. What was the-- I know it's not exhaustive, but--

CLAUDIA RILEY: No. It was Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker. McDougal was always, you know, there with them. The young ones. I can't really-- No, I can't come up with anybody else right now.

Q: Is there a common characteristic among those three; Jim McDougal, young Bill Clinton, and young Jim Guy Tucker?

CLAUDIA RILEY: They were all aggressive. They were all very intelligent. I think they had an agenda. They were all smitten with politics and they wanted to do something with that. And they did.

...... I like to think of Bob as having been a mentor to a number of young men. They all adored him. They all sought his advice. And they would like to think tank with him. We'd spend a lot of time out around the pool just-- They'd just come down and we never, you know, we never geared up for it. Whatever we were doing, they just feLl in with us. And if it was 110 degrees, Bob would say, "Come on, we'll sit out here." So sometimes the visits were shorter than others. But they would want to run things by Bob. Maybe before they announced for office or something. And I always saw him as someone that people could bounce their ideas off of and they would come out with a good response. I saw the potential then. My husband did. And I think they all could have been, and were in essence. We have a president, a sitting president. And they have all reached lofty heights. I never had any-- There was no question in my mind as to the potential. It was vast. They could achieve whatever goals they set out.

Q: Were they friends? You know what I mean?

CLAUDIA RILEY: I think that they-- Yes, I think they genuinely liked each other. I think they respected each other. I cannot address the Tucker relationships with some of the other. He and Jim McDougal were friends I know. And of course Jim McDougal was a friend of Bill Clinton's. I think a very close friend.

..... Hmm-hmm. They were just like the chosen few. They were attractive and they, on a one to one basis or with a group, they could simply have everybody in the palm of their hands. Good politics.

... President Clinton and my husband were friends. I unequivocately say that they both had mutual high esteem and regard and affection for each other. And I felt that the President was my friend and I do to this day. And I admire him and like him very much. I'm only acquainted with Hillary. I don't know-- I don't know Mrs.-- I called her Hillary. I don't know Mrs. Clinton well. Because after he married, then his life took on a new agenda and we were in gatherings, social gatherings from time to time. But Bob, my Bob, and the President continued to have a relation-- Just a-- I don't want to say a peripheral relationship, but they did maintain a relationship. But after the marriage, you know, your lives go off in different dimensions.

Q: But I've thought some, you know, about what it would be like to move to a place like this.

CLAUDIA RILEY: I think it would be very difficult. I would think that for her, I think that she was-- That it was almost a noble act to leave a city and where she had come from and...

Q: You know, I've thought about what it is that makes a woman come to the equivalent of Mars for her, given where she's from--

CLAUDIA RILEY: She saw the potential in Bill Clinton and she was going to take his future and mold it. His destiny was in her hands. I believe this with all my heart and soul. That Bill-- Bill's pretty laid back. I mean, he's ambitious, but I don't think he ever thought he was going to be elected to the presidency. I think it was the biggest surprise for him of anybody.

.... I think that it would have been a very difficult role, very difficult. And I think that she [Hillary] is to be handed accolades for hanging in there and becoming what she has become. Isn't she exceedingly attractive today? She's a lovely person. I think though that-- I think that they've made a good team and I think that Hillary always saw the potential in the President and knew what he was capable of. And with her expertise and her devotion to his goals and hers, incidentally, they've done it.

She is so intelligent that I think that she says, "Okay, now these are the rules that we have to play by." And I think that she began to adapt and modify and become more what the people of Arkansas wanted in her. And that's not an easy thing to do for a strong, aggressive person. It is definitely not. But if you want to do it, you can do it. And she did. She did it very, very well.

Q: What kind of things?

CLAUDIA RILEY: She changed her appearance considerably. And that's simply-- That was just an option. I mean, you know, you can dress down or dress up or whatever. And she became a lovely person, a lovelier person to look at. And I think that she became more gregarious with more people, more types of people. And other than that, you know, I think she just simply adapted quite well.

Q: Who is he? I mean, is that a fair statement? That you know Bill Clinton? You know him.

CLAUDIA RILEY: I think that he's enamored of politics. I think he loves people. Almost to a fault. He loves the crowd. He loves being with folks. And he can settle down and become so comfortable if he's enjoying himself. And I think there's a great deal more simplicity in the President. We always want to put a complex hat on political people. I think that he's a-- he likes the good life. And the good life people. He likes to be around people who stimulate him...


CLAUDIA RILEY: I wasn't aware that there were problems until Jim had his stroke or his illness and everything was falling apart and he came here to be with us.

..... It's Christmas day and Jim had indicated-- Actually we didn't talk with Jim, we talked with Susan. That we're coming down-- I thought they said they were coming down. Well, Jim did come down and he brought his worldly possessions with him and a cat and a piggly wiggly sack, I think, of sleeping garments and shaving equipment. And Jim was here with us, not to return to Little Rock.

Q: You were surprised.

CLAUDIA RILEY: Yes. I was surprised that he was-- that he was-- We were a hospice and we were-- And Bob and I had always indicated to our friends that we're here for you. And so that's without qualifications and so Jim felt comfortable. And I was complimented that he felt that he could come here. And we nursed him back to-- to health as--

Q: How did you know he was here for more than just dinner?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Well, we didn't. Until he said, "Which room am I sleeping in?" But that's the relationship that we've had with Jim and with Susan.

Q: Was he kind of a wreck or did you wonder what was up?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Very fragmented. Very fragmented. Very nervous. And told me up front that he said, "I just need to be quiet. I just need to be quiet." And so I got that message that he needed some space. So we went about our way and he was here and we made him very comfortable and saw that he had three good nutritious meals a day. But he was a very private person during that time. He was evidently being very reflective and very quiet and not well.

Q: This was not the Jim McDougal you knew many years ago.

CLAUDIA RILEY: No, this was a fallen man. And the need was there. Obviously, he was very needy. But he came to us. It was like having a baby. I mean, they come into the world, there are no instructions. We really didn't know what we were handling...

...we knew nothing about Madison being in trouble. We knew nothing about-- Because Jim didn't talk with us. One time he alluded to the fact that I'm not going to discuss this with you. Because he would get telephone calls here occasionally from people. And he said, "I'm not going to discuss it with you because I don't want to involve you."

Q: Jim believes that he's, having been vindicated, that he probably has a chance. And there is this story about him waiting for a call from Governor Clinton. Tell me that story.

CLAUDIA RILEY: I can only tell you what I know of it. And Jim didn't talk about this to us. But his mother was living at the time and she did. And she said that Jim was going to go back to work with the governor. And she said it repeatedly and that was her hope and her dream. Because she thought that was-- She loved Bill Clinton. That didn't come about. That just didn't come about. And I think that she was-- I don't know that Jim ever, ever really told her that it just wasn't going to happen. I think he sort of let her go on believing that maybe someday.

Q: How did she come to believe this?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Obviously, he had been told that there would be a place for him. That is my assumption. I don't know that as fact, but that was my assumption. And so she was banking heavily on that. He was her only child and she thought that will be-- this is going to be marvelous.

Q: And why didn't it happen? Do you know?


Q: What did Jim McDougal think of his old friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton, making a run for the White House?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Well, he had really very little to say about it. And of course we were elated that this was happening. But he just didn't talk about it very much. I think it must have been a bitter sweet time for him too because he was down about as far as he could get

Q: And then sadly after your husband passes, he leaves you something.

CLAUDIA RILEY: [Laughs] Well, as my daughter, you know, jokingly said to someone, that many people leave their wives and daughters holdings in the form of monies, real estate, assets. And Bob Riley left us Jim McDougal. And so we find that entertaining. Jim found it amusing. And this is true.

Q: How did you know he left you?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Because he asked me to look after Jim. We were sitting out by the pool one day and Bob was very, very frail and the thing-- He was not very verbal at all, which was his consummate dread that that was going to happen. But he reached over and took my hand and he said, "Claudia, there's something I really-- I want to talk with you about." And I said, "You have my full attention." And I thought this is going to be something that involves me. And he said, "Look after Jim and Susan. They need it." That was my legacy. And that's not why I have continued to be friends, because I would have done that under any other circumstances. But Bob cared about these people until the end...


Q: Was it surprising to you, Vince Foster's death, Fiske, Ken Starr, the indictments, that whole rush of everything? Were you--

CLAUDIA RILEY: It was beyond anything that I could, could entertain. It was out of the realm of my thinking. It was bigger than a bread basket. It just simply this is not real. And I mean, I'm the man on the street, you know. This is how everyone felt. But I particularly felt this can't be happening. This is not real.

Q: What was most stunning about it?

CLAUDIA RILEY: I think it enveloped and it encompassed so many people, so many lives. And all of a sudden, everybody was being brought into this web, this net. And, you know, then you think, "Oh, well, okay. They're going to talk with these people and then everybody's going to be okay." That's just not the way it turned out. I just didn't think it was-I'm not a person who's easily perplexed or frightened and I was. I was very frightened for, for everybody.

Q: What do you mean?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Well, for these people who were involved particularly, but for my-- You know. I mean, I live here. I'm involved in these people's lives. Personally only, but involved. And so we're all-- everyone's going to be involved. Everyone who's ever touched the cloth. I went through a period of being-- feeling very intimidated.

Q: Like what?

CLAUDIA RILEY: When I saw how far reaching this was. That people were being indicted and subpoenaed and brought in for questioning. And the scope was vast.

Q: What did you chalk it up to?

CLAUDIA RILEY: I don't think I knew. [Laughs] I don't think I knew what this is all about. I mean, certainly we know it was about Whitewater. But what's Whitewater, you know? So.

I mean, they did pull me into it. And it was-- That's when I was frightened.

Q: They pulled you in for what purposes?

CLAUDIA RILEY: They just subpoenaed me and all of my records. All of my bank statements.

Q: What did they find?

CLAUDIA RILEY: Nothing. I think I took ten years' records from everything that, you know, I had. Including my deceased father's estate and, you know, just anything I had.

Q: What were they looking for?

CLAUDIA RILEY: I don't know. I don't know. To this day, I don't know.

You're stripped of every-- of every defence mechanism that you've ever had. And you're afraid and you don't know why. You know you have no reason to be afraid, but you're afraid. And that was baffling to me because I thought, "If you have no reason to be afraid, why do you feel this way?" It's just one of those things. I guess it's the unknown, I don't know...


CLAUDIA RILEY: I took him to the airport, Little Rock.

Q: Tell me the story. Tell me what happened. Tell me how he was.

CLAUDIA RILEY: He seemed good. He seemed good. He seemed to have a good mind set. He looked healthy. And he didn't ask me until the last minute to take him up there. So I think that this was all to avoid publicity. And I had-- He said, "Can you do this? Can you possibly find it in your heart to take--" I said, "Certainly." And so I took him. And he said, "Now I just want you to drop me out." And I did. But on the way up, it was a very quiet. We had a few pleasantries. But nothing of any substance.

Q: What's that like for you?

CLAUDIA RILEY: A very deadening feeling. Again, you have to call on a mind set and you have to say, "This is the way it is." You almost take on a role as if you're playing a role on stage. We all were. We all had been, I think. And we had a few light touches and laughs. But when I let him out, I felt-- I felt very strange and I had to-- I felt like weeping. But I think all my tears have been shed probably by now. So I just came home. But it was strange because I'm letting a man off that's going to federal prison. Who's not well. And then I have another young friend out there in worse situation in California...


CLAUDIA RILEY: I think that she threw in her-- cast her lot with a man that she-- with whom she was very much in love. She worked with him and did his bidding. And as a result of this to, for the sake of brevity, she's ended up where she is.

---- At one time, way back before she was ever confined the first time, I said, "Susan, tell them what--" She said, "I can't believe you're saying that to me. I can't do it. I can't do it. Don't you understand? I can't do that." Because of whatever the workings of-- in her mind and her attorney's, she feels that she, no matter what she would do, it would not be to her benefit. And so I'm not going to give her advice.

I think that any of us, knowing how many people would be affected and hurt and whose lives would be altered irreversibly, that would give one cause for thought. But then again, you can't control someone else's destiny. And obviously his destiny was to go as far as he could in the political arena, which he has done. I don't think that anyone envisioned any of this happening.

Q: The fact that it has happened, has taught you what?

CLAUDIA RILEY: There's got to be some great moral, philosophical slant to this. And I don't know. Because if you dare to live and you dare to become involved, things are going to happen to you and we can't determine what will happen. And I think that you have a lot of players here, a lot of people who have just simply gone for the brass ring and it's turned out badly. So I can't say, "You shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have done this, you shouldn't have done that." How do we know? It might have happened anyway. They're all friends of the president's. It's as simple as that......It's all so intertwined.

Q: Well, that's sort of what we're trying to say. That it's all so intertwined.

CLAUDIA RILEY: Right. Right. Everybody knows everybody. And you call a lot of people friend and that's the way it is in Arkansas. Nothing unusual about any of this stuff that's occurred as I see it.

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