once upon a time in arkansas

A Conversation with Gene Lyons
by Peter Carbonara, October 1997

Lyons is a sharp critic of both independent counsel Kenneth Starr and much news coverage of the Clinton scandals. He is the author of Fools for Scandal: How the Media InventedWhitewater (Franklin Square Press, 1996). He also wrote "Fool for Scandal: How the 'Times' got Whitewater Wrong" (Harper's Magazine 1994). He is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Peter Carbonara is the reporter for FRONTLINE's "Once Upon a Time in Arkansas."

Has anything happened since you published your book to change your view that Whitewater is a scandal without a crime?

Lyons: No, if anything my convictions have become deeper as more information has become available, both publicly and stuff I'm working on.

Did you learn much you didn't know watching the trial last year of Jim and Susan McDougal and former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker at which President Clinton testified?

Lyons: Yes. I learned quite a lot, but not anything that would indicate to me that there is any reason to still be holding open the possibility of criminal actions by either of the Clintons . . . . [After] McDougal's testimony -- in which he told two and sometimes three stories about what had happened -- [prosecutor, Ray Jahn] then contrasted McDougal's testimony to A) the documentary record; B) his own previous testimony and; C) Bill Clinton's testimony and in his closing argument he asked the jury rhetorically, 'McDougal says A, President Clinton says B, the documents say B, who's not telling the truth? Ladies and gentlemen, McDougal's not telling the truth, the President is.' And that was basically what happened. That whole thing was lost on the national media covering this story because dealing with the documents and the actual history of the Whitewater transaction has been basically off the table for the national media almost since the beginning . . .

This is one aspect of the thing, that even though it came out in The New York Times no one has dwelt on it: there were two witnesses at the trial whom the jurors all but universally said they disbelieved completely: they were David Hale and Jim McDougal. They told different stories at the trial, now they're singing from the same hymn book but the fact remains that the jury didn't believe a word Hale said, they believed he was making up the story to cover himself. That's basically what I've believed from the start . . . . It's ludicrous to believe that criminal charges would be brought on the word of a flake like David Hale . . . . It seems to me extraordinary that they would take this guy into a courtroom and use his word to impeach the testimony of the President.

Well, so what's going on? If it's so obvious that McDougal and Hale are both lying when they suggest Bill Clinton knew about a fraudulent loan to Susan McDougal, why would independent counsel Starr rely on them?

Lyons: I don't know what's going on..... I think this is the groundwork for essentially the continuation of the smear. My opinion is I don't think Starr knows how to extract himself for this thing. I think it's the mother of all tar babies. The thing has been driven now for four years and the operative thesis is that with all this horseshit there must be a pony in there somewhere. Or what the press has said over and over again: "The Clintons acted guilty. They weren't open and forthcoming and therefore there must be a crime somewhere."

You don't find Jim McDougal credible. His ex-wife Susan is now in jail because she's refused to answer Ken Starr's questions. How about her?

Lyons: I don't know what's credible and not credible about Susan. The jury's still out on her. Either she's a very naive person who is too trusting for her own good or she's the kind of woman who has a lot of fancy stories but ends up with other peoples' money in her pockets and I'm leaning towards the second at the moment. At the same time I understand where she is because she's being asked to confirm what is surely a lie, that is, Hale's story.

The mysterious reappearance of Hillary Clinton's Rose Law Firm billing records last year led to Starr calling her to testify before a grand jury. What do you think the likelihood is of Starr seeking an indictment of Mrs. Clinton for obstruction of justice in connection with those records?

Lyons: I don't know if it's an element of the law, but in practical terms you can't make an obstruction case unless you can show an underlying crime and you've got to show that there's some crime being covered up. If the IRS comes and asks me for my records for '95 and I've lost them and I find them six months later, they can't charge me with obstruction unless I've clearly committed a crime. So he's got to find some kind of underlying crime to charge her with which she's allegedly hiding and which is only found in these billing records and I can't even conceive of what it might be . . . I'm not privy to the grand jury testimony, clearly [Starr and his staff] have some information which is not publicly available, but what has been shocking to me as a reporter and journalist is the performance of the national press in failing to examine, in fact almost making it verboten to examine the elaborate record that is there.

Why do you think that is? Ask the political reporters at the nation's leading newspapers just a bunch of ideologically driven nitwits?

Lyons: No . . . I should explain to people that my background is I started at this as an academic, I was an English professor . . . I never was in the daily newspaper business until I started writing a column, I never had any real consuming interest in politics and didn't write about it hardly at all until the local newspaper asked me to write a political column that would balance their coverage. The paper I work for is strongly Republican . . . . I, in my naiveté, imagined that the national political press operated with the same values I learned in academia, in monthly journalism and book writing and in the law.

And what I've found to my great surprise is . . . that the Washington political press is more obsessed with order and degree than any group of mammals I've ever encountered outside of high school guidance counselors and my horses. There is a firm pecking order. And the question I get asked again and again is: "If The New York Times says A and The Washington Post says B , who exactly are you, how do you dare contradict them? And I've found by and large the national press doesn't contradict them and beyond that they take extreme umbrage at anybody else having the nerve to contradict them.

I think what happened very early on is The New York Times and The Washington Post and several of the camp followers that run along behind them like Time and Newsweek committed themselves to a "prosecution-only" version of the story essentially because they'd taken the story from Republican operatives to start with who suppressed half the information in the story, basically all the exculpatory evidence . . . . I think they committed themselves to this version of the story and I can't understand for the life of me why they can't back out, but they don't seem to be able to or willing.....

I said this in my book: the reason the general public has grown weary and bored with this whole thing, I think is, twofold: the thoughtful, the politically obsessed people who do things like watch C-Span, would watch the hearings of Senator D'Amato's committee, they would listen to the testimony then they would pick up the newspaper the next morning and then be amazed by the digression between what they thought happened and what they read in the newspapers. I think that a lot of politically active people were amazed and embarrassed by that and other people have just gotten bored and confused, to think that after all these years you still can't read a comprehensive account in, say, five hundred words or less of exactly what the Clintons supposedly did wrong here and they've decided that its all politics.

But what drives that kind of reporting? Is it ideological or does it have something to do with the mechanics of the news business, of not wanting to be beaten on a story or to seem soft on a politician?

Lyons: Some of it is ideological but not in The New York Times or The Washington Post, I don't think. I think that's more a matter of careerism: people are committed to a certain version of the story and 'hey don't dare go back.' I don't know why. If I get something wrong in my column I'm willing to come back a few weeks later and say, "Gee, I was sure wrong about that." It seems to me you have to be if you want to retain any credibility.

Do you think the Clintons asked for any of this in the sense that they seemed to resist, even be offended by, press questions about Whitewater?

Lyons: I think -- and I think that they would probably agree -- that they were overly defensive and secretive when a certain amount of openness might have helped. On the other hand..... the press always likes to say that if you're getting bad press it's your fault . . . .

The one thing I think I've tapped into that I never understood before is how fiercely ordinary people hate the press and why I think it's just become epidemic. They see the press as relentlessly aggressive, hypocritically puritanical, accusatory, and never willing to come back and say we're sorry and I think -- with many exceptions -- its basically true . . . .

What I think has been extraordinary about the Clinton scandals in general is the degree to which the supposed liberal press has signed on to it and has guarded it with the ferocity of two pit bulls, has guarded the story and has come after anybody who denies it.

Do you think many people not obsessed by politics still care about Whitewater and what Ken Starr may or may not do at this stage of the game?

Lyons: No, I've almost had to drop it myself because people don't want to hear about it anymore. I think Starr has so discredited the office with his naked partisanship and his manipulation that I think people just don't care anymore. They don't trust him anymore. He's seen as partisan, not particularly honest and, my phrase would be, gutless. I don't think he's got the guts to say we can't make a case out of this. By now I'm so skeptical that if somebody told me Ken Starr says the sun is coming up tomorrow I'd say don't put any money on it.

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