once upon a time in arkansas

A Conversation with James Stewart
by Peter Carbonara, October 1997

James Stewart is the author of a book on Whitewater, Blood Sport: The President and his Adversaries (Simon & Schuster). A former page one editor of The Wall Street Journal, he is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a contributor to The New Yorker and Smart Money.

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

Q: Do you agree with any of the criticisms of independent counsel Kenneth Starr: that he's either hopelessly partisan or now just simply stuck in an investigation he can't end?

Stewart: I think it's important to remember that Ken Starr never was a prosecutor before and I don't think he was probably prepared for the kind of criticism he would take. . . . As to whether he's a partisan, obviously the assignment - looking into alleged wrongdoing by people in a Democratic administration - is something that would appeal to a Republican. But beyond that I don' t think he's done anything showing particularly partisan zeal.

Is he stuck? Obviously, he's stuck. This thing has so many players and so many of the key participants, like Susan McDougal, are not cooperating with him...I think he'll get out of it, though he may not get the Supreme Court nomination.

Q: At Jim McDougal's trial last year, David Hale testified that President Clinton was present at one meeting concerning a bogus Small Business Administration loan. Do you think a case could be made that President Clinton perjured himself when he denied that?

Stewart: It's unlikely. The two witnesses, McDougal and Hale, are both convicted felons....they were telling different stories before and now they are both cooperating with Starr...There have been some hints that there might be a third witness somewhere.

Q: The other prime potential target is Mrs. Clinton and it's been suggested tghat she might be indicted for obstruction of justice in connection with the reappearance of her Rose Law Firm billing records. She and her apologists, though, have said the substance of the records - her work on the Castle Grande deal - is, if anything, exculpatory.

Stewart: I don't think any fairminded person can look at those records and call them exculpatory. I think the White House has gone way overboard in saying that. There was, you may remember, a torturous argument put forward by David Kendall - not Mrs. Clinton - that she knew that deal by another name, IDC. [Ed.--Before the billing records reappeared, Mrs. Clinton said that she had done no legal work connected to the Castle Grande Development.] Well all right, technically the entity was known as IDC but nobody in Little Rock, nobody in the Rose firm called it anything but Castle Grande. That really just strains credulity.

Q: Do you think a case could be made against Mrs. Clinton for concealing those records?

Stewart: I don't know what Mrs. Clinton told the grand jury about that...all we know is that those records were at the Rose firm and then somehow they wound up in the White House.

Q: To prove obstruction, Starr would have to be able to find at least one witness who could say that Mrs. Clinton had control of the records at the time they were under subpoena and deliberately withheld them.

Stewart: Right. Obviously, you'd need to establish the chain of custody. But even if you could, proving her state of mind was a criminal state of mind would be difficult.

Q: Gene Lyons and others have criticized you and the other reporters who have covered Whitewater for being too aggressive, for looking for crimes where there are none. Do you think that's a fair charge?

Stewart: As far as Gene Lyons argument goes, my posi tion is 180 degrees opposite. ..I was amazed at how, given the resources of the electronic newsmedia who went down to Little Rock after Jeff Gerth's first Whitewater story in the New York Times, how little new information came out of that exercise. I think it was a sorry lesson in what passes for investigative journalism in some quaters... If anything the media should have been more aggressive. I mean these were important allegations of potentially criminal activity by someone who at the time was a candidate and is now the President of the United States and they should be looked into...

I think the power of the presidency cowed a lot of people. I heard from a lot of reporters aout their editors saying, 'We don't want to be out front on this. Let's let Starr take the lead and we'll just report on what he's doing."...I mean I was just one person. If I were an

an assignment editor I could have given out six or seven assignments for investigative reporing on what I found.

Q: Something that's now become conventional wisdom about the Clintons and runs throughout this whole affair is that they have a habit of dropping people whenever they threaten to become political liabilities. Does your reporting bear that out?

Stewart: I just heard it from so many people that you have to give it a certain credence...I got criticism from the right because I didn't find any evidence of criminal activity by the Clintons with regard to the original Whitewater deal. I got criticism from the left for portraying the Clintons as being willing to do anything to get ahead...If anything, that portrait of them in the book was mild.

It made me sad. I mean I was a Clinton supporter I voted for Clinton . . . and it made me wonder - do you really have to be like this to succeed in politics? And I guess the answer is yes.

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