Friends in High Places: Our Journey From Little Rock to Washington, D.C.
by Webb Hubbell
Morrow. 342 pp. $27.50
For five years now, a ceaseless series of scandals has dogged the highest officials of the Clinton administration, from the President, First Lady, and Vice President to various cabinet secretaries, White House staffers, and Democratic-party bigwigs. Although investigations and a steady drip of headlines continue, the public, to a large extent, seems to have become inured to the spectacle of the “most ethical administration in history” (in Bill Clinton’s words) turning out to be one of the most scandal-plagued of all time. What, if anything, can be learned from the story of the single high-ranking official who went directly from the Clinton administration to washing windows in a federal prison?
As a partner in the prestigious Rose law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, Webb Hubbell began to run afoul of the law well before the Clinton administration came to power. His transgressions flowed from a simple cause: the compulsion to live above and beyond his means. By the late 1980’s, as stress turned to desperation, Hubbell found one last way to stay afloat. “I didn’t really set out to steal from my partners and my clients,” he writes in Friends in High Places. “I intended only to borrow.” But the false expense receipts Hubbell submitted for reimbursement came to $482,000, a sum he was not in a position to return.
Even as he was “borrowing” from his partners, though, Hubbell was being swept upward by Bill Clinton’s electoral success. The day after the 42nd President was inaugurated, Hubbell was assigned a stately chamber in the Department of Justice and sworn in as assistant to the Attorney General of the United States. A tumultuous and exhilarating year followed as he helped the President get through one difficulty after another: selecting an Attorney General, dealing with the standoff in Waco, Texas, and setting legal policy on issues ranging from airline hijackings to health care.
Then the past caught up with the present. The Rose law firm had reviewed its former partner’s billing sheets, and was threatening to report him to the authorities unless it was made whole. Unable to come up with the cash, in March 1994 Hubbell resigned from office. Indicted for felony mail and tax fraud, he pleaded guilty and in August 1995 reported to prison, where he served eighteen months.1
Such, as Hubbell tells them, are the bare facts of his rise and fall. Reviewers have been quick to dismiss this memoir as a self-serving account that adds nothing to what we already know about the scandals surrounding the President. But the book is revealing in important—if unintended—ways. For one thing, Friends in High Places describes in lush detail the peculiar relationship that would end in the most searing trauma the Clintons have suffered thus far. For another thing, it tells us a good deal about the kind of stuff the Arkansas crowd is made of.
In 1976, in the course of legal business in northwest Arkansas, the unflappable and ultra-demure Vincent Foster, another partner at the Rose firm and a man who, in Hubbell’s description, seems to have “never made the stop at childhood,” encountered a recent Yale law-school graduate named Hillary Rodham. He returned to Little Rock “raving, uncharacteristically,” about her charms and her intelligence, and determined to recruit her into the all-male firm.
To say that Foster, Hubbell, and Hillary Rodham became fast friends while toiling together in Rose’s litigation department would understate the matter. Her effect on the two men was overpowering, beginning with her unconventionality. Apart from being a “brilliant young lawyer,” she sported frizzy hair, glasses that were “bulky and unfeminine,” and no makeup; she had not taken her husband’s name, and did not always show due deference to other partners’ wives. “Vince and I were mesmerized,” Hubbell writes, adding at another point that “she was like nobody we had ever been around before” and at still another that she was “an explorer . . . like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,” who “came to Arkansas and redrew the maps.”
The threesome became regular dining partners—“our Italian lunches started as just meals, but eventually they became escapes”—and Hillary also joined the men at “lingerie style shows” in local restaurants, where scantily clad models conveyed their wares from table to table. To “challenge” Foster’s reserve, she hired a belly dancer to perform at his birthday party. In return, “Vince and I each shared a part of ourselves with Hillary that we shared with no other woman.” “We enjoyed her, respected her, loved her.”
All this closeness must have been diverting beyond words for two married, middle-aged attorneys who had much to be diverted from: in Vincent Foster’s case, internal demons driving him to unobtainable perfection; in Webb Hubbell’s, a troubled conscience and a mounting pile of debts. But with Bill Clinton’s presidential victory, and with the removal of both men to Washington, the bonds of affection began inexplicably to wither. In Washington, Hubbell writes, Hillary was no longer a co-worker across the corridor; she was a supreme power in the land, and not always a friendly one at that. Comradeship with an alluring partner was transmogrified into the angst of the Washington beltway: was Hubbell in the “inner circle,” or had he been “forgotten”? When he was finally forced to tender his resignation, on top of disgrace came a special pain—“I never heard from Hillary at all.”
For Vincent Foster, in his new post as deputy counsel to the President, altered ties imposed yet a steeper price. Charged with the job of shielding the Clintons from scandal, and failing, Foster began to break under the harsh light of media exposure. From Hillary, instead of the former tenderness of a confidante, there was a hissing “Fix it Vince,” “Handle it Vince.” “ ‘It’s just not the same,’ ” Hubbell reports Foster lamenting. As the Clinton scandals deepened from Travelgate to Whitewater and beyond, so did his despair. On July 20, 1993, six months into the first Clinton term, Foster drove to Fort Marcy Park in northern Virginia and put a bullet in his head.
Hubbell’s jaunt to and hard descent from the pinnacle of power, Foster’s misery and tortured end, Hillary Clinton’s metamorphosis under the spell of power—this is the stuff of melodrama. But for the last five years these people, and others like them, have been running the government of the United States. What convictions, if any, do they hold, and toward what ends have they sought power?
In the department of political ideas, Friends in High Places is waferthin. On several occasions Hubbell describes himself at the dawn of his career as “idealistic,” but what he means by this is left unclear. Even though he saw “the racial injustice that existed all around,” he took no part in the civil-rights movement. And even though he admired Arkansas’s Senator J. William Fulbright for opposing the American role in Vietnam, and his friends were taking part in antiwar demonstrations, “I sat on my couch . . . reading Herman Hesse and listening to Simon and Garfunkel.” In midlife, though an enrolled Democrat, he flirted with a run for the U.S. Senate on the Republican line; it was, said those encouraging him to take the plunge, “the Republicans’ time.”
The officeholders from Arkansas who flit in and out of these pages appear similarly insouciant, similarly ambitious, and similarly apolitical (if that is the right word). Even the Clintons, though clearly of a more activist hue, come across as 99 parts ambition and avarice, one part 60’s radicalism. No compunctions whatsoever stopped Hillary Rodham, as a partner at Rose, from litigating against low-income consumers in a utility-rate case. “Instead of defending poor people and righting wrongs,” recalls Hubbell, “we found ourselves squarely on the side of corporate greed against the little people.”
The Bill Clinton who emerges through Hubbell’s eyes is no less elastic, only far more energetic; he appears in these pages “burning with ambition,” determined to be President from an early age, constantly positioning himself, adjusting direction, cloaking himself in one cause after another.
Empty ambition is an old story in American politics. It hardly explains every alliance the Clinton administration has struck, or every policy it has advanced. But it does go some way toward explaining the malfeasance, the improprieties, and the constant stretching and bending of the rules that by now have become our national daily fare. When the final tally is made of the damage done by this presidency to the fabric of American political life, Webb Hubbell, in his own pitiable way, may turn out to have been as representative a figure as any, and also to have told things pretty much as they were.
1 Hubbell remains under investigation by the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in connection with work he performed at the Rose law firm on the Whitewater real-estate-development project and, after he was released from prison, for overbilling the city of Los Angeles and for payments he received from the Indonesian Lippo Group and others for “consulting” or, possibly, to buy his silence.