Tuesday was the night for more than a thousand of Little Rock's liberals, Democrats and FOBs to gather at the downtown convention center and liberate their long-burdened chests of that whole crazy mess spanning Whitewater, Paula Jones, Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky.
It was the world premiere of "The Hunting of the President," a 90-minute documentary film by Arkansas native and Clinton pal Harry Thomason based on the book of the same name by Gene Lyons, an Arkansas columnist, and Joe Conason, a New York one. The sponsor was the Arkansas Times, the liberal Little Rock weekly that tries to keep the spirit of the Arkansas Gazette alive. Proceeds went to charity.
Susan McDougal romanced the camera as she had done two decades before in Little Rock television commercials when, astride a horse and wearing shorts, she hawked housing lots that she and her ex-husband, the late Jim McDougal, were developing.
There she was on the big screen, telling in compelling fashion the most dramatic story of the film, about going to jail as something as close to a political prisoner as you'll find in America. She sustained vulgar indignities under an incarceration imposed because she wouldn't give up something on the Clintons as Starr wanted. She said she didn't know anything, and wouldn't lie. She received the longest, loudest and warmest ovation, both on the big screen and in her personal appearance for a panel discussion afterward.
Lyons got a delighted reaction when, during that panel discussion, he took a sideswipe at the daily Little Rock Republican newspaper that publishes his token liberalism once a week.
He lamented that Jim Guy Tucker got taken down by Starr's prosecutorial parenthetical on an interpretation of tax law that the IRS later said was incorrect. Tucker's vindication was only a "one-day story in Little Rock," Lyons said, adding that might have been different if there was some other "media climate" in the city.
(The Little Rock Republican daily didn't cover the premiere, relying on a staff photograph and an Associated Press account. Might it be revelatory of a bias that the newspaper failed to dispatch a staff writer to a political gathering of more than a thousand people in its home city to see a home-grown and world-premiering documentary about a home-grown president?) Thomason choked up talking immediately after the showing about how the media in Washington and New York had mistreated him, his wife and all of Arkansas in their patronizing disdain for all things Clintonian. I am obliged to say that Thomason might have made life a tad easier for himself by keeping his nose out of the White House travel office during the opening months of the Clinton presidency.
The film detailed a sordid right-wing obsession with bringing down Clinton's presidency, one availing itself of sundry disreputable and oddball characters who managed to get much of their conspiratorial and paranoid nonsense into the frightfully pliable elite media and before a federal grand jury.
It told a complex story fairly well, and grippingly, and only occasionally with blatant partisanship that made you wince. The film's main failing was that in the interest of rapid eye action it interspliced old movie clips that jarred and seemed self-spoofing.
Think what you will of Clinton, and I probably thought less of him than anyone in that room. But these were the film's plain facts:
Whitewater was a failed land deal that amounted to nothing more. Jones offered a she-said, he-said accusation that was damaged by the recollection of a third party, a state trooper, that she seemed pretty happy when she came out of that hotel room. Starr was a blatant partisan who spent tens of millions of dollars for nothing other than a witchhunt. Clinton got impeached for getting oral sex from an intern and not telling the truth about it when a desperate Starr presumed to make it a matter of federal criminal investigation. And Republicans and the media made absolute fools of themselves getting taken for rides by Arkansas disreputables who hated Clinton and loved filthy lucre.