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Jim McDougal ain't worried

At 55, Whitewater's inventor has seen a lot pass under the bridge.

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Jim McDougal turned 55 a few days before but you couldn't tell it by looking at him.

You might have guessed 65--or 70.

Unless you looked close--close enough to see the eyes, which aren't the eyes of an old-timer, just someone who has been flung around and sported with pretty mercilessly by the churlish gods.

They took his hair and some of his short-term memory and put him on a cane, but they haven't been able to keep him down or put him away. He has a certain vulturine aspect now, as if he himself might be the symbol of all that's happened to him, his own bird-of-ill-omen perched above the chamber door of his life.

But a lurking good humor, in spite of it all.

It wasn't disappointment or bitterness or regret that came across during a lunchtime conversation at the Western Sizzlin' in Arkadelphia; what I sensed more than anything else was amusement.

He'd been places and done things and gotten to know some interesting people, he said, and if it was his lot now to be what he calls a professional defendant, he wouldn't complain.

Pretty amazing, considering.

I asked him if it ever scared him that the United States of America, in all its power and majesty, with all its resources and with no time limit, is obviously out to get him.

He said no, not afraid, not at all. No suggestion of bravado in saying so, he said. It's just there's nothing much left that the government can do to him.

If they succeed in putting him in prison for his dealings at the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, it will only raise his standard of living and improve his circumstances. He lives now on a disability pension in a house trailer in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Has no family to worry about--no wife (divorced), no children, his only living relative an aunt in a nursing home; his parents dead, all his friends dead--he names them:

Bob Riley, Jim Ranchino, Joe and Henry Hamilton. So there'd be no one to grieve over or be embarrassed by whatever remaining outrageous pratfalls fate has in store for him.

"The system's designed to crush you by hurting the people you love," he said. "But when your loved ones are all gone, what do the sons-of-bitches do to you then? So this doesn't scare me. That's not anything to be proud of, particularly--but no, they don't scare me. And anyway, you know what they say about crazy people--crazy people never get scared."

Is he crazy?

"That's the popular impression," he said.

And it is, too.

But you talk with Jim McDougal a while and he doesn't seem crazy or even very weird.

I asked him if he had plans. He was the big dreamer once upon a time, one of our all-time wheeler-dealers: Were there more Whitewaters and Campobellos, more political campaigns and intrigues, in his future?

No plans, he said.

No big plans and not even any little plans.

And there won't likely be any more.

One day at a time from now on, he said. It's a pledge to himself. Something he learned from Alcohol Anonymous, which he joined 28 years ago (and hasn't had a drink since), but hadn't thought to apply to his life categorically until circumstances more or less forced him to.

Just getting well is ambition enough now.

He's had more serious health problems than he's had criminal charges filed against him. A staggering list. Still trying to get over the stroke.

And major surgeries to clear neck, head, and innards of just some of the big-time blood-vessel blockage. They laid him open like a watermelon, and what they put back together is frail and tenuous and it hurts a lot and pretty much all the time. But he's as mouthy as ever and that's good to see.

They told him two things he simply had to avoid--or die. One was fatty foods; the other was stress. He tells the stress part with a small explosion of laughter.

Few people have been dogged harder longer by more prosecutors and investigators, and he's supposed to avoid stress.

"I told somebody what the bastards are doing is giving me capital punishment on the installment plan," he said. So avoiding stress, he avoids plans. One day at a time, now, and that tends to turn this lunchtime conversation from talking about the future to talking about the past.

As with this:

I asked him who he learned politics from, and he said more than anybody else Mutt Goad.

This Goad was the village Republican at Bradford (pop. 800, White County) when McDougal was growing up there. Ran the town hamburger joint and would argue politics with anybody who came around, even whippersnappers with Democratic leanings like little Jimmy McDougal.

The good story about Mutt Goad was that he'd once made a bet with a Mr. Calhoun that Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1940. The loser of this bet to pull the winner from Bradford to Newport in a little red wagon.

Eighteen miles of dirt road with no shortage of mud holes. Nearly killed Goad. And the trip wasn't much easier on the winner, long tall bony old Mr. Calhoun. But they did what honor required, even though both of them would've preferred to just call the whole thing off.

At 16, McDougal hitched a ride to Little Rock hoping to shake Adlai Stevenson's hand. Managed to get a hand swipe, but that was enough to inspire him to become a political activist. He took a load of Stevenson buttons and stickers and campaign junk back to Bradford and went door to door touting the Democratic nominee.

Just out of high school, he went to Washington in 1961 to work as a research assistant for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that Joe McCarthy had made infamous and John McClellan had inherited, and he soon after became bill clerk for the Senate. Got to see some of the best liberal Democratic politicians of the 20th Century at work. Believed what they were saying. This was Camelot and he signed on. Made friends there with another Arkie youngster learning his politics the same way: Jim Guy Tucker. They would do business together one day.

But McDougal learned something else during that Washington stint--something about himself--that Wilbur Mills also learned about himself later on. He learned he was a drunk.

He was back home at Bradford by age 24 with several business ventures going and several others in the works. One was shipping White River mussels to Japan, and it was such a rousing success that it created a kind of mussel rush in Bradford. He maintained a political life, too, and was a principal player in the great Young Democrats coup of 1965 that helped break the Orval Faubus political machine's grip on Arkansas politics. That was a wildly funny and dramatic episode that involved bribing an elevator operator and some Byzantine and dangerous parliamentary maneuvering--characteristic McDougal fare. The immediate victim of it--Faubus's hand-picked candidate to take over the organization's leadership--was Sheffield Nelson, who also would later become a partner in one of McDougal's business ventures. Hijinx in the good old days.

But McDougal was swilling vodka on the sly and couldn't stay sober long enough to keep a business going, much less a political identity. He was hospitalized five times for alcoholism, and hit bottom in 1967 when he finally joined AA and slowly got himself straightened out.

Bill Fulbright got him out of Bradford in 1968, hiring him to run the senator's Little Rock office. McDougal said, "People said to him, 'You're gonna put that drunk down there running your office? He'll sink you, Bill, sure as the world." But Fulbright was at the peak of his influence then (the arrogance of power) and could afford such risks and so he stuck by the boy. McDougal soon became one of the senator's closest advisors, and he thinks he influenced Fulbright's domestic politics, serving as a kind of counterweight or drag pulling him to the left, away from his natural conservative drift. Of himself and another Fulbright counselor, McDougal said: "We believed in all that social engineering stuff, and brought him around on some of it, and of course we were simply wrong about that."

After Fulbright lost the Senate seat in 1974, McDougal linked up with Dr. Bob Riley, the erstwhile lieutenant governor from Arkadelphia. He finished up his degree at Ouachita Baptist University and taught there with Riley and Ranchino for a time. He married there, and soon after came to Little Rock, formed the McDougal & Associates real estate firm, and launched the investment and banking career that would win him his enduring notoriety.

The business life was fast and frantic and kept him occupied (also nearly killed him, the stress taking its revenge on his arteries) but it was the politics McDougal really cared about. He tried to escape the businessman's role in 1984 by running for Congress against John Paul Hammerschmidt in Northwest Arkansas, but Hammerschmidt squashed him routinely as he did everybody else (including Bill Clinton) who ever took him on.

Even after the great crash and burn in the early 1990s, and the exile to penury and pain in Arkadelphia, he held on to the notion of going to Congress. He ran again last year against Jay Dickey but nobody took him seriously. I think people saw his candidacy as a reflex against the government whips and scorns that had been brought to bear on him personally--the four years of harrying by seven investigative agencies. One of the few ways an old broken guy could think of himself as lashing back.

Maybe there was some of that. But I get the feeling this might also have been the last lurch of an ambition rooted in the intelligent Democratic liberalism of Adlai Stevenson--a political philosophy that itself has just about played out.

A confession: Jim McDougal didn't evade the topic of Whitewater but I sort of did. Ten million words about it inked and airwaved every day for how many years now, and what's to add to that mountain of clippings and transcripts and interviews and indictments?

(For those visiting from another planet, Whitewater is the catchall phrase for the huge investigation that began over a real estate development by that name begun by McDougal and then-Attorney General Bill Clinton.) I did tiptoe around the edges of the thing a time or two. One time I mentioned the original New York Times article that the Whitewater "story" grew up from. McDougal sat with the reporter who wrote that article and gave him some information that became a foundation for the article.

So McDougal could be said to be the father of the Whitewater story in more ways than one.

McDougal said, "When I talked to Jeff Gerth, he already had the story... I didn't tell him anything he didn't know or was on his way to finding out... without any help from me... ." But there was a larger question: this mountain of negative publicity... this great parade of friends and former associates accused and suspected...the whole humongous mess that "Whitewater" has become--how much personal responsibility does McDougal feel for that?

I never got the question asked plainly and directly, but I gathered from McDougal's conversation what he thinks about it: that he didn't commit any crimes in any of the complex wheeling and dealing that the Whitewater "story" and the Whitewater investigation have scrutinized, and he didn't do anything else in that matter that haunts his conscience or keeps him awake nights. Whatever else "Whitewater" did to those who have been smeared or stained by it, whatever it did to the Clinton administration and the state of Arkansas, it nearly killed McDougal, literally, and it probably would have if he'd let it pile very much guilt on him.

So he has his version of Whitewater that he can live with, and he lets everybody else's big question--big questions--slide up and over and around him, part of that one-day-at-a-time approach to life that has got him through the last few years.

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