Clinton's Ark. pals falling by wayside

June 28, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- One by one, like a Washington version of the game "Ten Little Indians," the Arkansans whom President Clinton brought to town to help him run the White House have taken a tumble.

Yesterday, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, who stepped aside as chief of staff to become counselor to the president, became the latest of the close-knit group of Arkansas FOBs -- Friends of Bill -- to find themselves knocked off the track.

Like Jimmy Carter, who brought a cargo of Georgians with him, and Ronald Reagan, who imported some California pals to fill out his administration, Mr. Clinton brought scores of associates from his home state with him -- even some, like Mr. McLarty, from his birthplace -- many of them to fill top positions.

Today, 17 months later, the most prominent of them are gone, mostly as a result of missteps and lapses in ethical judgment, and even some of the surviving Arkansans are shrouded in controversy.

The fresh-faced outsiderism of the Arkansas appointees that seemed so appealing just after the election has appeared, in many cases, to have turned into a liability. And more and more, the president is replacing his out-of-town friends and associates with veteran Washington hands.

"It's been a very naive administration," said Ernest Dumas, an Arkansas professor and newspaper columnist. "Most of the people Clinton took with him were not people who had ever been involved in government before, not even a great deal in politics. They were just social and professional associates that Bill and Hillary Clinton plucked out of their private lives to take to Washington with them."

The first, most tragic of the falls was the suicide nearly a year ago of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., a death that is still a mystery to the public and many of his closest friends.

Since then, several of Mr. Foster's White House colleagues -- who, like him, left Little Rock's Rose Law Firm to come to Washington -- have left the administration or been reassigned in the wake of controversy.

In March, Webster L. Hubbell, the associate attorney general, one of the Clintons' closest friends and the president's frequent golf buddy, abruptly resigned after he was accused by former Rose colleagues of overbilling clients.

Just days later, another Rose alumnus and Clinton pal, William H. Kennedy III, was stripped of his position as associate White House counsel -- embarrassingly, the administration's chief ethics cop -- after revelations that he had failed to pay Social Security taxes for a nanny.

In late May, another Arkansas friend, David Watkins, was fired as director of the White House Office of Administration after he used a presidential helicopter to go play golf at a country club in Frederick County.

Both Mr. Watkins and Mr. Kennedy had a hand in engineering one of the White House's first "scandals," in which veterans of the travel office were fired in part to make room for a Clinton cousin, Catherine Cornelius. Mr. Watkins, Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Cornelius were among those reprimanded in a White House report on the incident.

Even some of the surviving Arkansas transplants are toiling away under a cloud.

Patsy L. Thomasson, an aide to Mr. Clinton in Little Rock, has come under increasing scrutiny as a special assistant to the president. For one thing, she was among those reportedly in the office of Mr. Foster on the night of his death and, as such, is part of the investigation by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr.

And the Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting an insider-trading probe that includes a group Ms. Thomasson once headed.

The controversy surrounding Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, the outspoken former Arkansas health director who has promoted liberal social policy, hasn't relented since her appointment, peaking last week, when 87 Republican members of Congress called for her resignation.

The Arkansas officials who have remained untouched by scandal or controversy, such as Carol H. Rasco, a domestic policy aide, and Bruce R. Lindsey, a senior adviser, play relatively low-profile, behind-the-scenes roles.

If the long list of fallen Arkansans has reflected poorly on Mr. Clinton, it also has marred the image of Mr. Clinton's home state -- especially when coupled with the Whitewater investigation that has spotlighted the state's political and business operatives.

"Clearly, there is some defensiveness," says Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock lawyer. "Different people feel different levels of it."

Carolyn Staley, a longtime Clinton friend who moved here from Little Rock in January to become deputy director of the National Institute of Literacy, says she doesn't believe her Arkansas friends have performed any worse here than any other appointees. "This is a high-level, high-stress kind of short-term assignment," she says. "The White House is not a career spot for anybody."

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