McDougal, an oddball flattened by a tornado


WASHINGTON -- In the tedium of Clinton scandals, Jim McDougal was as wildly colorful as an orchid in a winter garden. He drawled edgy one-liners and strutted in his ice-cream suit and Panama hat, waving a brass-headed cane.

"You walk so cool," a woman cooed, seeing McDougal swagger through an airport.

He wouldn't play the pathetic, ailing buffoon. Never mind that his heady days as banker, pol and Clinton pal were gone. So was his baby-blue Bentley and $360,000 house. Never mind that McDougal turned up broke, sick, living in an Arkadelphia, Ark., trailer, dining alone at a Sizzler steak house.

"They won't screw me," he boasted. "I'm a kamikaze."

In truth, McDougal was a Southern eccentric, those zany oddballs who live in pokey small towns where idiosyncratic, lovable weirdos flourish like kudzu. He was a character out of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers or William Faulkner's Snopes clan.

"People pay me deference of a wounded Confederate soldier," he once bragged.

But McDougal had one deep fear that trapped him in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's clutches.

A prosecution witness

Besieged by enough ailments to kill an ox, pressured by Mr. Starr's heavyweights, facing 84 years in the slammer, McDougal flipped. He'd sing against President and Mrs. Clinton.

"I don't want to die in prison," he said in rare self-pity.

Beware of nightmares, for they sometime come true.

That's why, after McDougal's heart stopped at 57 in Texas federal solitary confinement, Mr. Clinton showed stand-up class. He issued condolences, saying, "I have good memories of the years we worked together in Arkansas."

Brief as haiku, it carried a scent of nostalgia -- Jim and hotshot Bill as buckoes on Sen. William J. Fulbright's campaigns, then high-riding years when the McDougals and Clintons chuckled over a Whitewater land deal.

One name was missing from the prez's sympathy note: Hillary Rodham Clinton's.

No forgiving spirit

They never got along. Perhaps she could not forgive the turncoat who knew the skeletons in her legal closet. But their antipathy was personal, regional.

As old-school, Southern-bred cavalier, McDougal found Yale-bred Mrs. Clinton abrasive and brassy. Her husband guffawed at McDougal's imitations of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. Mrs. Clinton was chilly and lawyerly.

Once, strolling before the White House gates, McDougal let a Washington Post reporter hear his acerbic rage at her:

"What irritates me is the constant self-comparison to Eleanor Roosevelt. We didn't get any Eleanor! We got Evita!"

He rapped her as "sanctimonious," sneering at her newspaper column as "boring as hell."

Flying high, McDougal added a blast at Mr. Starr: "He's typical of Republican politicians -- moral and physical cowards."

A year later, McDougal swallowed those proud words. He flip-flopped, despite the warning from his jailed, former wife, Susan, that Mr. Starr couldn't be trusted. Mrs. Clinton had reason to treat McDougal warily: He'd handed Mr. Starr a road map of her fingerprints on the Castle Grande deal.

"I think she's found it isn't pleasant to suffer," McDougal said.

Dead men tell no tales, but McDougal had already told his.

McDougal secretly turned on the Clintons once before. Embittered that Mr. Clinton didn't produce a promised job, McDougal in 1992 leaked Whitewater documents to the press. The sour betrayal would blow apart Arkansas.

Mr. Starr unctuously called McDougal a "Southern gentleman who decided not to lie." That's nonsense. In his terror of a long prison gig, McDougal helped Mr. Starr with Whitewater's paper chase. But Mr. Starr could never have used him on a witness stand.

No jury would believe McDougal, who switched stories like his dandyish costumes, a convicted felon, his veracity blighted by manic-depressive moods. For Mr. Starr, McDougal was old laundry.

Turning on friends

But McDougal left a damning picture of the Clintons: "They're like tornadoes moving through people's lives. I was left in their wake. And I had company."

Gone were the Bentley limo, the savings and loan he called "my candy store." Gone were jubilant Little Rock dinners when the Clintons and McDougals were pals. (Later, he'd accuse Mr. Clinton of an affair with Susan McDougal.) Gone were McDougal's bourbon-and-Coke nights with Arky pols.

But you remember McDougal's wit, insouciance and flair, the shaved nob that made him look like Daddy Warbucks.

"I think I left my mark, even a small one," McDougal said, bound for a solitary prison death he most feared.

He was a tragicomic Falstaff in the gray Whitewater saga. I'm glad Mr. Clinton had the class to salute the glory days of Jim McDougal, the elegant oddball flattened by a tornado.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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