Waiting for me in the conference room was Webster L. Hubbell, a Little Rock legend --football star, former mayor, former judge, law partner of Hillary, golf partner of Bill. We had met only once before, and I thought of him as part of a pair. Webb and Vince. Hubbell and Foster. Vince Foster was Hillary's other close partner, and closer friend. Upright, quiet, and rail thin, Vince reminded me of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Webb looked more like the linebacker he once was. A massive man with a beefy grip and thick lips that made you forget there was a brain behind all that brawn.
I had often heard their names invoked by the Clintons, as in, "I spoke to Webb, and he thinks . . ." Or "Vince isn't sure about that. . . ." It was a way to end the argument. Webb and Vince meant influence, integrity, and judgment. We lived in parallel but separate worlds. They were Little Rock; I was Washington. They were lawyers; I was an operative. They were friends; I was staff.
"This shouldn't be too difficult," Hubbell assured me as we shook hands across the table. First, he asked the basics: where I went to school and whom I had worked for. Then more serious stuff: Had I ever been arrested? Any money problems --potential conflicts or large debts? Unlike, say, Bob Rubin (the Wall Street investment banker and incoming head of the National Economic Council), who probably needed half a law firm to vet his portfolio, I had no stocks or bonds. My only investments were a mortgaged condo in the Adams Morgan section of Washington and a small 401K from my work on Capitol Hill. The financial review took about a minute.
"About what you'd expect," I replied. "A little marijuana in high school and college, but I haven't touched it in years. Nothing else."
Then came a couple of oblique questions about my "social life," designed to give me an opportunity --if it were true --to admit to being gay or the secret father of a small child. We both knew where Webb was going. He was circling in on the one big question. I had been summoned here so that this man, who symbolized probity and proximity to the next president, could lean over the table, look me in the eye, and say, "Now George, I want you to think hard about this. Is there anything at all, anywhere in your past, that could ever come back to embarrass the president?" From now on, everything I said or did would reflect on Clinton and affect our mission, even if it happened long ago. The president's welfare had to be my first concern; everything else came second. In return, I would get to be part of something bigger than I ever imagined.
"Well," I began, "you should know I'm the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI." Republican complaints had forced a probe to see if I had conspired with Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh to damage the Bush campaign. I hadn't, but maybe it would lead to something else --like the time I tried to prove that Dan Quayle was a drug dealer.
In the fall of 1988, when the Dukakis campaign was going down the tubes, I was part of a "rapid response" team doing a remarkably ineffectual job of rebutting Republican attacks. But late in the race, a federal prisoner named Brett Kimberlin (aka the Speedway Bomber) was telling reporters he once sold drugs to Dan Quayle, and that Quayle might have sold some himself. A rumor reached me that years earlier, a grand jury examining the evidence had covered it up under pressure from prosecutors close to Quayle's family. If I could find the disgruntled grand jurors and convince them to talk, we'd win --and I'd be a hero.
So I bought a plane ticket to Indianapolis and holed up in the airport Holiday Inn with photocopied courthouse records. After a day of cold-calling people who had no idea what I was talking about, I knew I was on a fool's errand. My sleuthing wasn't illegal, just criminally incompetent and a little slimy. I suppose we would have used the information if it were true, but how naive and desperate could I have been to believe that I would uncover a last-minute bombshell that every news organization in America had missed? That was embarrassing --maybe not to President-elect Clinton, but certainly to me.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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