The Consortium

The Real-Life 'Primary Colors'

By Gene Lyons

Kenneth Starr's acolytes -- the likes of Stuart Taylor Jr. -- are fond of contrasting their hero's honesty with President Clinton's.

It's true that Bill Clinton's reputation has sunk so low that some critics thought John Travolta was tossing the president a bouquet when he portrayed the Clinton character in "Primary Colors" as a man who seduces a teen-age baby-sitter and then covers up possible paternity of her illegitimate child.

That's in part because the standard fare coming from the sage TV pundits these days is that Clinton deserves his reputation as a devious scamp. Over and over, the pundits cite one deception, in particular. "If Clinton lied to the nation about his 12-year love affair with Gennifer Flowers," they say, "how can we believe his denials about other sexual misconduct."

They also shake their heads about Hillary Rodham Clinton. If the First Lady seriously thinks that some "vast right-wing conspiracy" is out to destroy her husband and reverse the results of the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, where is the evidence? Some think Mrs. Clinton should be lumped with adepts of flying saucer cults, and, piling irony upon bitter irony, the small industry of Clinton "scandal" zealots who see a conspiracy behind every White House action.

But what if the overwhelming evidence shows that the president actually didn't lie about Gennifer Flowers, certainly not in what most would consider the adult sense of the term? (A smarmy-sounding equivocation, I know, but keep reading.)

Also, what if a powerful circumstantial case can be made -- backed by a short ton of concrete evidence, including hitherto unreported interconnections and shady deal-making between and among the president's bitterest and most unscrupulous political enemies -- that an organized cabal has indeed existed since at least the Arkansas gubernatorial race of 1990 to smear Bill Clinton with sexual innuendo and destroy his political career?

What if the evidence also shows that prominent members of the national press were, if not quite active participants in this effort, at the very least knowing observers who suppressed, and have continued to suppress, much of what they knew that was certainly "newsworthy" by any reasonable definition?

Would that mean that Hillary Rodham Clinton might not be A.) out of her cotton-pickin' mind, or, B.) a cold-blooded participant in a loveless, politically-expedient marriage? Could it also be that Bill Clinton is not some sex addict/predator living a lie in some textbook case of psychological denial?

The 12-Year Affair

So, let's go to the videotape, shall we? On January 26, 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to confront Gennifer Flowers's lurid account of a 12- year love affair with the candidate in the supermarket tabloid the Star. According to the Wall Street Journal, Flowers was paid upwards of $140,000 for her story.

On CBS' "60 Minutes," Steve Croft asked Bill Clinton about Flowers' accusation of a 12-year affair. "That allegation," he replied firmly "is false."

In response to a backup question, Clinton added that both he and Flowers herself had previously denied the affair. He went on famously to acknowledge having "caused pain in my marriage," added that he trusted voters to understand what he meant by that, and indicated that he and Hillary would have nothing more to say about it.

In effect, Clinton had admitted adultery. Croft never asked the conclusive "have you ever" question, and Clinton certainly never answered it. Long before the CBS interview, Clinton was firmly on record as saying that he thought it out of bounds and would never under any circumstances answer it. It's been reported that he made that understanding an explicit condition of the "60 Minutes" interview.

In a contemporaneous ABC News poll, 73 percent of respondents said they agreed with Clinton that whether or not he'd ever had an extramarital affair was between him and his wife.

On the following day, Flowers herself held a press conference in a New York hotel ballroom. Dressed in a scarlet dress with matching lipstick, she played excerpts from tape-recordings of several telephone conversations with Clinton.

"Yes, I was Bill Clinton's lover for 12 years, and for the past two years I have lied about the relationship," she asserted. "The truth is I loved him. Now he tells me to deny it. Well, I'm sick of all the deceit, and I'm sick of all the lies."

Subjectively speaking, Flowers's demeanor struck many as that of an icy gold-digger who had never loved a man in her adult life.

Asked about her remarks at a Baton Rouge campaign stop that same day, Clinton commented, "She didn't tell the truth. She hired a lawyer a year ago -- a year and a half ago -- to say that anybody who says that was a liar and would be sued. And she admitted that she changed her position for money. Nothing happened in that press conference today to change that. My wife and I have said everything we have to say about this whole subject yesterday. As far as I'm concerned, it's a closed matter."

The closest Clinton came to answering the "have you ever" question was an off-handed quip a few days later about accusations regarding a woman he never "slept with" and a draft he never dodged. Odds are, as we shall see, that the president never did "sleep" with Flowers, in the sense of spending the night together.

That may not wash as a case of full candor, but that was as close as Clinton came to telling a bald-faced lie about Flowers. Readers will have to make up their own minds how serious a transgression they think it in light of what's to follow.

As for Flowers, she would earn another chunk of change for a more sexually explicit Penthouse version of her story, accompanied by a pictorial layout. "I dare Hillary to bare her butt in any magazine," Flowers taunted. "They don't have a page that broad."

As for the many married men she had seduced, Flowers boasted, "I usually throw them back. ... I don't want to keep them. Let the wives have them back." Flowers also set up a 900 number to play her famous telephone tapes of Clinton, and published a book, Passion and Betrayal.

Clinton Deposed

Fast forward six years to January 1998. As a side-bar to l'affaire Lewinsky, some mischievous sprite leaked to the press the allegation that during his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, President Clinton admitted having sex with Gennifer Flowers. Immediately taken as gospel truth amid the general media freak-out over the Lewinsky tapes, the disclosure led to the remarkable spectacle of an unrepentant Flowers lecturing the president on sexual morality on "Geraldo" and "Larry King Live."

White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters that the president's testimony in the Jones deposition was perfectly consistent with what he'd said on "60 Minutes" in 1992.

Then, a few days later came the Clinton counter-leak. Time magazine reported that Clinton had testified to having had sex with Flowers one time in 1977. A dalliance, a fling, or a roll-in-the-hay, most would agree, but hardly a 12-year love affair. Flowers propositioned him on a later occasion, the president allegedly testified, but he turned her down.

To put things in perspective: Clinton turned 30 in 1977, the boy attorney general of Arkansas. He'd been married to Hillary Rodham since October 1975; Chelsea Clinton wouldn't be born until 1980. Flowers was then briefly a Little Rock TV reporter who boasted about her bedroom conquests. Her availability was no secret around the KARK newsroom.

That Bill Clinton, new to celebrity in those bygone days of "sexual liberation," had also been known to succumb to the allure of star-struck groupies was likewise widely rumored. It should be stipulated that as an island of relative cosmopolitanism in a sea of sex-obsessed fundamentalists, Little Rock is always alive with sexual rumor and intrigue, much of it imaginary.

Exactly how much pain Bill Clinton caused in his marriage remains his and his wife's secret.

Yet, Clinton's apparent testimony about a brief dalliance with Flowers squares with what some of Flowers's friends told reporters in 1992. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett, who's covered Clinton for more than 20 years, wrote that "my sources say that nearly 15 years ago, around 1977-78, and maybe a little later, she [Flowers] mentioned to friends that she was having a fling with Clinton. ... They heard nothing from her after 1979 about a relationship with Clinton and were surprised and skeptical upon reading her assertion ... of a 12-year affair that ended only in 1989."

More graphically, her ex-roomate Lauren Kirk told Penthouse that she believed Flowers to be lying for revenge and money:

"She just can't accept the fact that he came, wiped himself off, zipped up, and left. He was probably using her, and she just doesn't like being used. She likes to use."

Republican Flowers

Now there are cynical explanations as to why Clinton might have chosen to admit a one-night stand with Flowers in a sworn deposition 21 years after the fact. Maybe he feared that Gennifer had kept a semen-stained dress for lo, these many years, cunningly anticipating the advent of DNA testing. Or maybe he thought that a not-so-damaging confession of a long-ago indiscretion would make subsequent lies regarding, say, Monica Lewinsky, seem more credible.

But the simplest explanation that fits all the available facts is that Clinton testified truthfully, and that Gennifer Flowers -- a registered Republican, part hired gun, part sexual entrepreneur -- was merely the opening act in a long-running right-wing "dirty tricks" campaign to destroy the president.

To understand fully, it's necessary to explain Flowers's oddly symbiotic relationship with Arkansas con man and professional "Clinton-crazy," Larry Nichols.

In 1988, Nichols a one-time high school football star from Conway, Ark., who recorded advertising jingles for a living, worked for several months as a marketing consultant for the Arkansas Finance Development Authority, the state's centralized bonding agency. Alas, Nichols had his own agenda. He told people he was a CIA operative and got involved with various right-wing causes.

In September 1988, The Associated Press learned that Nichols had taken his politics to work: he'd made 642 long-distance calls at state expense to Nicaraguan contra leaders and politicians who supported them. At first, Nichols claimed that the calls had dealt with Arkansas municipal bond sales, but that story collapsed after reporters phoned the same numbers and made inquiries. Gov. Bill Clinton soon demanded his resignation.

It turned out that Nichols also faced "theft by deception" charges in several Arkansas counties. He avoided prosecution by promising to make restitution, but later took bankruptcy and never paid.

The List

A few weeks before the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial election between Gov. Clinton and Republican Sheffield Nelson, Nichols held a press conference at the state capitol. He handed out copies of a lawsuit against Clinton alleging that he'd been wrongly fired from his state job, and appending a list of five mistresses upon whom the governor had allegedly spent state money. Nichols offered no proof.

Among the names on his list, however, was Gennifer Flowers. In a very competitive media market -- Little Rock was then in the middle of a bitter "newspaper war" that ended in 1991 with the demise of the liberal Arkansas Gazette -- reporters contacted the women, who made vehement denials. Flowers and her lawyer threatened in writing to sue anybody who published or broadcast what she characterized as a slander.

Considering Nichols's reputation for tall tales and faced with denials all around, every media outlet in Little Rock made the same decision: the women's names were not published. But copies of the lawsuit were readily available at Sheffield Nelson's campaign headquarters.

Faxed copies also began appearing at out-of-town newspapers and broadcast stations all over Arkansas. With one exception, nobody used them. After a right-wing talk show host at a small Little Rock station allowed a caller to read Nichols's list over the air, its owner received a brisk letter from Gennifer Flowers's lawyer promising to sue if the incident was repeated. It was not.

A judge soon dismissed Nichols's own lawsuit for lack of evidence. The Nelson campaign shot at least two campaign commercials charging Clinton with drug use and sexual misbehavior, but feared the ads might backfire and never aired them.

But if the name "Larry Nichols" sounds familiar, that's probably because the former jingle writer and marketing consultant has gone on to become one of the biggest stars of Clinton-phobic talk radio, inveighing almost nightly against the president's imaginary high crimes and misdemeanors from sea to shining sea. Along with a jackleg Arkansas pol known as "Justice Jim" Johnson, Nichols is the narrator of two bizarre videos called "The Clinton Chronicles" and "The Mena Connection."

Produced by a California outfit called Citizens for Honest Government and promoted by televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, the tapes make scores of clearly false charges regarding Clinton's tenure as Arkansas governor. Even the fiercely Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has written articles detailing their near-delusional inaccuracy. More alarmingly, both tapes also accuse the president of a host of crimes, including cocaine use, rape, gun-running, drug smuggling and murder.

Some historians of Arkansas political mischief are intrigued by the many parallels between "The Clinton Chronicles" and a series of equally vicious pamphlets distributed during "Justice Jim" Johnson's 1966 gubernatorial campaign against reformist Republican Winthrop Rockefeller.

Among other crimes, "nigger lover" Rockefeller was accused of being a pornographer who engaged in homosexual affairs with black men. In stump speeches, Justice Jim, an ardent segregationist who has never relented, flailed away at Rockefeller as a "prissy sissy," a "Santa Gertrudis steer," and other synonyms for "queer." Johnson himself, meanwhile, accepted the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

By coming home from Georgetown in the spring of 1966 to work in the campaign of Johnson's Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton earned himself a permanent spot on Justice Jim's enemies list.

Going National

Fast forward again to the Democratic presidential primaries of 1992. Exactly one week before the Star published Gennifer Flowers's account of her 12-year affair with Clinton, it had run a similar "expose" based upon Larry Nichols's lawsuit.

The official version of the Gennifer Flowers story holds that her resistance broke down after Nichols's allegations hit the Star. Realizing that the tabloid planned to publish anyway, she decided that it would be better to make some money.

Far likelier, in view of subsequent events, is that Flowers and Nichols cooked up the scheme together. Soon after Nichols's original 1990 press conference, Flowers had begun to call Gov. Bill Clinton's office with tales of woe. Due to the notoriety, she complained, she was having terrible difficulty getting gigs as a nightclub singer.

Clinton himself referred her to an aide named Judy Gaddy who handled 30 to 50 such inquiries a week. Here is the complete text of a letter Bill Clinton's purported lover of 12 years subsequently sent him at the office. It arrived in an envelope marked "Personal," but was kept in a file with Flowers's other correspondence and released after the Star story broke:

"Bill, I certainly enjoyed speaking with you by phone! Enclosed please find a business resume and an entertainment resume. Anything you can do is much appreciated!!

"Thanks, Gennifer."

Over the next three months, Gaddy sent Flowers notices of job openings in state agencies for which she might qualify. In early 1991, Flowers interviewed at the Department of Arkansas Heritage for a $15,200 job as a "multi-media specialist." She didn't get the job.

On Feb. 25, 1991, she wrote her supposed lover again. "Since we were unable to connect by phone," the missive began, "I thought I should drop you a note."

Flowers complained that Judy Gaddy hadn't been very successful in helping her. It had taken Gaddy three weeks to come up with the first interview, and Gennifer hadn't been offered the job. Her financial situation, she explained, was dire. Flowers enclosed a copy of her lawyer's letter threatening to sue Larry Nichols, and closed by asking Clinton to "Please, be in touch."

Three months later, Gaddy sent her to the Arkansas Merit System to be tested for an administrative assistant's position at the state Appeals Tribunal that paid $17,524. This time around, Gennifer got the job.

Part II -- Next Issue:

Clinton's White House Run

Gene Lyons is author of Fools for Scandal, a critique of the Washington's media's Whitewater coverage.

Copyright (c) 1998

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