Scenes From McDougal's Last Years
Mar. 09, 1998
Heads swiveled, and there were whispers and smiles from the other patrons as the hostess rushed to greet the regular customer. Waitresses addressed him as ``Mr. Jim,'' and he doffed his brimmed dark hat, placed his usual order, then was escorted to the booth reserved for him.
It was the kind of treatment one would assume James B. McDougal received at the finest restaurants during his free-wheeling '80s days, a leading Arkansas player in land and banking, friend and confidant to politicians who included Gov. Bill Clinton.
But this was 1997, and this was a Western Sizzlin chain restaurant in the 10,000-person town of Arkadelphia, where the 1980s high roller was living in a trailer home in a friend's yard while waiting to begin his sentence as a convicted felon. He died Sunday while serving that sentence.
Financially broke and physically broken down, the marriage to the love of his life long over, McDougal was jerked _ or, perhaps, rescued _ from bleak obscurity by the 1992 presidential candidacy of his longtime friend Clinton. Suddenly, there was intense interest in the complex, shadowy dealings of McDougal and his involvement with Bill and Hillary Clinton in a land venture called Whitewater.
``Frankly, I could stand a little anonymity,'' McDougal said of the scrutiny of his life that Clinton's election brought.
In his own peculiar assertion of personal dignity, McDougal would demand that reporters wishing to interview him meet him at the Western Sizzlin, with the rules being that they pick up his tab _ $5 to $6 for a chicken sandwich or steak sandwich dinner _ and tip generously for the waitresses. Several of them invited him to their high school graduations last year, which caused him to muse: ``When I was growing up, people didn't want their children running around with criminals.''
He was a staunch defender of Clinton and harsh attacker of his investigators _ until after he and his former wife Susan were convicted of fraud in the Whitewater probe that also netted Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
Then he began providing evidence to independent counsel Kenneth Starr and claiming in interviews that Clinton had perjured himself.
McDougal, a recovering alcoholic and manic depressive whose mood swings sometimes ranged within an interview, would alternate observations of Clinton. The two both worked for Sen. J. William Fulbright and developed a friendship based on their mutual interest in politics.
McDougal took a liking to land speculation as a combination business interest and ``social life'' in which he took friends out to look over real estate possibilities with him, and got the Clintons involved in the Whitewater resort venture as a result, he said.
McDougal, a self-proclaimed ``FDR Democrat,'' recounted long, idealistic conversations with Clinton, friendly meetings at the Black-Eyed Pea restaurant in Little Rock, and admiration for Clinton's national success.
But at other times, he would voice suspicions that Clinton had had an affair with his former wife Susan, which she denies; that his jailed ex-wife was keeping her silence on Clinton because of some reward she has been promised; or that McDougal's mother had died disappointed because Clinton failed to give her son a job in his administration.
In a telephone interview in January from the federal medical center in Fort Worth where he died, McDougal compared himself to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, saying she was being subjected to the same network of pressure to lie from Clinton allies as he had been. But he was not able to give specific examples of how he had been subjected to such pressure.
Last year, he talked fondly about friendly conversation with Clinton at the president's deposition for his trial, but grew somber when asked about what happened to their friendship.
``I think we're entirely too free in this country with the use of the word `friendship,' when actually we're just favorably acquainted with someone, when we're their allies for the moment. There's no room in politics for friendship. There's only room for mutually advantageous alliances. Anybody who thinks any president is his friend better rethink his position.''
In interviews, he could be smug, answering questions by saying reporters should wait for a book he said would be published later this year. He also could be morose, predicting that he would soon die, and he could take humor in that by saying his death would feed anti-Clinton conspiracy theories.
When a reporter suggested that he sometimes seemed grandiose, McDougal reacted with mock indignation, leaning forward and replying: ``Don't you think I'm rather grand?''
In his way, he was.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dan Sewell is an Atlanta-based AP reporter who interviewed James B. McDougal a half-dozen times, three of them at the Western Sizzlin.