How Hillary Clinton Could Squander Her Second Chance

Webb Hubbell offers his old friend and partner redemptive advice: Get real.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
June 14, 2014, 1:49 p.m.

Har­old Ickes’ whis­key-gravel voice rolls like a storm cloud above the crowd of 60 people jammed in­side a church par­lor to hon­or Webb Hub­bell, a newly pub­lished au­thor and dis­graced pal of Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton. “You went through un­mit­ig­ated hell,” Ickes thun­ders. “How did that ex­per­i­ence in­flu­ence your book?”

Hub­bell blinks hard three times and grins at Ickes, the Demo­crat­ic Party le­gend pushed out of the Clin­ton White House in 1996. “I couldn’t have writ­ten this if I hadn’t gone through the hell,” Hub­bell replies. “Then again, I couldn’t have writ­ten it if I hadn’t had the heights.”

Just six blocks away — at this ex­act mo­ment — Hil­lary Clin­ton marches in­to a George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity aud­it­or­i­um. Like a moth­er duck and her duck­lings, she’s trailed at every stop of her book tour by rest­less journ­al­ists and ad­or­ing crowds.

She wants a second chance at the pres­id­ency. Hub­bell knows all about second chances, and he cer­tainly knows Clin­ton, the wo­man he brought in­to Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm, ment­ored, and later fol­lowed to Wash­ing­ton, where the sprawl­ing White­wa­ter in­vest­ig­a­tion swept him in­to pris­on and polit­ic­al ex­ile.

“This time around, be true to your­self,” Hub­bell tells me, us­ing the second-per­son pro­noun to in­dir­ectly ad­vise Clin­ton. “You’re still try­ing to cre­ate — ” he stops him­self.  “You’ve got so many people around you try­ing to shape your im­age that you lack “¦”

“Au­then­ti­city?” I sug­gest.

Hub­bell nods. Shift­ing to the third-per­son, he says of Clin­ton, “I think that in­stead she needs to be her­self. She’s a great per­son.”

Who is Hil­lary?

Her book tour is not go­ing great. Clin­ton seems to be re­peat­ing the cent­ral mis­take of her 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, bury­ing her per­son­al­ity and pas­sion be­neath re­dund­ant lay­ers of cau­tion, cal­cu­la­tion and de­fens­ive­ness.

The cam­paign to sell “Hard Choices” — a test run for the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign — began with Clin­ton telling ABC’s Di­ane Saw­yer that she and her hus­band were “dead broke” when they left the White House. While that’s per­haps true in a lit­er­al sense, the re­mark ig­nored dead-cer­tain plans for the Clin­tons to make more money per speech than an av­er­age Amer­ic­an earns in a year.

Then, dur­ing an ex­cru­ci­at­ing sev­en-minute span with NPR’s Terry Gross, Clin­ton fought a fair-minded at­tempt to cla­ri­fy her evol­u­tion on gay mar­riage. A bet­ter an­swer would have been the easi­est one: “Like many Amer­ic­ans, I didn’t al­ways sup­port gay mar­riage. It was a mis­take. As pres­id­ent, I’ll nev­er let polit­ics de­term­ine my de­cision-mak­ing. Now, let me tell you when and why I changed …”

On Fri­day, Clin­ton was asked wheth­er she feels more able to speak her mind freely. “I think that’s true, from some of the re­ac­tions I’ve had the last few days.” The sold-out audi­ence laughed. But she soun­ded ser­i­ous about tap­ping her in­ner-hon­esty.

“Maybe be­cause I’m totally done with be­ing really care­ful about what to say be­cause some­body might think this in­stead of that,” Clin­ton con­tin­ued, ac­cord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner. “It just gets too ex­haust­ing, and it just seems a whole lot easi­er to just put it out there and hope people get used to it.”

Hub­bell isn’t the only per­son en­cour­aging Clin­ton to get real. I wrote a column six months ago that channeled her closest as­so­ci­ates ur­ging Clin­ton to run a rad­ic­ally atyp­ic­al cam­paign — ac­cess­ible, au­then­t­ic, in­sur­gent and pop­u­list. One of the sources of that column, a top ad­viser, told me last week, “My friend is mak­ing the same old mis­takes.”

Second chances

It’s after 9 p.m. be­fore Hub­bell’s friends and fam­ily clear out the front par­lor of St. John’s Church, across La­fay­ette Park from the White House. While we’re not per­son­al friends, I’ve known and liked Hub­bell since the 1980s, when I worked in Arkan­sas me­dia. He’s had a life of second chances.

Hub­bell was draf­ted by the Chica­go Bears, but a shred­ded knee got him cut by le­gendary coach George Halas, who Hub­bell still calls “Papa Bear.” A $1,000 sev­er­ance check helped Hub­bell pay for gradu­ate school and launch his ca­reer.

A top Arkan­sas law­yer, a former Little Rock, Ark., may­or (one of the na­tion’s young­est from 1979-82) and former chief justice of the Arkan­sas Su­preme Court, Hub­bell be­came the third-rank­ing law­yer in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. For a single, chaot­ic year, he was the fam­ily’s man at Justice.

Then came the White­wa­ter in­vest­ig­a­tion. Launched to re­view a Clin­ton land deal that was nev­er proven any­thing but small-bore and leg­al, White­wa­ter grew in­to a sprawl­ing web of in­quires that in­cluded Hub­bell’s work at the Rose Law Firm. He ad­mit­ted to over-billing some of his former cli­ents and was sen­tenced in 1995 to 21 months’ in pris­on.

Now he’s the au­thor of a well-re­ceived nov­el, “When Men Be­tray.” At his book party, sev­er­al friends cornered me to gripe about Bill Clin­ton. He let Hub­bell go to jail, they com­plained, while the in­vestor Marc Rich re­ceived an in­fam­ous el­ev­enth-hour par­don.

I tell Hub­bell about the com­plaints, and he shrugs. “I nev­er asked for a par­don,” he says softly. “I didn’t want to put a friend in a bad po­s­i­tion by ask­ing for a polit­ic­al fa­vor.”

In 2010, Hub­bell was dia­gnosed with a liv­er dis­ease. He was dy­ing, and Bill Clin­ton vis­ited his home in North Car­o­lina to say good­bye. Then came new life: A young man died in a hunt­ing ac­ci­dent, and his fam­ily had donated his liv­er. Hub­bell got it.

He’s healthy now, thank­ful for his wife, Su­zy, grand­chil­dren, friends and George — the nick­name he gave his liv­er be­fore he learned that the young donor’s name was “¦. George.

Hub­bell gives me a hug and nods out the church win­dow — to­ward the White House and the aud­it­or­i­um bey­ond where Hil­lary Clin­ton and her en­tour­age are gath­er­ing. “I hope she’s happy, too,” he says. “This is a coun­try of second chances.”

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