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.”
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.”