Just A Boy From Little Rock

FAULKNER, AS USUAL, HAD IT right. In the South, the Mississippian once wrote, the past is never dead.It isn't even past." Bill Clinton is the quintessential Southerner: a former El Camino owner, the president leers and preaches with equal agility. Now Clinton is learning Faulkner's lesson anew. The president should be spending the holidays celebrating. Already the worst of his generation to win the White House, Clinton is only the third Democrat in this century to capture a second term. Instead of gloating, however, he finds himself borne back into a murky world of cash, connections and charges of wrongdoing. And all roads, strangely, lead home to Little Rock.

Actually, it isn't so strange--if you understand Bill Clinton. "The Clinton scandals" are vast and seemingly disparate. There is Whitewater itself, and alleged cover-ups of the First Lady's roles in firing the Travel Office and withholding her long-subpoenaed law-firm billing records. Then there is "the Asian connection," allegations that the Democratic Party peddled White House access to Indonesian bankers and Taiwanese businessmen while inegally raising money connected to a Far Eastern cult and a Buddhist temple in California. There is a common element in the ethical questions that stretch from Arkansas to Washington to Jakarta: the central aim of the Clintons' adult life has been to win, and hold, office. And you can't do either without two things: private money and personal relationships.

So the Clintons figured out early on how to hunt where the ducks were. After Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law, Bill Clinton needed to immerse himself in the local culture to make a go of his political career. In Arkansas, where he had to run for governor every two years, that meant schmoozing with an odd assortment of characters with means: manic-depressive S&L kings like James McDougal, the young Indonesian born banking scion James Riady, Taiwanese-born restaurateur Yah Lin (Charlie) Trie and Chipese-born John Huang, the Democratic fund raiser who worked for the Riady-controlled Lippo Bank in Little Rock. McDougal is facing sentencing on fraud charges, and the Asians--Riady, Trie and Huaug--are at the center of millions of dollars in questionable Democratic contributions. The cash seems to have helped them, and other Asian executives, win appointments to trade commissions and private meetings with President Clinton. Contributions from foreign sources are illegal, and the affair is the subject of congressional and Justice Department probes.

Clinton sounded almost plaintive when he explained his relationship with Trie, who tried to give the First Family's legal-defense fund $689,000 in suspicious donations-and yet visited the White House as recently as Christmas, one of about 37 drop-bys at the mansion since 1993. (On one of the visits Trie brought along a Chinese arms dealer,) "I knew [Trie] when he and his family started a little restaurant about a mile from my home 20 years ago," the president said. In fact, this "home" was the governor's mansion, and Trie's Chinese restaurant, known for its generous buffets, wasn't far from another Little Rock landmark: the Excelsior Hotel. That is where Paula Jones, whose formidable hair and makeup are identifiably Southern, claims that Clinton sexually harassed her. It is now up to the legal system to decide whether the alleged appetites of Clinton's past--for food, votes, women and campaign money--will undercut his future.