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Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 1999 /6 Tishrei, 5760

Sam Dealey

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A tale of moral dudgeon and posturing in the Clinton era --
A BULLETIN from the Country Club of Little Rock brings word that one of its new members is former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty. This might ordinarily pass unnoticed, but McLarty is not precisely a new member, and the Country Club of Little Rock is not your ordinary hangout for the well-heeled: It was the backdrop for an early episode of Clinton-era moral posturing that turns out, in McLarty's case anyway, to have reached its expiration date.

For a modest $25,000 fee and about $2,000 a year in dues, members of the club, nestled on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River, can swim, play tennis, and play golf on a sprawling 18-hole, par 70 bent-grass course.

There's no denim, and no shirts without collars. And there used to be no blacks.

But then candidate Clinton came under fire in March 1992 for playing golf at the club with 13-year member Webster Hubbell. Nine months later, the club found itself embracing its first‹and apparently only‹black member: economist Howard Curtis Reed. Rest assured, the reception was brief. Reed soon enjoyed the further good fortune of landing a job in Washington under then U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor.

But that didn't end the embarrassment the club's monochromatic membership would cause Bill Clinton and his hometown friends. When Hubbell was set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early 1993 for confirmation as associate attorney general, it was payback time for Republicans, whose judicial nominees had been keelhauled by that committee with some regularity over the preceding quarter century for membership in exclusive clubs. This was usually hypocritical mau-mauing of men whose only character flaw was not bigotry but a fondness for golf. Still the issue had been potent enough to give rise to a Judiciary Committee rule, which holds that it is inappropriate for nominees to belong to a discriminatory organization unless they "actively engaged in a bona fide effort" to end exclusive membership rules.

As recently as two years before Hubbell's date with the committee, in March 1991, Florida judge Kenneth Ryskamp, a Bush federal appeals court appointee, had been crucified by the committee's Democrats for waiting until a week before his confirmation hearing to resign from the WASPy Riviera Club in Coral Gables, Fla. Ryskamp's nomination was rejected, to the tune of moral preening by the likes of Sen. Edward Kennedy: "I'm concerned whether someone can have an open mind in the courthouse and a closed mind in the country club." Kennedy and many of his Democratic colleagues who rejected Ryskamp‹Joe Biden, Howard Metzenbaum, Dennis DeConcini, Patrick Leahy, Howell Heflin, Paul Simon, and Herbert Kohl‹were still running the committee at the time of Hubbell's hearings.

Needless to say, the outcome was different. Colleagues came forward to say that Hubbell had been an ardent integrationist behind the scenes, trying without success to recruit black members for the club‹a claim that left Arkansas NAACP leaders and at least one black state legislator nonplussed.

"I don't know how much of an effort [Hubbell made], how important this was to him," said state representative William Walker. Still, Hubbell announced his resignation from the club. "There remains in the minds of some people the perception that my continued membership in the club reflects some lack of sensitivity," he piously said.

And that wasn't all. Just hours later, three other senior White House officials who were members of the club‹chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty, and White House counsels Vince Foster and William Kennedy‹also resigned. Solidarity! This ritual sacrifice by Hubbell's colleagues did the trick. His nomination was assured. And what a painless sacrifice it turned out to be. After all, who wants to play golf in Little Rock, when the finest courses of the Washington, D.C., area are at your disposal?

And now, it turns out, the grand gesture of moral high principle is revokable. After his stint at the White House, McLarty opened up shop back in Little Rock. And where best to conduct business? In the Country Club of Little Rock, to which he again belongs. Howard Reed, too, has returned to Little Rock, though it may be news to that city's country clubbers. Active members say they've yet to see Reed on the veranda, eating lobster thermidor and sipping gin.

Sam Dealey is a reporter for The Hill Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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