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Ex-Friends In High Places

Hubbell's memoir describes his political free fall

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (Dec. 8) -- Webb Hubbell's memoir is a good illustration of the power of the written word, but not in the usual sense.

Friends In High Places

By Webb Hubbell
William Morrow & Co., Inc.
332 pp., $27.50

By the end, casual readers of "Friends In High Places" may see the ex-associate attorney general as an admirable character who has learned something from his rise and fall.

And I'm sure Hubbell has. It'd be difficult to go from a high-ranking government job to a minimum-security prison camp in Cumberland, Md., without picking up a few ideas on how to live the rest of your life.

But Hubbell's tract is ultimately an unsatisfying, self-serving book. President Bill Clinton's ex-golfing buddy leaves too many questions unanswered and he shilly-shallies around the question of personal responsibility, both taking the blame for his downfall and hinting at mitigating factors, including the Rose Law Firm's billing practices and his drinking

Too often, in matters large and small, Hubbell portrays himself as someone swept along by forces beyond his control. It's hard to imagine the 6-foot 5-inch Hubbell pushed along by anything, except his own love of the good life: a succession of ever-larger homes, a country club membership and vacations in the Caribbean.

One example is what Webb calls "my accidental political career." He claims he wasn't all that interested in joining the Little Rock City Board, but submitted his name anyway. Come on. You're either interested in political office or not; his explanation doesn't ring true.

His explanation of the billing fraud -- stealing, actually -- that got him in trouble is more direct. He sat down to pay his bills, a carton of orange juice and a bottle of vodka at the ready.

"I don't recall which bill started it all," Hubbell writes. "Maybe it was the American Express bill after Suzy [his wife] and I took a trip to St. Lucia. ... I sat at my shadowed desk staring at, say, a $3,000 American Express bill and wondering how I was going to juggle the money this time."

The answer he came to was to bill either clients or the Rose Law Firm for his personal expenses. Over four years, Hubbell stole an estimated $150,000 from clients and another $340,000 from his partners at Rose.

"There is no excuse for what I did," Hubbell writes. "I committed a crime, and no one made me do it." He served 18 months in a federal prison camp, and his description of his time behind bars may be the book's best part.


Hubbell does offer some interesting insights into Bill and Hillary Clinton, Vince Foster, Janet Reno and others.

He says Bill Clinton is a masterful politician, which everyone knows, but also one of the luckiest because he came along just as Arkansas was going through a political sea change that made him a virtual shoo-in in the attorney general's race.

Hubbell knows Hillary better than Bill, because he worked with her at Rose. Hillary comes across as a sympathetic character, struggling in a tradition-minded southern law firm to strike the right balance between roles of wife and professional litigator.

Whatever Hillary did, she was criticized, Hubbell says. "She came to Arkansas and redrew the maps," he writes. "Not the physical ones, but the social and business ones. She paid a tremendous price for that, and she's still paying."

Eventually, of course, Hubbell quit the Justice Department to try to work out the billing fraud with Rose. After his departure, he also put out the word to lawyers, lobbyists and consultants in Washington that he was available to consult. To this day, Hubbell continues to keep his silence on who his clients were and what he was paid during that period.

"I never once dreamed that my doing legal and consulting work could be viewed as some sort of 'hush money,'" Hubbell writes. "For three years, I answered every question the independent counsel put to me."

There are indications, nonetheless, that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr is still interested in Hubbell and the money he received from those post-Justice Department clients. His legal troubles may not be over yet and because of that, Hubbell has been shunned by people who were once his friends.

In this era of public repentance for one's sins, it's virtually required that you write a book to explain yourself. (Marv Albert is probably through a third draft of an outline by about now.) But Hubbell, whose prison nickname was the "Big Easy" because of the good-natured way he laughed off other inmates' jokes, takes the easy way out on this one.

The most admirable character here? That would be William Morrow, the publisher, which successfully resisted prosecutor Starr's attempt to get Hubbell's unpublished notes and rough drafts.

In Other News:

Monday Dec. 8, 1997

Justice Staffers Cheer Bill Lann Lee
Hatch Asks Freeh For Independent Investigation
Gore Pledges 'Flexibility' At Climate Summit
Cemetery Chief: Lawrence Probably Qualified Anyway
White House Nears Decision On Lee
White House AIDS Director Defends Clinton's Record
GOP Investigators Claim New Money-Laundering Evidence Against Trie

Book Review:
Ex-Friends In High Place

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