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Me and Bill and Hillary

Whitewater prosecutor Hickman Ewing Jr. talks about Ken Starr, the Clintons, Monica, and the blue dress.

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Hickman Ewing does a pretty dead-on impression of Bill Clinton. But then he's had more practice than most people.

One of the highlights of Ewing's six-year tenure with the Office of the Independent Counsel was playing Clinton in moot court on three occasions. With his Southern drawl, rambling speaking style, and Memphis roots, the former federal prosecutor was an easy choice for Ken Starr and his staff.

When the lawyers in moot court asked their polite questions about Monica Lewinsky, Ewing as Clinton hemmed and hawed and filibustered so well that the prosecutors eventually sharpened their questions enough to elicit the famous sordid details of the Lewinsky affair that led to Clinton's impeachment.

That was Ewing's singular footnote to history but only one of several important contributions he made to the Whitewater investigation. He interviewed Bill and Hillary Clinton several times at the White House and ran the Arkansas phase of Whitewater that convicted Webster Hubbell, Jim and Susan McDougal, and former governor Jim Guy Tucker.

Ewing talked at length with the Flyer at his Germantown home (and for the first time in the Memphis media) about the Clintons, Lewinsky, the McDougals, Starr, and Linda Tripp.

In his study there are pictures of his father, a legendary high school football coach, as well as Ken Starr and various politicians, including Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Howard Baker, and, yes, Bill Clinton. The Clinton picture, he is quick to point out, was a gag gift, while the Nixon and Johnson shots are there because they are standing alongside a member of his wife's family.

The bookcase is full of religious books. Ewing is a lay minister, and opponents occasionally accused him of religious zealotry during trials. There is one full shelf of books about Whitewater and the Clintons, including three of Ewing's personal favorites -- First in His Class by David Maraniss, Blood Sport by James Stewart, and The Truth at Any Cost by Susan Schmidt and Michael Wiesskopf -- and several others he considers biased from either the left or the right.

Ewing is mentioned in most of them, often at length. He has also been profiled in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, dubbed "slowpoke prosecutor administering water torture" by columnist William Safire of The New York Times, picked (incorrectly) as Starr's successor by Newsweek, and called "Clinton's Other Pursuer" in a long article in The New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin. His picture graced the front page of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when he was one of five speakers to eulogize Jim McDougal. The stocky, white-haired Ewing was also seen on network television several times, walking grimly along at Starr's side or uttering a clipped "no comment."

This was a case of the rest of the country coming to know a man that Memphians have known quite well since Ewing was a star athlete at Whitehaven High School in the 1960s. After graduating from Vanderbilt and serving in the Navy, Ewing came back to Memphis and made his mark as the prosecutor who convicted Ray Blanton, Dana Kirk, and Rickey Peete, and unsuccessfully prosecuted Harold Ford Sr. He had just finished playing himself as prosecutor in a television mock trial of James Earl Ray when he was hired by the Office of the Independent Counsel in 1994. Curiously, although he was something of a star in the Republican-controlled Justice Department in the Eighties, he had been to the White House only twice before 1995 and never met a U.S. president until he met Clinton.

Ewing's enforced silence for much of the last seven years was somewhat unusual for him. He was always good for a quote or two outside the courthouse during his Memphis trials, and he tells a story in a rambling, colloquial style that left no doubt that anyone but him would play Bill Clinton in the OIC's moot court.

He has another notable attribute, as his adversaries can attest.

"I remember stuff," he drawls.

In fact that could be his epitaph. He has a remarkable memory for sports, local trivia, history, and especially legal matters, which served him well as a prosecutor. He has no plans, however, to write his own Whitewater book. At 59, he is taking it easy, unsure when or how he will resume his law practice, and reliving his childhood. He plans to compete in the Senior Olympics, where he has previously won as many as five events, including the 50-meter dash, baseball throw, 400-meter walk, and even the Scrabble event.

Following are excerpts of his comments about the famous people he met and the events he helped shape over the last six years.

The Whitewater Investigation

Whitewater is a real misnomer. The real investigation is called "In Re Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan." Did [the Clintons] commit any crimes in the 1982 to 1986 period? We didn't have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed crimes. A much more serious question related to whether there was obstruction of justice and perjury relative to the investigation. That was a much closer question. Let me give the Clintons the benefit of the doubt. Jim and Susan McDougal controlled two banks. The question is: Did the Clintons have guilty knowledge? They certainly had knowledge of some of the transactions, but I'd say it was questionable whether they had criminal intent.

April 22, 1995: First Meeting With the Clintons

At the White House

Bob Fiske, the independent counsel before Ken Starr, was doing a great job. Bob had already subpoenaed records from the Clintons. It wasn't like Ken made up a new game plan. He adopted a game plan from Fiske, which he inherited from the Justice Department. We were the fourth prosecutor on the investigation. So we had a number of different subjects to ask about. My part was primarily about Mrs. Clinton's work at the Rose Law Firm. There was an allegation by James McDougal that he gave business to Hillary at the behest of the Clintons.

We had two hours with the president and two hours with the first lady. It was four days after the Oklahoma City bombing. The lawyers for Clinton were telling us, "You have two hours with the president because he is really busy. He has got to make a speech. He just met with some kids from Oklahoma City." It was a pretty somber occasion. Clinton is very personable. He comes in and shakes everybody's hand. He gave us a little tour of the Treaty Room. Then he leaves and after 15 minutes she comes in. I am the main questioner on her. After 10 minutes, there is a knock on the door. A Navy steward's mate comes in and says something I couldn't hear. Mrs. Clinton doesn't look very happy. In my opinion she looks perturbed at the situation. The guy walks over to the closet and comes out carrying the president's golf clubs. It turned out he was playing golf that afternoon. It was almost like, "Bill, we're trying to be serious here and give them two hours each, and now they know you're going out to play golf." It was kind of humorous.

The Clintons

He is a master of the "aw shucks" personality. He claimed to have a better memory than [Hillary]. And I will say that the subject matter I was asking him about wasn't that critical to him. Although he answered one question in a way that he said he didn't recall, and I thought he probably did recall. My impression when I got through that day was they're not telling us exactly like it is.

Hillary was, in my opinion, more reserved, maybe a little friendlier than she's painted to be. I think they're both very professional, but I found over this investigation, when you're dealing with really high- powered lawyers, they tell their clients not to volunteer anything. I don't say I wouldn't give somebody the same advice -- "Answer the question, don't start rambling." And some lawyers will tell their clients that if they aren't 100 percent sure to just say they don't remember. In my opinion, their claims of "I don't remember" on certain things were very dubious. I didn't fully appreciate it the first time. Let's put it this way. I wasn't satisfied they told everything exactly straight. As time went on some of the answers they gave [in that interview] were some of the most troubling.

Centipedes and Elvis

The second time we were at the White House was July 22, 1995. As soon as the president comes in he shakes everybody's hand, calls everyone by name. The court reporter took about five minutes to set up, so he's just talking. And he's talking about Elvis. How Elvis was his favorite singer growing up. Then he points to his lawyer, David Kendall, and says, "Who is yours?" And Kendall says Little Richard. Then he's talking about critters: "I remember cutting grass in Hot Springs, we had black widow spiders; we had brown recluse spiders and snakes; we even used to get centipedes and break 'em in half and watch 'em go in different directions. Y'all probably did that too." And he looks around and nobody's looking at him and they're thinking, What are you talking about? I'm kind of standing across the table and he says, "Well, Hick, I bet y'all used to do that in Memphis, didn't you?" I said, "No, Mr. President, we didn't do that in Memphis."

Jim and Susan McDougal

I dealt with Jim at length after he was convicted. If everything Jim said was true, then the Clintons violated the law in several respects. Obviously you don't take the word of a convicted felon who's got problems unless there is lots of documentation and paperwork to back it up. So we tried to find paperwork and chase out leads. We found some, but we had not reached a final decision on both Clintons at the time of his death. So it hurt us in a way, but you couldn't charge either one of them based on just Jim McDougal.

Susan said on Geraldo one night that I murdered her husband. [She said] Jim McDougal was in federal prison and the only one he would talk to was Hickman Ewing. And he had called Mr. Ewing and said 'You need to help me because they're not giving me my medicine,' and Ewing said, 'I don't care,' and he died that night.

And of course that is a total lie. I'm really at that point the closest person to Jim McDougal that there is. I spent a lot of time with Jim, and I'd say most of his friends had deserted him. When he went to prison, I was really his contact with the outside world. Not only was he a valuable witness for us but, you know, you develop a relationship. I had been down to Texas to see him in prison about 10 days before he died. I had just written a lengthy letter to the Parole Commission on his behalf. So when he dies, I get the call and I'm just sick. So when Susan says he was calling me, saying, They're not giving me my medicine. I don't know where she gets that, but it's just not true.

Kenneth Starr

Part of Ken's problem toward the end was he had such negative ratings because he was being demonized. They -- and I mean the Clintons, James Carville, Sidney Blumenthal, Geraldo -- did a very good job of spinning things to demonize Ken Starr. They had a lot invested in that. I think they probably had a lot invested in me too.

Starr is a prince of a guy. He reminds me in ways of Mike Cody. Ideologically they are from different briar patches, if you will, but I know Mike actually met with Ken when he was considering hiring me. Ken is one of the most personable guys you will ever meet -- a gentleman, brilliant guy, smartest guy I've ever met as far as intellect and law. I've always said that when you're investigating someone who holds political office, if you don't have the law, you argue the facts. If you don't have the facts, you argue the law. And if you don't have the law or the facts you attack the prosecutor. I told Ken, The people that are attacking us, that gives you a clue that maybe they don't have the law or the facts. I told Ken I had been through this many times with Rickey Peete, Harold Ford, Dana Kirk, Governor Blanton. But it was difficult for him.

Monica Lewinsky

That's what's ironic about this whole Lewinsky thing. We're down here doing a white-collar crime and corruption investigation and we had a number of delays because of privilege claims that were not meritorious. If Susan McDougal had come in in September 1996 and answered all the questions, we would have made decisions on the president and first lady some time in 1997 and we'd have been through. We wouldn't have even been working on this when the Monica stuff came up.

The Linda Tripp Tapes

We were trying to decide where the appropriate place was to charge Webb Hubbell. Ken tells me to come into his office. So we go in his office and we get on a conference call with Jackie Bennett and that is the first I hear about it. I didn't even know [Monica Lewinsky's] name. Tripp tapes Lewinsky that day. They send the tapes to Little Rock to be transcribed. They hand-deliver them. FBI agents brought them down. So the next day my personal secretary and another secretary transcribe that 4-hour tape. Of course my secretary is typing this and she's got on earphones and she says, You won't believe this stuff! This girl's mother ought to be shot! Because Monica says, "Well, Linda says, I can't go in there and lie because I'm under oath, and I've taken an oath before God." Then Monica says, "Well, you know, God is good, and God doesn't want anybody to be hurt, and so if [telling the truth] would hurt anybody then you're not supposed to tell the truth." And my secretary is saying, Can you believe this stuff?

Did Monica "Save" Hillary?

Our grand jury in Little Rock was going to end in May. So the next morning after we transcribe the tape, Bob Bittman of our office has come to Little Rock to help me get to the finish line in making the final decision on the president and first lady. When that transcript of Linda Tripp's tape is finished, Bob goes to Washington and never comes back. As I like to say in biblical terms, Bob got raptured. Instead of us having 10 people, we are down to about six. I've said this facetiously to some extent, Monica saved Hillary.

The Blue Dress

I'm there the day they bring the blue dress in. You can see the spot on there. You don't know for sure it's semen, but it could be. You talk about keeping something under wraps. Well, we sent it to the lab. I didn't know the results when we did the moot court. Then the morning our people went over to question Clinton, Ken called Jackie Bennet, Sol Wisenberg, and me and says, "Bob [Bittman] and I are the only ones who know this. Two weeks ago the FBI reported to Bob in our office that in fact it was semen." So Bob called David Kendall and says we want to take the president's blood sample. Kendall says, "You said you wouldn't do that unless you have some basis to believe." And Bob says, "We've got some basis to believe." Bob and a female FBI agent go to the White House. They call the president out of a dinner party and Bob tells me Clinton was red in the face and so mad because he has got to give his blood sample. Look -- he knows. He knows.

Playing Bill Clinton
In Moot Court

The first time, we had about 30 people in the room and Bob Bittman is asking questions like, "Mr. President, did you ever touch Monica Lewinsky?" And I say, "Well, Mr. Bittman, down South we hug people; we hug people at weddings and funerals. That's just cultural where I come from. I hug lots of people. That doesn't mean anything." It takes me about four minutes to answer the question. Then he asks, "Did you give her any gifts?" And I say, "Mr. Bittman, we give hundreds of gifts at the White House. Growing up, we used to keep extra gifts on the washing machine in the kitchen, and if somebody came by and brought us a gift then we'd have a gift to give them. Did I give her a gift? Yeah, I could have, but I don't remember." We finally get through and a couple of young lawyers watching us say, "Man, you're better than the president." Of course, I said, "No, I'm not."

By the next time, we had talked to Monica. I was up there studying this stuff. It was very interesting going through it. I had constructed this long chronology of the main events and facts. So I go in and add the main Lewinsky events to my chronology. It was to me quite significant that she detailed nine incidents where they actually did something. And about seven or eight of them, there was some significant event going on in the other part of the investigation. For example, the billing records [for the Rose law firm] are, quote, "discovered" at the White House and produced for us on January 5th, 1996. The next day the media goes crazy. And the next day, the seventh, she comes over and they go back in the hallway and do their thing. And they hadn't done this in a while. Two weeks later on the 21st, a Sunday, the lawyers for the Clintons are meeting in our office and I'm on the speaker phone from Memphis. They're asking our people, "Please don't make Mrs. Clinton come to the grand jury. This will be bad," and so forth. At the exact same time Monica and Clinton are in the hallway at the White House. The nine times when she said she performed oral sex on him, something's going on. I mean, the day before David Hale testifies. I mean, I'm not saying when you get under stress that's an excuse, but with just about every one of those [incidents], something is happening.

In the second moot court, Paul Rosenzweig, who's on our staff, is playing the part of David Kendall, Clinton's lawyer. So he and I are kind of off by ourselves. And everybody else in the whole office is trying to get prepared. So when they go through and do this four-hour thing, clearly it's like I'm getting the best of them. And I'm running out the clock, too. I'm going into the four-corner offense.

The guys who are reviewing this say, "You need to get more aggressive, you need to not let him ramble. You need to do that with respect, but you need to sharpen the questions. You spent too much time asking him about the ties that Monica gave him." They actually show me an Internet picture of Clinton and the tie, and they say, "That's the tie she gave you, isn't it?" And I say, "Well, you know, y'all may be trying to make something out of it but I've got about four ties like that, and in fact Hillary gave me a tie like that, and that's one of my favorites because I love my wife."

It made our guys have to go back and sharpen up their questions. You can't let him filibuster like that. It's kind of like a football game. You're scouting the other team's best player. The first time I'm denying. The third time, though, they're getting very precise. And I say, "Wait a minute. Let me tell you something. They didn't ask me in the civil deposition, 'Did Monica Lewinsky perform oral sex on you?' If they had, I'd have had to say yes because I wasn't gonna lie. But they didn't ask me that." And I also said I wasn't going to go into the details because it was too embarrassing to my wife and daughter and I love them and so forth.

So what he in fact did, as everybody knows now, he reads a statement at the start of the deposition and says he had an inappropriate relationship but he was not going to go into the details.

Leaving the Office Of the Independent Counsel

The judges asked if I would stay to the end. I said, no, don't appoint me. The end meant reports, and unlike a regular prosecutor where you either indict or you don't, you have to do this detailed report with footnotes, notify everybody who is named, give them an opportunity to look at it and comment. Then it's up to the special division whether they want to make it public. We had about 4,000 boxes of records, including 2,500 boxes in Little Rock. I had gone on in September of 1994. When they asked in September of 1999 if I could stay on until the end, I said, no, I just couldn't do it. I'd had my fun.

You can e-mail John Branston at branston@memphismagazine.com.

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