Two decades ago the headlines weren’t kind to Webb Hubbell.
“Clintons’ pal Hubbell is indicted.”
“Hubbell Begins Prison Sentence.”
It was in the ’90s that Hubbell found himself swept up in the scandals and endless investigations known as Whitewater. It was a hard fall for the one-time Arkansas whiz kid, top Justice Department official and longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Notoriety took its toll. But the headlines faded.
For nearly four years now, Hubbell and his wife, Suzy, have lived on a quiet street in Dilworth, planting roots and rebuilding their lives outside the glare of public attention.
Last week Hubbell, 65, re-emerged with the publication of his first novel, a legal thriller about friendships and loyalties set in Little Rock, with cameos by Davidson College and Charlotte’s Mimosa Grill.
The author and his book already have drawn national attention. The Washington Post ran a story. C-SPAN televised his weekend appearance at a North Little Rock library.
It’s the latest chapter in a life which itself has unfolded as a kind of thriller.
Like Jack Patterson, his protagonist in “When Men Betray,” Hubbell’s is a story of friendship and power with plot twists, legal turns and even a brush with death.
“When I sit down to write a novel I’ve got all these experiences to draw on,” he says. “That’s what novels are about, life. As public as mine? Maybe not.”
Hubbell slips into a booth at an East Boulevard restaurant, wearing a red polo shirt with the logo of the Arkansas Razorbacks, the team he played for in its 1969 Sugar Bowl victory over undefeated Georgia. A fringe of white hair tops the former lineman’s still-beefy frame.
Barred from practicing law, Hubbell has become a speaker on everything from politics to criminal justice, and even counsels people, including lobbyist Jack Abramoff, on their way to prison. He’s also a prolific writer.
In addition to working on sequels to his novel, he writes an online column on politics and current affairs and shares daily meditations on a blog called “The Hubbell Pew.”
“(E)ven the Rock of Gibraltar has been shaped and moved by wind and rain,” he wrote recently. “No matter how strong we try to be, we are all shaped by the storms in our life perhaps more so than by the good days.”
Rise and fall
Hubbell has survived his own storms.
In 1979, the same year Bill Clinton was sworn in for his first term as Arkansas governor, Hubbell was elected mayor of Little Rock. He was 31. Five years later Clinton appointed him to an unexpired term as chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
After toying with a U.S. Senate run, Hubbell went to work at the Rose Law Firm, where he became managing partner and worked alongside Hillary Clinton. In 1993 he followed the Clintons to Washington and became associate attorney general under Janet Reno.
“You’d have to go a long way in my state to find anybody who commands more respect, both professionally and as a person, than Webb Hubbell,” then-Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers said during his confirmation.
Hubbell’s trouble started the following year.
Questions arose over his billing practices at the Rose firm. In December 1994 he pleaded guilty to mail and tax fraud in connection with over-billing the firm and former clients. Six months later he was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. He acknowledges having made mistakes and has focused on moving on.
But his legal woes didn’t end with his 1997 release.
Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr indicted him two more times. Finally in June 1999, as Starr’s term as independent counsel was ending, Hubbell entered into a plea agreement that resolved the indictments and effectively ended the Whitewater era.
For the the next decade he held a succession of jobs in Washington. He was working for a commercial insurance company in 2010 when he got another scare: a life-threatening liver disease.
The condition, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, had come on suddenly. Friends rallied around. Even Bill Clinton.
“The day he heard he got on a plane and came down,” says Hubbell, who recalled they talked football and diets, not politics.
When Hubbell finally got a transplant, he and his wife decided to make a change.
“After the surgery, after it became clear I was going to be OK, we decided it was time to get close to the kids,” says Hubbell, whose daughter, Caroline, lives in Charlotte with her family. “It was the perfect opportunity to start our lives over completely.”
That name sounds familiar
Larry Elder and his wife, Janice, met the Hubbells through a mutual friend not long after they arrived in Charlotte.
“We really didn’t know who they were,” says Elder, who owns a SouthEnd art gallery. “I kept thinking I’d heard that name somewhere. Then it dawned on us.”
Similar encounters would follow, with a hint of recognition evolving into close friendships.
Take Bernie Hargadon. He met Hubbell at the Elder Gallery.
“It struck me that I’ve seen this man before,” he says. “And sure as hell I had. And that began what I consider a very good friendship. He’s not only one of the most interesting but kindest men I’ve ever met. We’ve known him two years, but I already consider him to be a best friend.”
Friendships mean a lot to Hubbell, who still keeps in touch with his Razorback teammates. Friends describe him as upbeat and self-effacing, a gifted storyteller who’s also a good listener.
Hubbell and his wife, Suzy, a real estate broker, attend a monthly salon where a dozen regulars talk about politics, the NSA or anything else over pot luck dinners. He’s also part of a Thursday morning breakfast group that meets at Toast on Park Road.
“It’s very refreshing for somebody to have that optimism after all those experiences,” says architect Davis Liles of the breakfast group.
Other friends marvel at that resilience.
“I can’t help but admire someone who’s gone through so much and endured so much,” Larry Elder says. “And for them to come out on the other side being so gracious and kind to everybody I’ve never seen any bitterness.”
The GOP and Hillary
Hubbell’s writing used to be limited to legal briefs. Now, he says, “it’s a lot more fun.” His book tour will put him back on a national stage.
“It’s the price you pay to get your book sold,” he says, smiling.
And his re-emergence could have another price.
“Will some Republicans use the moment to revive the Whitewater allegations against Hillary Clinton? Is the Pope Argentinian?” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said in an email. “It’s been old-home month for the Clintons: Monica, Benghazi, the blood clot, etc. When you are running for president, or appear to be, everything is on the table, even old charges.”
That Hubbell will be drawn into political debates may be inevitable.
In March he blogged about proposed changes to Medicare drug coverage under the Affordable Care Act. “This administration has gone to tinkering with Medicare,” he wrote. “You have to wonder why the administration would hand the Republicans such a gift.”
A day later the administration reversed course. That prompted a story on the conservative World Net Daily. The headline: “Webb Hubbell speaks, Obama listens.”
He knows that his book and tour will resurrect the days of Whitewater and his past problems. But he doesn’t worry.
“A lot of people want to relive the past,” he says, nursing a glass of tea. “I don’t live in the past. I live in the present. I live in Charlotte writing books.”