A Rose That Grows In Washington

For years, it had been a Little Rock ritual: Bill Clinton, professional pol, and Webster L. Hubbell, prominent Arkansas lawyer, would do their Christmas shopping together on Christmas Eve. But when the election turned his pal into a national celebrity, Hubbell prepared to shop solo. The President-elect, however, had other ideas. Trailed by Secret Service agents, Clinton hooked up with Hubbell, and the two chums went on their traditional trip. Turns out Santa was good to Hubbell, who landed a nomination for the No.3 spot at at the Justice Department. His confirmation hearings begin May 18.

The 45-year-old Hubbell, a partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton at Rose Law Firm, is just one of a wave of Rose partners who have trekked to Washington. In all, four key members of Little Rock's most influential law firm have wound up with top Administration jobs. In addition to Hubbell, there's the First Spouse, of course. Vincent Foster Jr. is deputy White House counsel. And William H. Kennedy III is associate White House counsel.

These Rose alumni will help make decisions on everything from health-care reform to Supreme Court nominees. The Rose crew is "reminiscent of the Georgia mafia that went up to Washington with Jimmy Carter," says Little Rock attorney Sheffield Nelson, a Republican who lost to Clinton in the 1990 gubernatorial race.

ON ALERT. But the firm's tight ties to the Clintons, especially Hubbell's, are raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers wonder whether having a good friend at Justice makes it easier for the President to interfere in the department's law-enforcement machinery. "It's a close, close network," warns Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), "and it bears watching." White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum insists that Justice will remain free from interference: "No one's going to push [Attorney General] Janet Reno around."Nonetheless, Republicans are expected to grill Hubbell at his confirmation hearings. Their latest beef is his membership in the Country Club of Little Rock. Clinton, who often played golf there with Hubbell, was criticized during the campaign for patronizing the then all-white club. (The club now has one black member, sponsored by Hubbell.) In addition, GOP critics likely will inquire about Hubbell's role in two incidents that raised questions about whether Justice is vulnerable to political manipulation: Reno's sudden decision to seek the resignation of all Republican U.S. Attorneys in March, and Justice's move in February to replace a nearly all-white jury in the fraud trial of black Representative Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.).

Official explanations play down Hubbell's role in both events. The White House says the request for the U.S. Attorneys' resignations was a joint decision by Reno and the President. So far, 60 of 93 resignations have been accepted. In the Ford case, then Acting Attorney General Stuart M. Gerson, a Bush holdover, insists that the request--which the court denied--was his decision alone. Ford later was acquitted.

EARLY BONDS. Still, Hubbell clearly is the chief link between Justice and the White House. He was in constant contact with Foster on Apr. 19, during the fiery end of the Waco crisis. And his ties with the other Rose alumni run deep. Hubbell, Foster, and Hillary--all commercial litigators--lunched together regularly, shared an avid interest in politics, and once invested their bonuses together in an unsuccessful partnership. Foster, 48, often covered for Clinton when she campaigned for her husband.

As deputy White House counsel, Foster is a major player in the selection of top Justice officials and Supreme Court nominees. He brought along another former Rose managing partner, 42-year-old Kennedy, to take charge of ethics and security clearances for top Administration officials after the Zo e Baird fiasco. Foster serves as the Clintons' personal lawyer and can be more candid with the First Couple than others in his office. "I don't have to tiptoe around them," he says.

Those who know the Rose alumni say they're unlikely to abuse their new power. Even opponents praise Hubbell--a former Arkansas Chief Justice and Little Rock mayor--for his integrity. "We had a lot of handshake deals," says Theodore C. Skokos, a Little Rock attorney. "He always did what he said he'd do."

Back in Arkansas, Rose's business is booming. The 173-year-old partnership, where 33 partners remain, is taking on more Washington work. But it has no plans to switch from legal work to lobbying. The firm doesn't even plan to open a Washington office.

Rivals sense a certain false modesty in all this. "They don't need a D.C. office," scoffs attorney Nelson. "They have a D.C. office right there at the Administration." Well, not quite. But the Rose transplants clearly could be far more powerful in Washington than they were in Little Rock.

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