IN 1976 TEXARKANA BUSINESSMAN Truman Arnold, a wholesale petroleum distributor, was introduced to a young man running for attorney general of Arkansas by Mack McLarty, the CEO of Arkla Energy. The young man was Bill Clinton. During that race and Clinton’s subsequent campaigns for governor, Arnold gave some money—over time, many thousands of dollars—and raised more. In 1991 he helped Clinton again at the start of his presidential bid. And then, in 1995, after the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton turned once more to his old fundraiser, asking him to be the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Arnold agreed, and he was hailed as “the Democrats’ new rainmaker”—but in retrospect, the tempests he created were not the sort he intended.
The first storm broke shortly after Arnold arrived at the DNC, when he suggested publishing a brochure that would outline how much access donors would get to the White House in exchange for gifts of certain amounts. “I was trying to heal wounds,” the 59-year-old explains. “A lot of people were saying, ‘I’ve contributed all this money and I’ve never been invited to anything.’” News accounts later implied that the brochure was an example of influence peddling, but according to Arnold, it was to be for fundraisers only: “We had lots of volunteers raising money, so we had to have a playbook.” As it happened, the brochure never got printed, for Clinton feared it would make him appear hypocritical at a time when he was championing campaign-finance reform, but it dogged Arnold nonetheless. When he quit as finance chair after only five months on the job, many people assumed the brochure flap was the cause. “Why, no,” he insists. “I just sent a suggestion over, and Clinton didn’t think it was wise. We never had any words over it.” He says he resigned because he had done what he was hired to do. “We couldn’t make payroll when I got there, and when I left, there was money in the bank and commitments to meet the budget for the rest of the year. The ox was out of the ditch.”
Whatever the case, a second squall started this past January when Time reported that Arnold had used WhoDB, a White House database listing individuals who had attended social events there. If that’s true, then Arnold may have violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits using the office of the president for political fundraising. But Arnold maintains he had never heard of WhoDB before he read about it in Time. “I am not computer-literate,” he says. “My friends think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard—that I would be using a database.” He explains what occurred this way: “The White House would say, ‘Send us ten names for a social event.’ We would pull twenty names and say, ‘Give us a profile of how many times these people have been to the White House.’”
Scandal stories have a momentum of their own, however, and the Time article has led a Congressional subcommittee to ask Arnold to appear before it. Arnold can’t wait to get that interview—and his brief foray into national politics—behind him. “I was an athlete; I went into business; I’ve had some rough licks,” he says. “But I’ve never seen anything as brutal as the politics in Washington. Politics in Texas is hopscotch by comparison.”