Jim McDougal ain't worried 

At 55, Whitewater's inventor has seen a lot pass under the bridge.

Jim McDougal turned 55 a few days before but you couldn't tell it by looking at him.

You might have guessed 65--or 70.

Unless you looked close--close enough to see the eyes, which aren't the eyes of an old-timer, just someone who has been flung around and sported with pretty mercilessly by the churlish gods.

They took his hair and some of his short-term memory and put him on a cane, but they haven't been able to keep him down or put him away. He has a certain vulturine aspect now, as if he himself might be the symbol of all that's happened to him, his own bird-of-ill-omen perched above the chamber door of his life.

But a lurking good humor, in spite of it all.

It wasn't disappointment or bitterness or regret that came across during a lunchtime conversation at the Western Sizzlin' in Arkadelphia; what I sensed more than anything else was amusement.

He'd been places and done things and gotten to know some interesting people, he said, and if it was his lot now to be what he calls a professional defendant, he wouldn't complain.

Pretty amazing, considering.

I asked him if it ever scared him that the United States of America, in all its power and majesty, with all its resources and with no time limit, is obviously out to get him.

He said no, not afraid, not at all. No suggestion of bravado in saying so, he said. It's just there's nothing much left that the government can do to him.

If they succeed in putting him in prison for his dealings at the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, it will only raise his standard of living and improve his circumstances. He lives now on a disability pension in a house trailer in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Has no family to worry about--no wife (divorced), no children, his only living relative an aunt in a nursing home; his parents dead, all his friends dead--he names them:

Bob Riley, Jim Ranchino, Joe and Henry Hamilton. So there'd be no one to grieve over or be embarrassed by whatever remaining outrageous pratfalls fate has in store for him.

"The system's designed to crush you by hurting the people you love," he said. "But when your loved ones are all gone, what do the sons-of-bitches do to you then? So this doesn't scare me. That's not anything to be proud of, particularly--but no, they don't scare me. And anyway, you know what they say about crazy people--crazy people never get scared."

Is he crazy?

"That's the popular impression," he said.

And it is, too.

But you talk with Jim McDougal a while and he doesn't seem crazy or even very weird.

I asked him if he had plans. He was the big dreamer once upon a time, one of our all-time wheeler-dealers: Were there more Whitewaters and Campobellos, more political campaigns and intrigues, in his future?

No plans, he said.

No big plans and not even any little plans.

And there won't likely be any more.

One day at a time from now on, he said. It's a pledge to himself. Something he learned from Alcohol Anonymous, which he joined 28 years ago (and hasn't had a drink since), but hadn't thought to apply to his life categorically until circumstances more or less forced him to.

Just getting well is ambition enough now.

He's had more serious health problems than he's had criminal charges filed against him. A staggering list. Still trying to get over the stroke.

And major surgeries to clear neck, head, and innards of just some of the big-time blood-vessel blockage. They laid him open like a watermelon, and what they put back together is frail and tenuous and it hurts a lot and pretty much all the time. But he's as mouthy as ever and that's good to see.


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