The Gadfly

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

SOMETIMES CLIFF JACKSON SOUNDS ALMOST tender as he recalls his old Oxford classmate Bill Clinton. After all, the two young men—both from Arkansas and both from poor backgrounds—visited each other regularly and played on the same intramural basketball team. Even then, in the late '60s, Jackson says, Clinton was something of a charmer. "He certainly was gregarious and intelligent,'' says Jackson, "not only able but eager to offer commentary on any subject that would come up."

One night at a party, though, some other students started knocking the absent Clinton as a "glad-handing phony." Jackson came to Clinton's defense, but the conversation bothered him, and he talked it over with his girlfriend. She advised him to ignore the criticism and later wrote Jackson a letter, which he still has. Clinton may be a "politico," she wrote, but "to be a friend is to care for people despite their faults."

Now a lawyer in Little Rock, Jackson, 47, says he heeded that counsel until 1992—when he became Clinton's nemesis. During the presidential campaign, it was Jackson who produced 23-year-old letters containing damaging passages about Clinton's efforts to avoid the Vietnam draft. And two weeks ago it was Jackson who appeared at the side of two Arkansas stale troopers who claim they helped Clinton arrange extramarital liaisons while he was governor. In addition to providing free legal advice to the troopers, Jackson stage-managed a Christmas-week media frenzy over the charges with considerable tactical skill. "The issue is whether Bill Clinton is an honest man, whether he can be trusted, whether he is credible," says Jackson, who agreed to an interview about his personal life only after repeated requests.

Others, of course, may wonder why Jackson seems so determined to bring Clinton down. The two men grew up 20 miles apart, Clinton in Hot Springs and Jackson in Antioch, but didn't meet until both attended Oxford in 1968 on prestigious postgraduate scholarships—Clinton as a Rhodes scholar, Jackson a Fulbright. Back in Arkansas in the '70s, both men, recently out of law school, lost their first bids for public office. Clinton ran for Congress, Jackson for a local prosecutor's job. But Clinton went on to become governor at 32 and President at 46; Jackson never tried politics again. "He's eaten with jealousy," says James Carville, Clinton's campaign strategist in 1992. "He went into politics and never got very far and is dedicated to striking back." David Maraniss, a Washington Post reporter who has researched the Jackson-Clinton connection for an upcoming book, takes a more temperate view but agrees that, for Jackson, "envy over the years developed into animosity and now into Shakespearean revenge." Jackson's resentment began at Oxford, says Maraniss, where "Clinton had hundreds of friends, while Jackson was fairly lonely."

Jackson scoffs at the notion that he is engaged in a vendetta. He acknowledges that Clinton's efforts to get out of the draft disturbed him (Jackson himself failed his physical for minor health reasons) and says the episode convinced him that Clinton "derives pleasure from manipulating and deceiving people." But Jackson insists that "out of respect for my friendship" with Clinton he never publicly attacked his former classmate during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. That reticence ended when Clinton emerged as a presidential contender. At that point, says Jackson, "it just seemed too serious a thing that the American people would elect him as their leader."

As for accusations that he is consumed with envy, Jackson, who is married and has two daughters, has in fact enjoyed considerable success as a lawyer. "Everyone regards Cliff as an extremely intelligent, highly competent lawyer," says Jeff Rosenzweig, a prominent Little Rock attorney who considers both Jackson and Clinton as friends. "I'm sure he believes very strongly in what he's doing." A solo practitioner with a penchant for taking on big corporations, he has earned a reputation for flamboyant gestures. A few years ago his advertisement in the Yellow Pages touted the fact that he had the state's highest score on the law boards when he look the test. In one celebrated stunt, he dramatized his protest against a utility company by tossing customer bills down a fake toilet. Now, thanks lo some impressive victories, including a recent $20 million sexual-discrimination judgment against Texaco—which will probably earn him millions in fees—Jackson enjoys the luxury of taking only cases that interest him, often pro bono. He says state troopers Larry Patterson and Roger Perry were steered to him by a mutual acquaintance. Despite questions raised about Patterson's and Perry's own credibility, Jackson staunchly maintains that they are telling the truth and that Clinton has continued to deceive the public.

As for his old friend Bill, "I want him to admit what he's been doing," says Jackson. "I'd hope he'd use this to learn from his mistakes and make a change. I'm not an enemy. A true friend points out your shortcomings."

BILL HEWITT
MARGARET NELSON in Little Rock

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