BY GENE LYONS | In the past, whenever lunatic Clinton-haters were accused of being beyond the pale, they would point to one particular journalist -- a veteran foreign correspondent who wrote for a respected British newspaper and whose dispatches from Washington and Arkansas, they proudly claimed, bore out their most incendiary charges.

The correspondent's name is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Much to the regret of our home-grown kooks and conspiracists, he has since departed these shores to become the London Daily Telegraph's "roving European correspondent." As a parting gift, however, Evans-Pritchard has bequeathed us a book, "The Secret Life of Bill Clinton," just published by Regnery.

The temptation, in addressing so manifestly absurd and error-filled a piece of work, is to raillery. In form, Evans-Pritchard's book is a feverish concatenation of what his countryman, Guardian Washington correspondent Martin Walker, calls "the Clinton legends" into one vast, delusional epic. In effect, "The Secret Life of Bill Clinton" is a militiaman's wet dream. Evans-Pritchard nowhere advocates violence against the president or the United States government, but he does provide the impressionable True Believer with a rationale. Publishing this book is the moral equivalent of leaving a loaded revolver in a psychiatric ward. And that, perhaps, requires an approach other than satire.

Accompanied by pseudo-scholarly "documentation," Evans-Pritchard's disarmingly glib narrative essentially portrays the president as a criminal psychopath. There is no evidence so contrary, nor tragedy so solemn that Evans-Pritchard will not distort it to this end.

The book's first 100-odd pages accuse federal agencies of knowing complicity in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that took 169 lives. According to Evans-Pritchard, it wasn't just the work of terrorist freelancers like the convicted Timothy McVeigh and his alleged accomplice Terry Nichols: It was, he suspects, an ATF/FBI "sting" gone bad, followed by a Justice Department cover-up. He doesn't directly accuse Clinton of being part of the plot, but does hint darkly that he has profited politically from the tragedy.

That truckloads of actual hard evidence have been produced at the McVeigh and Nichols trials impresses him very little. He spends page after page amplifying the baseless canard that ATF agents were warned against reporting to work in the Murrah Building that terrible morning. In reality, several were badly injured in the blast. That none died was purely fortuitous. Their offices lay on the side of the building opposite the bomb. A reporter for the Daily Oklahoman interviewed two ATF agents as they staggered out of the still-smoking rubble.

At his best, Evans-Pritchard practices journalism the way creationists interpret science. Was the "Piltdown Man" a hoax? Very well then, Darwin and a century's worth of supporting evidence stand refuted, and creationism is proved. Do inconsistencies exist among the hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the Oklahoma City tragedy? They do. Were there ongoing investigations of other white supremacist, anti-government extremists in the region at the time of the bombing? Absolutely. To Evans-Pritchard, these constitute all the evidence he needs to posit a massive government conspiracy. In the real world, of course, eyewitness accounts of so devastating an event are often confusing and contradictory, and wild rumors inevitable. The hard work of law enforcement (and journalism) comes in sorting things out. Seamless consistency is a state achieved only by conspiracy theorists, assisted by the twisted reporting of an Evans-Pritchard.

The real energy in this opus, however, is devoted to the more traditional themes of Clintonphobia: sex, drug-smuggling, money laundering and murder. Of the many homicides he lays at the president's feet, "the Rosetta Stone" is what Evans-Pritchard calls the "extra-judicial execution" of White House counsel Vince Foster. He sees in this "murder," allegedly carried out at the behest of the White House inner circle and possibly on the direct orders of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a sign of "incipient fascism" in the United States.

Never mind that the sprawling, Arkansas-based criminal conspiracy Evans-Pritchard purports to have uncovered would require the complicity of the Little Rock Police Department, numerous county sheriffs and district attorneys, the Arkansas State Police, the FBI, DEA, CIA, several Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys and federal judges, Arkansas Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, not to mention Oliver North, the late William Casey, Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh and Whitewater independent counsels Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr (dubbed by Evans-Pritchard the "Pontius Pilate of the Potomac"). His methodology remains everywhere the same. If two dozen witnesses, crime scene photographs and an autopsy attended by a half dozen investigators confirm the existence of, say, an exit wound made by a .38 caliber slug in the back of poor Vince Foster's skull, this intrepid reporter can be counted upon to track down an ambulance attendant who failed to see it, and from that failure deduce that all the others have perjured themselves and the cover-up has been exposed. In the footnotes, that source turns out to be a "confidential informant."

When necessary, Evans-Pritchard resorts to even more questionable methods. He quotes a Little Rock funeral director named Tom Wittenberg asking, "What if there was no exit wound at all? ... I'm telling you it's possible there wasn't." By way of support, in yet another of the book's roughly 500 footnotes, Evans-Pritchard claims to have a tape recording to that effect, surreptitiously made by an unidentified Arkansas private eye. Puzzled, I phoned Wittenberg, an old friend and neighbor for more than 20 years. To my knowledge, the Tommy Wittenberg I know has never spoken to any reporter about a body entrusted to his care. Sure enough, Wittenberg insisted vehemently to me that Evans-Pritchard made the whole thing up. He not only refused to be interviewed, but told the reporter that out of personal feelings for the deceased, he'd never looked at Vince Foster's body at all.

Rookie reporters and probationary cops quickly learn that anybody can say absolutely anything about anybody else. If Evans-Pritchard ever absorbed this cautionary lesson, it's one he has strived successfully to overcome. He wanders the remote and fabulous land of Arkansas like some credulous Gulliver at large among the Houyhnmhnms. (On Swift's island of philosophical talking horses, it will be recalled, no word existed for the concept of falsehood.) Evans-Pritchard treats the wild inventions of Arkansas penitentiary inmates like Holy Writ. The concluding chapter linking Foster's "murder" to Iran-contra drug dealing, to the president's alleged cocaine use, to his sexual abuse of teenage girls and to three unsolved Arkansas homicides, consists almost entirely of double and triple hearsay from two dead men. One of those men is apparently Foster himself, with whom Evans-Pritchard's source claims once to have shaken hands. "At times the moral imperatives of reportage," the author proudly announces, "require one to violate the Columbia School codex."

Speaking of moral imperatives, it's time to unmask. Evans-Pritchard has designated this reviewer a "collaborator" in the Evil Clinton Empire, claiming to discern the dread hand of the White House in my Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columns. (For the record, I had no knowledge of this when I agreed to write about his book.) Oddly, he cites no particulars, not even in a footnote. He does, however, expound at modest length about articles I've written elsewhere. It turns out that our conscientious friend not only misrepresents others' work as it suits him, but, as need be, even his own.

Central to Evans-Pritchard's scenario about Foster's death is an unlikely tale he first broke in the Sunday Telegraph on April 9, 1995. His sources were a pair of Arkansas state troopers named Roger Perry and Larry Patterson. I summarized Evans-Pritchard's account in what he calls the "ultraserious" New York Review of Books as follows: "Perry and Patterson ... [said] that a White House aide named Helen Dickey phoned the Arkansas Governor's Mansion hours before Foster's body was discovered in a Washington park. Supposedly Dickey told them Foster had shot himself that afternoon in a White House parking lot, which could only mean -- so deduced the Telegraph reporter, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard -- that the body had been moved and a White House cover-up begun."

Based upon a U.S. Senate hearing transcript, I went on to add that "when Perry and Patterson were subpoenaed to appear before Sen. Alphonse D'Amato's Whitewater committee on February 16, 1996, they suddenly decided they didn't want to repeat that story under oath. D'Amato even apologized to Ms. Dickey for the pain and embarrassment his own credulousness ... had caused her." I continued: "It's the timing that's significant here. Because if such a phone call had, indeed, come from the White House on July 20, 1993 -- the day Foster died -- then you'd think the troopers would have mentioned it to [the American Spectator's David] Brock and the others who reported the 'Troopergate' stories five months later. But either they kept it to themselves, or the reporters did. Either way, it gives the troopers something of a credibility problem."

My summary of his story incensed Evans-Pritchard. In a scathing letter in the Nov. 28, 1996, issue of the NYRB, he contended that I'd "traduce[d]" his original article, which he claimed concerned itself only with the timing of Helen Dickey's alleged call. "The article," he huffed, "did not examine the question of where Foster died ... It should have been clear to anybody reading the Telegraph that the focus of our investigation was the timeline."

Evans-Pritchard also (correctly) pointed out that the troopers hadn't refused to testify before D'Amato's committee. Minority counsel Richard Ben Veniste had misspoken. What actually happened, I acknowledged in a response to his letter, was that the troopers' lawyers kept postponing their deposition until the absurdity of their story became sufficiently evident that even Republicans on the Whitewater committee no longer wished to hear it. Possibly to imply that I am indifferent to facts, Evans-Pritchard now contends that far from correcting the error, I repeated it in Harper's magazine. He cites the alleged incident as "an interesting insight into the way that consensus is manufactured in the Washington media culture."

Problem is, no Harper's article of mine exists regarding the Dickey episode. As for traducing Evans-Pritchard's meaning, all that was necessary by way of response was to quote his original text. What made Dickey's alleged call significant, he'd written, was its close similarity to an erroneous Secret Service memo that night that reported that "the 'U.S. Park Police discovered the body of Vincent Foster in his car.'" Then, Evans-Pritchard asks ominously: "The memorandum was wrong, of course, or was it? When rescue workers and park police found the body ... Foster's corpse was deep inside a Washington park."

In reality, the actual Secret Service memo and the troopers' apocryphal tale aren't very similar at all. But why quibble? The point is that Evans-Pritchard's insinuation that Foster's body had been moved could hardly have been clearer. What puzzled me then was why he denied it. What amazes me now is that he's turned the tale inside-out all over again. In "The Secret Life of Bill Clinton," Evans-Pritchard couldn't be more explicit. "The hard evidence," he writes, "indicates that the crime scene was staged, period." Whether or not Foster suffered from depression, he argues, "somebody still inflicted a perforating wound on his neck, his body still levitated 700 feet into Fort Marcy Park without leaving soil residue on his shoes, and he still managed to drive to Fort Marcy Park without any car keys" (Page 226).

Almost needless to say, every one of these allegations has been conclusively proved false in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's final report on the Foster suicide, reaching precisely the same conclusions as Robert Fiske did in his 1994 investigation. The Starr report disposes of the troopers' allegations about the timing of the Dickey call in a footnote, citing telephone records and the testimony of other witnesses.

Oddly, Starr's sleuths neglected to interview the ultimate recipients of Dickey's message, former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and his wife, Betty, who remember the call coming at roughly 9 p.m. in Little Rock. This accords with all the available evidence that Dickey telephoned the Governor's Mansion with the terrible news some time after 10 p.m. Washington time, more than three hours later than the two troopers claimed.

Since then, of course, the Whitewater independent counsel has convicted Jim Guy Tucker of making a false statement on a 1986 loan application, making him a convicted felon. Maybe that's why Starr's investigators neglected to interview the couple -- although Betty Tucker hasn't been charged with any crimes. Or just maybe Kenneth Starr has reasons of his own for not wishing to state plainly that so pliable a witness as Trooper Patterson, who has testified before Starr's Whitewater grand jury, lied about so grave a matter. That's merely a suspicion, not a fact. Nevertheless, I offer it free of charge to Evans-Pritchard. He will know exactly what to do with it.

SALON | Dec. 23, 1997 Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and author of "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater" (Franklin Square Press, 1996).

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