Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Little Rock, AR

It’s no secret that I love the Clintons. As I’ve reported elsewhere on this blog, I’ve met and seen Bill speak twice. Plus, Hillary has my vote for president. No surprise, then, that when my boss asked me to attend a library conference in Little Rock, Arkansas—where Bill was governor for 12 years—I jumped at the chance.

Everyone who loves the Clintons should make a pilgrimage to Little Rock at least once in his or her life. The entire town is something of a shrine to the 42nd president and his family. Included in our conference packet was a brochure entitled “A Guided Tour of President Clinton’s Little Rock,” highlighting relevant sites: the governor’s mansion, the Old State House where Bill declared his candidacy for president, Clinton/Gore campaign headquarters, the firm where Hillary practiced law, Chelsea's middle school, and even the McDonald’s where Bill often stopped to get, er, coffee.

The main tourist attraction these days, though, is the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, located northeast of downtown next to the Arkansas River. Built on land that had been overrun by derelicts and homeless people, the Clinton library is a magnificent edifice that evokes a bridge to the future. I recognized it immediately as we drove into town from the airport and, despite the hot and muggy weather, wandered over there during the first day of conference.

A reception was being held at the library later in the week, so I restrained myself from going upstairs. But I did buy a ticket to see the miniature White House on display on the ground floor. Very cute! I then walked back to the hotel, stopping at the River Market, where I spied the award-winning Shaka Smoke Lodge eatery. Taking a big bite of my lunch, I left a message on Tim’s cellphone, bragging that this was the best chopped pork sandwich I ever had. Why would governor Clinton even bother with McDonald’s when the Shaka barbecue was only blocks away?

Some 60 librarians and I returned to the library two days later for the final conference night’s reception. A docent led us upstairs to a small theater, where Bill narrated a 12-minute film about Little Rock and his ascendancy to the White House. I was thrilled when we all burst into spontaneous applause afterward. I was among kindred spirits.

From the theater, the docent took us to a reproduction of the president’s cabinet room and described the rest of the building. The second floor chronicled the Clinton presidency and its accomplishments. But I was far more interested in the human side of the story, so quickly slunk up to the third floor, where memorabilia from both Bill and Hillary’s younger lives were exhibited. Also there were displays of the First Lady’s gowns, Bill’s saxophones, and various gifts from people around the globe.

The main event, though, was a reproduction of Clinton’s oval office, complete with family photographs and a Rockwell painting that the Spielbergs gave Bill soon after he became president. I had a hard time tearing myself away.

As wonderful as the oval office was, my favorite exhibit was of the correspondence the Clintons sent to and received from dignitaries and celebrities worldwide: a handwritten letter to Hillary from Jordan’s queen Noor, affectionately signed “from your sister,” a note from Bill to Paul Newman jokingly asking him not to run for president, and a congratulatory letter from Elton John expressing hope that he and Bill would work together to fight AIDS. The guard had to rouse me from my reading to announce that dinner was about to be served downstairs.

I flew home the next day and proclaimed that we had to watch “Primary Colors,” the fictional account of Bill’s first run for the presidency. John Travolta and Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the “Stantons” was far from flattering. Still, as full of clay as the Clintons' feet are, I remain a huge fan and care about them even more after spending a few days in Little Rock.

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