- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

"In most states," the London magazine Economist observed the other day, "a retiring president is treated like a returning hero, the ultimate 'local boy made good.' But not in Arkansas, and not Bill Clinton."

How true. The man who no longer believes in a place called Hope is about to be cast into the sea of national forgetfulness, as the folks inside the Beltway turn their attention to George W. and Al the Exaggerator. The home folks have no such luxury. Not yet. The president and the first lady were in Arkansas over the weekend looting for campaign cash and Miss Hillary took a hundred grand home to New York. Both Clintons are very skilled, as anyone in Little Rock would tell you, at imposing on their friends.

In return, the president hasn't done very much for the state that supported his family with public housing and free groceries for two decades. Lyndon Johnson sank Texas under federal largesse, but Bill Clinton has not. He will rarely even speak the word "Arkansas," referring in speeches to "my home state" or obliquely to an unnamed place "where I was a governor." He has only recently begun to return occasionally to Arkansas, now that he and his cronies in the municipal government in Little Rock are trying, deviously, to take 27 acres along the Arkansas River for the Clinton mausoleum, a/k/a library. More public housing: He'll get a lavish penthouse apartment in the library, rent free.

A team of architects from New York, not Arkansas is at work on the design of the $125 million library and "policy institute," but nobody can stick a shovel in the ground because the owner of 2 of the 27 acres has gone to court to defend his right to own the land. The Clinton cronies are trying to take the land by calling the library a park, but Gene Pfeifer, the son of an old Little Rock family, notes in his lawsuit that his land is in an area the city itself recently zoned not for parks but for "urban use." The cronies, like good clintonians, argue that the law is only a technicality that doesn't apply to them and the city can put anything anywhere it wants and call it a park. The local courts so far have not agreed.

Pundits elsewhere debate whether the national mood is one of "Clinton fatigue" or "Clinton nostalgia," but down home nearly everyone calls it "Clinton shame." The mere mention of "Arkansas" elsewhere usually evokes giggles and tasteless jokes, and gives the false impression that he is an authentic son of the state.

Authenticity is much prized in Arkansas and one of the genuine articles died in his sleep the other night in Little Rock. William J. Smith was 92 and a friend who encouraged me when I was a young man. When my newspaper couldn't send me to Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention in 1960, I obtained a leave and hitchhiked to California to see it on my own. Judge Smith, as the governor's man on the scene, said he would do what he could to find me a place to stay. He got me a room at the headquarters hotel and told me that he had put me down as an alternate delegate. (Sure enough, years later I found my name in the archives at the Kennedy Library in Boston.)

He could have been governor about the time Bill Clinton was getting into politics, but he liked working out of sight, and he did two lasting things for his state. He wrote a revenue stabilization act, which restored the state's tattered credit and to this day requires a balanced budget, and effectively ended imaginative election-night counting in certain rural counties when he pushed through the legislation to replace paper ballots with voting machines. Even the corrupt country boys respected him. A few days after his voting-machine initiative succeeded, one of them told him: "You're OK, Judge Smith. We knew you wanted those voting machines, so on election night we gave you some extra votes."

He built the largest and the most influential law firm in Arkansas (no scandal ever attached) and he was "the governor's man" for five of 'em, the last being Orval Faubus. He called and wrote to me often during the early Clinton years, in an ever more spidery hand, to call my attention to slurs he read against the place he loved. He taught a Sunday school class at the First Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock (Hillary's home church) for many years, and wrote a little book about the religious faith of all our presidents, from George Washington on. I wrote to thank him for the excerpts we printed in The Times and Judge Smith (like the president, the father of a daughter), replied:

"Most of all, I thank you for the compliments you express so well for the two women in my life. Each has had a great impact on me and they have challenged me to try to be more than just another lawyer, husband and father." The voice of the authentic Arkansas man, loud and clear.

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