- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Clinton brand has arrived in Little Rock — and Arkansas.

Anticipating the opening of former President Clinton’s $160 million presidential library complex come Nov. 18, the city and state have loosed the Clinton cachet as a beacon for tourism.

“It’s not just a matter of us positioning Clinton,” said Skip Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation. “There is already a huge interest out there in the man and his presidency.”

The library, Mr. Rutherford said, “has become an economic engine for Arkansas.”

And with potential attendees including former presidents and celebrities, “the library opening will be a big deal, a really big deal,” he added.

And Mr. Clinton remains a marketing magnet.

There are Bill Clinton trading cards, a Bill Clinton-recommended reading list, Bill Clinton collectibles, a Bill Clinton art exhibit and a Bill Clinton cookbook — all trading upon an image of Mr. Clinton that is somewhere between Elvis and an international statesman.

The new and city-approved “Guided Tour of President Clinton’s Little Rock” includes stops at the Rose Law Firm, Doe’s Eat Place, McDonald’s, Rebsamen Golf Course and the Bill Clinton Presidential ballroom at the Holiday Inn. The tour culminates at the five-story, 20,000-square-foot steel and glass library itself — complete with Oval Office replica — right there on President Clinton Avenue.

But Nov. 18 draws nigh, billed as the biggest international event “in Arkansas history” by city event planners.

The library and the hubbub surrounding it is the crown jewel of “Arkansas Globecoming,” an aggressive marketing campaign set forth by a half dozen groups, including the Arkansas Press Association, the city of Little Rock and the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation.

“The opening of the Clinton Presidential Center is a significant moment in the history of our nation, our state, our city,” noted Ellen Plummer of the Arkansas Arts Center, which is developing a presidential-themed exhibit that includes “works unique to the Clinton administration.”

For months, various cultural and commerce officials have ridden about the countryside in an old Clinton/Gore campaign bus from the 1992 presidential election, promoting Arkansas as a prime tourist destination, with the Clinton library as an “international attraction,” according to Richard Davies of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

And they do mean international.

The department will spend $130,000 on a publicity campaign in Britain and Ireland, billing Arkansas as a kind of gateway of Americana — just a country hop, skip and a jump from New Orleans and Memphis.

Indeed, in a savvy cross-marketing effort, the Little Rock Visitors Bureau has built partnerships with the National Civil Rights Museum and Elvis Presley’s home Graceland in Memphis, crafting civil rights- and history-themed tours for international visitors who “want to get inside America,” spokesman Daniel O’Byrne said at a press conference last year.

Little Rock National Airport, in the meantime, has asked civic leaders for $1 million to spruce up its entrance and landscaping for the library opening in November.

“Every living president will be in Little Rock, which will be exciting,” one official told the airport planning commission Jan. 24.

But no one has forgotten the down home side of things.

When one retailer unearthed 800 forgotten jigsaw puzzles depicting Mr. Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, in an “American Gothic” pose with pitchfork and overalls, the city of Little Rock quickly scooped them up, billing them as “rare, out-of-print Clinton collectibles.”

The puzzles were handed out free of charge before Christmas.

Meanwhile, Little Rock Tours now offers a daylong bus journey to Mr. Clinton’s boyhood home in Hope, with a stopover in Hot Springs.

The tour promises “small town charm” and glimpses of the former president’s high school and “favorite hangouts,” not to mention lunch right there in Hope, staged in a “quaint cafe in ‘The Watermelon Capital of the World.’”

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