- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

LITTLE ROCK — The construction crew refers to it as “The Mobile Home.” Others say it looks like a Star Wars diner. A shuttle pod on stilts.

At night, the futuristic gleaming silver-and-glass structure on the southern bank of the Arkansas River actually resembles a guitar fret board. Elvis lives.

“A glorified house trailer,” former President Bill Clinton joked at a luncheon here yesterday to kick off the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. “That’s me. I’m a little red and a little blue.”

And a little pale, in a burgundy tie.

“He looks very tired,” said Jo Parker, 64, a longtime supporter from Waldron, which is just up Highway 71 from Needmore. “And thin. That’s part of the heart thing. I think he’ll stay thin.”



Mr. Clinton — recovering from heart-bypass surgery — barely resembles the pudgy, pink-cheeked good ol’ boy in the Polaroids tacked up in every eating and drinking establishment in town. His hair is snow white, and his face looks drawn.

Still, the Bubba-fest goes on.

Big hair, big smiles, friendly drawls and snakeskin boots. (Note to Hillary: The sod is still spongy, so leave the Manolos at home). Slick Willie jokes and saxophones. Steaks as thick as encyclopedias at Doe’s Eat Place (where ABC anchorman Peter Jennings was chowing down and signing autographs) and Whole Hawg barbecue platters smothered in hot sauce. Thirty thousand invited guests. One thousand journalists. One thousand volunteers. Two dozen parties. Ten thousand pounds of pulled pork for one barbecue alone. Tents. TV trucks. Ozarka Spring Water, sweet tea and jammin’ at Sticky Fingerz with Bono and the Edge from U2 and Better than Ezra. Even better than Ezra, wailing with Aretha Franklin and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra tonight with Mr. Clinton in the audience.

Al Franken is here. So are Cicely Tyson and Quincy Jones. As are the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg. Former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier is signing his new cookbook. (“Clinton’s favorite? Cherry pie.”) Every hotel room booked, every rental car rented, ATMs out of moola. The ding of the new downtown streetcars and the whir of helicopters overhead.

President Bush and former Presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter will speak at tomorrow’s dedication ceremony. The weeklong bash is something of a coronation for Mr. Clinton, the Comeback Kid who came back home with his trailer full of memorabilia: 2 million photographs, 18 million pages of documents, 75,000 gifts and 80 million e-mail messages.

And what better site to store his legacy — tarnished or not — than a scruffy, previously decrepit part of town which, like the boy from Hope, shined up like a new penny. In fact, the whole town smells like fresh mulch.

The trash has been picked up. The lights down Main Street (mostly, like a lot of Main Streets, boarded up) are twinkling. The city picked itself up and began moving west, up the Arkansas River, several years ago. The Clinton library, at the edge of the bustling River District, is counted on to bring back downtown.

There’s red, white and blue bunting and a museum store stocked with $24 “Hope” ties, $5.95 mouse pads with a picture of former White House cat Socks, $62 Clinton golf shirts, jewelry from Washington-based designer Ann Hand, Bill Clinton cuff links, Christmas ornaments, dishes, mint julep cups, faux White House china, Clinton dolls (“Watch him Move and Groove to the Soulful Sounds of his Sax”), playing cards, key chains and “Bill Clinton’s all-time favorite microwave popcorn.” The only thing missing is a Bill Clinton bedpan.

“We can’t find this stuff in California,” said Jean Short, a retired teacher from Healdsburg, Calif., who is here for the dedication. She was buying “light stuff” like coffee cups to take home.

Like Graceland, the Clinton library is a shrine to a mythical figure, a figure whose esteem is based more on having been a pop-culture icon than an occupant of the White House.

The good news, Mr. Clinton told his luncheon audience, is that he can speak his mind. The bad news, “nobody has to listen because I don’t have any power anymore.”

How the faithful would disagree.

“I think he did wonderful,” says Ms. Parker, who worked on Mr. Clinton’s first gubernatorial campaign. “He’s got such a global outlook now. And so much to give.”

Speaking of giving, the library was funded by private donors. But like the other presidential libraries, it will be maintained at taxpayer expense. The names of many of the donors are etched in small bricks decorating the entrance: “Betty Currie and Socks Clinton”; “Anthony T. Garza I Love Ya Bill!”; “Bill Barnett, Washington, D.C.”

One brick is missing: Denise Rich, whose husband was pardoned by Mr. Clinton on his way out of office, is said to have rewarded the library with a $400,000 donation.

Of course, there are a few protesters with handmade signs saying, “Clinton Raped Juanita,” referring to former campaign supporter Juanita Broaddrick. And political humor.

“We’re here to celebrate the last successful American president,” Mr. Franken told a sold-out $150-a-head audience Monday night. “Twenty-two million jobs created by Clinton. That’s about 23 million more than the present administration. If Bush had run this country from its very inception to the present day, not one American would have ever worked.”

Pause.

“We’d be hunters and gatherers. We’d be fighting over roots.”

The Clinton library, supporters say, could draw up to 300,000 tourists a year to Little Rock, generating an estimated $17.5 million in sales. But not everyone in town is convinced that the rest of America wants to pore over Mr. Clinton’s papers while on vacation.

“I don’t see people saying, ‘Let’s not go to Fort Lauderdale. Let’s go to Little Rock instead,’ ” says 29-year-old Allen Pennington, tending bar at Brave New Restaurant across town. “It’s not going to happen.”

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