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24 hours in Little Rock

Visit to Clinton Library, Arkansas State Capitol worth the trip

April 22, 2013

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Why would an Arizonan hop on a plane and fly more than 1,100 miles at his own expense just to spend 24 hours in Little Rock, Arkansas?

Actually, there are two reasons:  Arkansas is one of just two states that I have not yet visited.  Planting my flag on all 50 states is on my bucket list, and now that I’m in my 50s, I’m starting to attack the list with a greater sense of urgency (I visited my 50th and final state – Idaho — in 2016:

A sign greets visitors at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock.

The other reason?  Bill Clinton.

This is a non-partisan blog but I’ll admit that I’ve always been a fan of William Jefferson Clinton.  And his inspiring and critically acclaimed speech this past summer at the Democratic National Convention got me thinking about visiting his presidential library in Little Rock.

With ASU on a two-day fall recess, and some soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles at my disposal, it was a perfect time to make a quick trip to my 49th state.

Entrance to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

Technically, Arkansas is considered a Republican or “red” state. But as soon as I got off the plane, I could see how much pride its residents have in a couple of high-profile Democrats.  There, at the top of an escalator heading down to baggage claim, was a sign welcoming me to “Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.”

Turns out, the city renamed the airport after the Clintons earlier this year.

I headed to a non-descript airport hotel and was up early the following morning for a 15-minute drive into downtown Little Rock for the highlight of my trip – a visit to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

The Clinton Presidential Library has more than 90,000 artifacts. 

This library, which is really more of a museum, is one of only 13 official presidential libraries in the country administered by the National Archives.  The Clinton Library was the 11th; it opened in 2004.  The Nixon Library followed three years later and #13 — the George W. Bush Presidential Library — is scheduled to open next summer in Dallas.

My $7 admission ticket included a tour, so I joined a guide named David and about a dozen other visitors for a 90-minute walk around the three-story facility.

On display were 90,000 artifacts from the eight years Clinton was president, including a full-scale reconstruction of the Oval Office during his administration and a replica of the White House Cabinet Room.

There was personal correspondence from world leaders and movie stars, a collection of the president’s saxophones, and even an exhibit devoted to the “first pets” – Buddy and Socks.

A replica of the Oval Office at the Clinton Presidential Library.  

Despite all of his accomplishments in office, the first thing that many Americans think of when recalling the Clinton presidency is the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  His self-admitted inappropriate behavior with the White House intern led to only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.

I was especially curious about how the library would handle this. Would the scandal even be mentioned at all?  Yes, libraries are supposed to celebrate presidential achievements and triumphs, but what about historical accuracy?

“It has to be here,” said David, when he led our group to an alcove called “The Fight for Power.” He added the National Archives never would have agreed to grant official status to the library had it not addressed the matter, just as the Nixon library was required to deal with Watergate.

The exhibit addressing the Clinton impeachment and Lewinsky scandal at the Clinton Presidential Library.

Yes, the impeachment was mentioned as part of the one exhibit, but in very little detail. Monica’s name was mentioned a grand total of two times. “The Fight for Power” also briefly recounted the Whitewater real estate scandal and other attacks on the Clinton presidency. The following sentence pretty much sums up the tone of this exhibit:

“The impeachment battle was not about the Constitution or rule of law, but was instead a quest for power that the President’s opponents could not win at the ballot box.”

One floor above, there was another exhibit involving cheating of a different sort. And it’s also requiring some finesse on the part of museum administrators on how to handle it.

A bicycle and jersey used by Lance Armstrong during one of his seven Tour de France titles.

It’s a bicycle and autographed jersey used by Lance Armstrong during one of his seven Tour de France titles. Now that Armstrong has been stripped of his titles amidst doping allegations backed by more than 1,000 pages of evidence, I asked David if he thought the jersey and bike would still be on display two years from now.

“Probably not two months from now,” he said.

I wish I had more time to explore the Clinton Library, but there were only a few hours left before I had to head back to the airport and there was still more of Little Rock I wanted to see.

I walked outside, found myself on President Clinton Ave., and turned right onto the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. This bridge, built only for pedestrians and cyclists, traverses the Arkansas River and offers wonderful views of the Little Rock skyline.  

View of downtown Little Rock from the Clinton Bridge.

Then it was time for some serious walking.  I wanted to see the Arkansas State Capitol so – with a map in my back pocket – I started my journey. I walked through a pleasant, touristy area of shops and restaurants called the River Market District.

As I continued to head west, the downtown became a bit rundown and I started wondering if I should have driven instead. Finally, after about an hour, I arrived at the State Capitol. Fortunately, the weather couldn’t have been better – sunny with temps in the mid-70s with a cool breeze blowing off the Arkansas River.

The Arkansas State Capitol, built between 1899-1915 on the site of an old penitentiary, bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Both are built in the Neoclassical style with similar-shaped domes, although the building in Little Rock is only a bit more than half the size of its Washington counterpart.

The Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

I enjoy touring state capitols and was pleased to learn that a group of students was coming at 2 p.m. and that I was welcome to join them.

While I waited for the tour to start, I looked around. On the atrium of the second floor, I found a portrait of a very young-looking Bill Clinton. I was surprised to learn that he was first elected governor of Arkansas in 1978 at the age of just 32.

The school group never arrived, so I ended up with a private tour.  A young lady named April took me inside the Governor’s Reception Room, the former Supreme Court Chamber, and the House Chamber. The Arkansas Legislature wasn’t in session – it only meets a few weeks each year — so the building seemed relatively sedate.

A portrait of a young Gov. Bill Clinton hangs inside the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.  

Outside the capitol, I found several monuments, including sculptures of the Little Rock Nine.  This was a group of African-American students who courageously helped desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, a seminal event in America’s civil rights movement.

It was now time to head back to the airport.  My 24 hours in Little Rock had just about expired.

I wouldn’t have minded spending another day or two in Arkansas, particularly to see nearby Hot Springs National Park, about which I’ve read rave reviews.

But I had accomplished my objectives.  I had learned much more about the man who left the White House with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II.  And I had checked one more state off the list.

Forty-nine down, one to go.

© 2012 Dan Fellner


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