Clinton Presidential Library

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library sits on the edge of a rapidly redeveloping area in downtown Little Rock, on the banks of the Arkansas River. Your impression of the building will probably be driven by your view of Clinton himself. If you are a fan of his, the building will appear as a sleek, modern but unfinished ‘Bridge to the 21st Century', cantilevered out toward the river.

For those of you who view Clinton less generously, you’ll probably think the library looks like an oversized single-wide trailer up on concrete blocks! Either way, it’s a dramatic site, sitting next to an old railroad bridge crossing the river.

Some interesting trivia we learned at the museum:

• Did you know that at the start of WWII, the only armored vehicle (i.e.. presidential limo) that the federal government had for the protection of the president was one seized from Al Capone?

• Also, did you know that Ulysses Grant secretly swore in Rutherford Hayes 2 days before the public inauguration, fearing a coup (it was a extremely contested election, making Bush-Gore look like child’s play)?

• Finally, which President had a name change? (Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe. His father died before he was born, and he was adopted and renamed when his mother remarried Roger Clinton).

Just to get this out of the way – how did they deal with Monica? Answer – they didn’t, other than a brief allusion to ‘personal failings’ on Clinton’s part. The impeachment was presented straight-on, in a rather defiant manner, treating it as a partisan power-grab by Newt Gingrich and the Republican party.

Anyway, onto Clinton – his father died before he was born, and he was largely raised by his grandparents, who owned a store in a black neighborhood. His mother later married Roger Clinton, who adopted Bill. Roger Clinton suffered from alcoholism, and also died young.

The library chronicles both Bill and Hillary’s education (including his stint as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford), their courtship, Bill’s decision to return to Arkansas (where he became a professor of law), and his entry into politics, resulting in him becoming the youngest governor in the country. From there his long shot entry into the presidential race is described.

The best way to describe the museum is how personalized it is. Clinton himself narrates the introductory film, as well as an optional audio tour, where he comments on the various display topics. There are many media stations chock-full of information, such as descriptions and backgrounds of cabinet members (located in a mock-up of the White House Cabinet room), and a multi-media tour of the White House, where Clinton gives personalized descriptions of the different rooms. The museum makes no bones about being partisan, and at times some displays are almost defiant in it’s disdain for the Republican party (Newt Gingrich in particular) during the time of Clinton’s presidency.

The main area of the museum is done up like a set of library stacks. Down the middle is a large time line area, listing accomplishments of the administration (as well as setbacks). Organized by year, it contains events, articles, and video clips. Of great interest to thumb through are the daily appointment books, listing the President's schedule for each day.

Off to the sides were about a dozen ‘policy and topic’ areas. Each one addressed a specific area of focus – Technology, Education, Political Power (which was largely about the impeachment), Environmental, International affairs, etc…. The displays were very well done, including a lot of video clips. The focus was on what Clinton accomplished, hoped to accomplish, or was still working on accomplishing in each area.

The upper level was more focused on the White House itself – a mock up of the Oval Office, and something I really enjoyed, a step by step display of what it took to pull together a state dinner.

For a presidency that was largely overshadowed by Clinton’s personal failings, or investigations into real estate deals that happened 20 years prior to him taking office (Whitewater), there is quite a bit of substance to his presidency, which the museum does a great job of highlighting. In a time when our foreign policy seems to be no more sophisticated than ‘Stay the course’ or ‘We’ll fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight them here’, it was hard not to be impressed with the number of peace treaties signed or brokered, and real accomplishments such as balancing the budget and NAFTA, largely accomplished with an opposition party holding Congress.

If you are a Clinton fan, you’ll really enjoy the library. If not, stay away because it’ll probably start your blood to a slow boil….There is a lot of information, and Bill is on virtual display everywhere at his charming best. Also, the food in the cafeteria (more a full fledged restaurant) was really good!

Vance: The Clinton Library was huge. It had four floors in all. The basement was the café. It mostly talked about Clinton’s term on the third floor. The second floor was the main entrance.

The fourth floor talked about the Clintons living at the White House. His office was the Oval Office. It had many things representing other former Presidents. There was a comedy movie on the fourth floor. Finally, when we left, Mom made a joke about the Library looking like a giant Mobile Home!


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