The largest presidential archive in the United States, located in Little Rock, Arkansas, looks at the accomplishments of the country’s 42nd president.
By Pamela Selbert
Over the past 15 years we’ve found all sorts of reasons to visit Little Rock, Arkansas. Attractions in the state capital are numerous: the Old State House Museum, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, the Little Rock Zoo, and the state capitol come to mind. What’s more, this town of 200,000 is not far from a host of mines where you can dig your own glittery quartz crystals, and only a couple of hours from the only diamond mine in the world where you can prospect and keep whatever treasure you unearth.
Since our first visit, during which we spent an entire day roaming the Old State House, learning Arkansas history, Little Rock has put on a brighter face. Empty-eyed warehouses have been turned into restaurants, weed-strewn fields along the river have been replaced with elegant new buildings, abandoned bridges have been turned into pedestrian walkways, and new museums have been established. Once-desolate streets where not long ago you could have fired a cannon and hit no one now teem with cars and pedestrians. It’s an amazing revival.
One of the town’s more recent developments honors Arkansas’ most famous native son: President Bill Clinton. He served as the state’s attorney general (elected in 1976) and as a five-term governor (first elected in 1978, and again in 1982 and for three more terms). The site is the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, part of the Clinton Presidential Center, which also includes the Clinton Foundation (Little Rock office) and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The library opened in November 2004 and is a fine tribute to the 42nd president of the United States.
We came close to meeting Mr. Clinton once when he was governor and we were touring the state capitol accompanied by the former head of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, Tyler Hardeman (who seemed capable of arranging just about anything). He spoke briefly with the governor and learned a meeting at that time would not be possible. We weren’t too disappointed (“Bill who?”) since we knew little about him, and had no idea that less than three years later he would be president.
We’ve been on something of a quest the last five years or so to tour every presidential library within a reasonable drive. All are impressive, but none more so than the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Architecturally, it’s unusual: a gleaming glass and steel structure suspended over the edge of the Arkansas River “” reminiscent of the president’s well-known speech about building a bridge to the 21st century. And inside is the largest presidential library, in terms of documents, photographs, and artifacts, within the system (nearly 77 million pages of paper documents, close to 2 million photographs, and more than 75,000 artifacts). The library is located on President Clinton Avenue just east of downtown, a site formerly occupied by empty fields. Yellow and red trolleys now are available to ferry visitors from the parking lot.
The Rock Island Bridge, adjacent to the center, which had served the Union Pacific Railroad, is now being restored for pedestrians and will link both sides of the Arkansas River, where a total of 19 miles of lovely (mostly new) pathways follow the river.
We figured it would take us a couple of hours to see the museum, but it turned into four, and even at that, because the exhibits on two packed floors are so extensive, we felt we’d barely skimmed the surface. We also had another potential Clinton encounter. The former president, we learned from volunteer guide William Mosley, had spent the previous night and much of this day on the premises.
Mr. Clinton was in Little Rock to attend the funeral of Carl Whillock, a political adviser who aided the future president’s first attempts to run for a public office. While in town, Mr. Clinton attended a reception held at the library. Mr. Mosley explained that the top floor (the ground floor is small, housing only ticketing, a presidential limousine, a couple of Clinton videos, and an exhibit that explains the work of the U.S. Secret Service) has an apartment for the former first family. It’s so private that no one outside its builders, the Secret Service, and the former president himself knows its layout or number of rooms, Mosley said.
The library’s second level contains the main gallery space, the design of which was inspired, we read, by the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland. Hundreds of snippets of information make up a timeline and exhibits tell of the two Clinton presidential campaigns (1992 and 1996) and policy during the Clinton administration. But before roaming among these displays, we recommend viewing the 12-minute orientation film, which focuses on the president’s life and political career in its historical context.
Mr. Clinton is on-screen throughout and narrates the video. To say it’s self-serving (as is the rest of the library) would be an understatement, but it’s all expertly done. And whatever you thought of him going into this hall, you will leave impressed with his accomplishments while in office. For one, he managed to balance the budget “” something no other president since has been able to do.
Despite President Clinton’s many accomplishments in office, his administration is often remembered in the context of his peccadilloes, which are not discussed at the library. The only mention of the impeachment proceedings is to say they were prompted by a “Republican quest for power, not over the Constitution or rule of law.”
We paid our admission fee after going through an unexpected security check “” prompted by the events of September 11, 2001 “” then worked our way past a host of exhibits, all sprinkled with Clinton quotes and accompanied by videos. Among the many categories are “Putting People First,” wherein the president is said to have “worked to improve the quality of care, extending health care to millions of middle class Americans”; and “Science and Technology,” wherein Mr. Clinton “worked to make sure genetics and biotechnology would serve humanity without undermining our values, freedoms, and rights.” Other exhibits focus on “Learning Across a Lifetime” and “Building One America.”
We found the timeline of Mr. Clinton’s presidency, which outlines his accomplishments during his eight years in office, especially interesting. For example, he signed the Brady Bill into law (1993); helped restore democracy to Haiti (1994); and offered a balanced budget (1995). Also, he increased the minimum wage by 90 cents an hour (1996); signed the Balanced Budget Act (1997); vowed to save Social Security (1998); and held a Middle East peace summit, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David (2000).
Also on display are dozens of letters to President and Mrs. Clinton from celebrities “” among them Whoopi Goldberg, Dom DeLuise, Mother Teresa, Fred Rogers, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Paul Newman.
A record of some of Hillary Clinton’s efforts as first lady is included in the collection. She worked to improve health care, education, child care, and foster care, and to preserve a number of historical monuments, sites, and artifacts. Also, she was the first professional woman to be first lady, the first to have an office in the West Wing, and the first to launch her own political campaign (being elected to the Senate in 2001).
The imposing replica of the White House Cabinet Room includes a 24-foot oval table with eight computer stations where visitors can learn about specific decisions made by then-President Clinton, and how his administration was organized. A plaque explains that the White House Cabinet Room in Washington, D.C., has been the “center of every president’s decision-making since it was added to the West Wing by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902.”
The third level of the library includes “Life in the White House,” offering more personal glimpses into the Clinton presidency. Here, a table is elegantly set for a state dinner. One entire wall displays state gifts, many of them worthy of a raja or king: a sword and gold sheath from Saudi Arabia; a silver elephant from Thailand; and a painting of the Colosseum in Rome from Pope John Paul II.
A row of gold saxophones sent to Mr. Clinton as gifts from officials in Japan, China, Poland, and the Czech Republic can be viewed, among many other items. White House holiday celebrations are documented in exhibits, and the Clintons’ pets “” Buddy the dog and Socks the cat “” are remembered in paintings and other art. Another extensive exhibit that winds through several rooms recalls Mr. Clinton’s love of music, with displays of Elvis memorabilia, paintings, videos, and more.
The Oval Office is re-created here, too, faithful to the original with a bronze replica of Remington’s “Bronco Buster,” striped red and cream silk couches, and a reproduction of Childe Hassam’s patriotic “Avenue in the Rain.”
We thought the most unusual item displayed at the library was a gift from glass artist Dale Chihuly, a 10-foot-high sculpture made of white and gold glass in dozens of slender shapes titled “Crystal Tree of Light.” It was one of two pieces created to celebrate the new millennium, and was donated to the library the year it opened. The other piece was installed in the Grand Foyer of the White House.
The Clinton Library and Museum may be the most imposing new addition to town, but it isn’t the only one. If you have not visited Little Rock in awhile, you will want to cruise North Little Rock to the recently opened Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. It’s home to the USS Razorback, the world’s longest-serving submarine. Launched in 1944, the sub was awarded five battle stars in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and took part with 11 other subs in Japan’s formal surrender. Later it won four stars during the Vietnam War. It was sold to the Turkish Navy in 1970, and recommissioned and used in the Black Sea and along the Marmara Sea coast until 2001. Three years later it was sold to the city of North Little Rock to be part of the museum.
Tours of the sub, each for a maximum of eight people, are available, but you must be able to climb up and down 12-foot ladders unassisted, and not have claustrophobia (no joke). If by chance you don’t qualify, you still can enjoy a video in the museum. Memorabilia and photographs also can be viewed.
Eventually the museum also will be home to the USS Hoga, a 100-foot-long tugboat that served at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It’s the last surviving operable Navy vessel active during the Japanese attack in Hawaii. The tug later served Oakland, California, for 45 years as a fireboat. It and the USS Razorback represent the beginning and end of America’s involvement in World War II. As of this writing, problems resulting from Hurricane Katrina were delaying the tugboat’s arrival in Little Rock.
Visitors who’d like to “roll on the river” will want to consider riding on a replica of the steamboat Arkansas Queen, which offers a variety of narrated cruises, day and night, April through December (it’s also open for charters, parties, and other groups in March). Views from the water include Little Rock and North Little Rock skylines, parks on both sides of the river, the Clinton Presidential Center, and even the fabled “Little Rock,” a small rock formation on the south bank of the Arkansas River that was used by early-day river travelers, and is the capital city’s namesake.
Other notable points of interest in the area include the Aerospace Education Center and IMAX Theater, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center, and the River Market Entertainment District. Contact the Heart of Arkansas Travel Association for more information.
And be sure to add the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum to your list of American presidential libraries to stop and see during your travels.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
1200 President Clinton Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission is $7 for adults ages 18 to 61; $5 for seniors, college students, and retired military; $3 for ages 6 to 17; free to children 5 and under. Hour-long audio tours are now available that feature Clinton giving his perspective on the exhibits.
Heart of Arkansas Travel Association
P.O. Box 3232
Little Rock, AR 72203