When Bill Clinton left the White House 13 years ago and repaired to New York with his family, Arkansas was left with the legacy of seven years of investigations and ruined reputations instead of the vast dividend of public works and national good will that some had expected of a favorite-son presidency.
It was some recompense when a presidential library and a graduate school of public service, loosely affiliated with the new William J. Clinton Foundation, settled on the south bank of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock. The library became a major tourist attraction (in 2013 its visitors surpassed three million) and the adjoining institutions bearing his name became a magnet for upscale development all along the old riverfront street that was renamed President Clinton Avenue.
Besides the hotels, restaurants and museums, the attractions include one of the nation’s most advanced urban library systems, built by longtime Clinton adviser Bobby Roberts; riverside parks, a state wildlife center and a new international headquarters and nature park for Heifer Project, the global hunger-relief group run at the time by Clinton’s former state parks director.
Clinton’s foundation became the world’s fastest-growing nongovernmental organization, and the globetrotting former president won international acclaim for his foundation’s work to combat sickness, poverty and the fruits of climate change in the third world and parts of the United States. Even the billionaire scion of the Mellon fortune who had bankrolled the Arkansas scandal industry when Clinton was president converted to admirer and said he never meant any harm.
A few dividends for Arkansas after all?
Then, in 2013, Clinton seemed to turn more of his personal attention to his native state, some of it celebratory and some of it political, like advancing the political careers of a generation of Clinton acolytes and the former first lady of Arkansas and carrying the torch for an unpopular president’s health initiative in one of the unhealthiest states in the union.
So it is as good a year as any to recognize the accumulation of all those works, whether they were for good or ill, with the Times’ designation as the 2013 Arkansan of the Year — if not Clinton individually then the whole family, whose names now adorn the foundation, and the coterie of friends and followers who are involved in all those enterprises.
Let’s call the honoree Clinton Inc.
There was opposition to renaming the old East Markham Street for Clinton from enemies who thought the impeached president had disgraced the city and state and also churlish criticism that, once he was a private citizen again, Clinton had shown his true colors by shunning Arkansas for the lights of the big city so that his wife could run for senator in New York. In spite of his impeachment, though, Clinton enjoyed extraordinary national popularity for a departing president, and it would rise ever higher as he and his foundation undertook the work of combating AIDS and poverty in Africa, Asia and South America while other ex-presidents (except Jimmy Carter) shuffled into quiescence or padded their bank accounts with big consulting and speaking fees.
The Clinton Foundation — it was renamed the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation last year to recognize their initiatives; Chelsea, especially, is said to have taken a more active role in the direction and management of the foundation — started as an effort to build a health-care system in Africa that would bring down the prohibitive cost of drugs for HIV/AIDS and generally address the pandemic. That broadened into the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which was to improve access to medicine and treatment globally — in the developing world initially and eventually communities in the United States, as well.
Every year, following Clinton’s life pattern, he saw something else the foundation could be doing and started an initiative to address it in some way: climate change, poverty, underdevelopment, the Haiti disaster, women’s rights and female health. After his own heart bypass surgery, he said, “Hey, we ought to do something about childhood obesity,” and joined with the American Heart Association to start the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. So began another Clinton initiative.
But the special Clinton genius was to get others — rich people, business and government leaders around the world and the like — to join him in whatever he wanted to do. In 2005 and 2006 he persuaded 2,300 people, companies and organizations to commit $73.5 billion to the Clinton Global Initiative, which would try to implement the Clinton ideas about improving the world.
His library at Little Rock, the Clinton Presidential Center, played some role, hosting symposiums and other events that advanced the causes, a few of which began to focus on Arkansas.
Last March, Clinton came to town to announce still another Clinton initiative, Kiva City Little Rock, an undertaking with Visa to increase the availability of microloans to small businesses and entrepreneurs in Central Arkansas through a type of crowdfunding, where people pool their money through the Internet to capitalize new or expanding businesses in exchange for a small share of the equity. The JOBS Act, signed by President Obama in 2012, described the idea.
In December, Clinton was back to announce that another Clinton initiative, Health Matters, was going to focus on the Little Rock area. Partnering with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and other groups, Health Matters is supposed to induce people, especially the poor, to abandon their unhealthy lifestyles — don’t smoke, eat better, exercise, get insured, etc. — to end the disparity in the health status of communities.
The Clinton School of Public Service, a graduate program affiliated with the University of Arkansas, is sort of a field station for all the Clinton ideas about helping the poor and benighted of the world bootstrap themselves to a better life. Housed in the remodeled Choctaw Station that Rock Island built in 1899, the school selects 40 to 50 college graduates every year, typically idealistic young men and women who want to devote their lives to the kind of service all those Clinton initiatives envision. The school talks about building leaders through civic engagement — “academics for the real world,” it proclaims — and it sends students into the surrounding community, east Arkansas, Africa and Latin America for laboratory work, in places like orphanages, homeless shelters, African villages, schools and community centers. Last summer, its 44 students worked in 20 countries.
The school has accumulated no debt for buildings, using for auditoriums, classrooms and research the nearby Central Arkansas Library campus that librarian and Clinton friend Bobby Roberts has expanded in recent years to include a theater (opening this week) and the architecturally eclectic Arkansas Studies Institute, an archive and center for Arkansas history research.
Aside from its mission, the Clinton School has won a big following in Central Arkansas with its lecture series, begun for the students but widened for many of the lectures to anyone from the community who will make a reservation, or who doesn’t. Statesmen, thinkers and authors, owing to the Clinton name, are eager to go to the Clinton School to lecture at little or no expense. Among the speakers have been nine former presidents or prime ministers, 19 Pulitzer Prize winners, six Nobel Prize winners and 37 ambassadors.
The lectures, about 100 a year, are often so popular that the school has to move them to the big convention auditoriums a few blocks west of the school.
Since leaving Washington, the Clintons — mostly Bill but occasionally Hillary or Chelsea — have spent 10 to 20 days a year in Arkansas, speaking at dedications, book promotions and conferences and, for Clinton, the funerals of old friends. Last year, he flew back to deliver eulogies for Rudy Moore Jr. of Fayetteville, his longtime friend and chief of staff, and Michael Cornwell of Danville, an early supporter whom he appointed to the Game and Fish Commission.
In April, Chelsea Clinton came to town to pitch in on Global Youth Services Day at the Rice Depot and to participate in a fundraiser for Ballet Arkansas, which she performed with as a girl.
In May, her parents were down for the renaming ceremony for the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport and the opening reception for Clinton friend Oscar de la Renta and his fashion exhibit at the Presidential Center. They returned in July for the dedication of Bobby Roberts’ newest library, the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center, a glassy building with a theater, reading and computer rooms and a teaching kitchen centered in a nature park on the blighted side of the interstate that divides midtown from the mostly poor and racially mixed neighborhoods to the south. The library’s name recognized Hillary’s contributions to Arkansas children by drafting the education reforms of 1983, founding Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and working for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Defense Fund.
In September, Clinton obliged a request from President Obama and undertook a campaign to promote the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. He chose to begin in his home state, where the president’s approval rating was near the lowest in the country but where the Republican legislature had implemented the one big part of the law that states could reject. The hour-long nationally televised speech was a tour de force but it was soon neutered by the technological disaster in the initial signup. Although as a young senator in 2006 Obama had come to Arkansas to campaign for Beebe, he had avoided returning to a state where polls showed he was widely hated.
On Oct. 1 and 2, Clinton presided at a symposium at the Presidential Center on the Bosnian war, timed for the Central Intelligence Agency’s release of confidential intelligence on the conflict, spoke at the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam at Heber Springs and spoke at a jobs fair for Arkansas veterans.
During the White House years and afterward, Clinton was often on the telephone with old Arkansas friends. Governor Beebe, who was his floor leader in the state Senate for much of Clinton’s gubernatorial reign, says Clinton calls every couple of months. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, who retired from the U.S. Senate in his last term, continue to get calls from Clinton to talk about his problems or Arkansas politics or, it seems, just to reminisce. The calls are never brief.
When he was in town last month for the celebratory lighting of the presidential bridge and two other downtown bridges, Clinton summoned his early campaign driver, Mike Ross, to his apartment in the Presidential Center to strategize Ross’ campaign for governor. Ross was elected to the state Senate with Clinton’s help in 1990 and was an ally for Clinton’s final legislative session. He was elected to Congress in 2000 and took office just as Clinton was leaving.
Aside from friendship, Clinton has a special reason for raising money and laboring in other ways for Ross in 2014, as he had for Beebe in 2006: their Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson (presuming Hutchinson wins the Republican nomination for governor). Hutchinson, then a congressman from the district where Clinton got his start, prosecuted Clinton in his impeachment trial in the Senate in 1998 for not being forthright about his Oval Office dalliance with an intern. Clinton has a lifelong urge to appease his enemies, but not that one, or Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel.
In fact, the 2014 election in Arkansas is shaping up as sort of a Clinton plebiscite. He came to Little Rock for Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign opener and fund-raiser. Like Ross, Pryor served in Clinton’s last state legislature and his father was perhaps Clinton’s closest confidante during his presidency. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg began running ads in Arkansas last summer attacking Pryor for voting against a nationally popular gun-control bill, Clinton called a close Bloomberg associate to stop the ads. They continued for a while.
John Burkhalter, the leading candidate for lieutenant governor, is an old friend and supporter.
He helped persuade James Lee Witt, a star in both his Little Rock and Washington administrations, to run for the House of Representatives from the 4th District. Witt, a former Yell County county judge, reorganized Arkansas’s emergency services and did the same in Washington. The Federal Energy Management Agency became a showcase for government that worked.
Pat Hays, the only announced Democratic candidate for Congress from the 2nd District, served in the state House of Representatives before he became mayor of North Little Rock and was part of the team of Clinton friends who campaigned in presidential primary states for Clinton in 1992. Clinton flew to Little Rock last January for the opening of an exhibition on the work of Hays and other FOBs (Friends of Bill) in that election.
Two former aides of the president went to work last year for the Southern Progress Fund, an effort led by former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to balance the scales of money flowing into Arkansas and other Deep South states for Republican candidates for state offices.
Another pair of Arkansas politicos with associations with the Clintons recently joined an offshoot of the super PAC American Bridge called “Correct the Record,” an effort to push back against attacks against Democratic presidential candidates, yet another sign that Hillary Clinton will indeed run in 2016. Early campaign efforts in the state are already quietly underway, led by old Clinton friends like Sheila Bronfman and former Gen. Wes Clark. There’s some hope of Arkansas being one of the few winnable states for Hillary. That’s a proposition many Arkansas Democrats are sure to allude to on the campaign trail.
One national journal said the 2014 Arkansas elections would be a test of Clinton’s lingering popularity and influence in a state he left 22 years ago. That was when Arkansas was still strongly Democratic — before the election of Barack Obama. Arkansas voters have never grasped at coattails, but they’ve proved since 2008 that associations sometimes matter deeply, if they happen to be with a black president.