The Magazine


From the December 6, 2004 issue: It never ends in Arkansas.

Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By MATT LABASH
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Little Rock, Arkansas

During the weeklong lead-up to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center, I felt as though I was stuck in The College Nightmare. You know the one: Every professor you have is giving an exam concurrently, and you don't know which one to take. It just didn't seem fair. There were so many ways to celebrate President William Jefferson Clinton. How could I pass up any of them?

I wanted to take all my meals at Doe's Eat Place, Clinton's famous roadhouse-meets-steakhouse hangout, where the manager told me Clinton used to pop into the kitchen and snatch handfuls of fries right out of the fryer basket. But then, my hotel was next-door to his regular McDonald's, which boasted "The McRib is back!" in honor of the special week. Like millions of other Americans, I wanted to see Clinton's New Balance jogging shoes and the actual pair of shades he wore while blowing sax on Arsenio Hall, both of which are on display at the Old Statehouse. But then, the same actual sunglasses are purportedly on display at his new library. (Perhaps one pair was a stunt double.)

I couldn't shave myself in the morning if I missed "An Evening of Readings: The Poets of the Clinton Presidency." But if I went--hold on to your Maya Angelou--I might miss the lecture by White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who seemed to capture the spirit of the Clinton years when he said, "Dessert time is happy time."

And of course, Bill Clinton was our first black president. But how best to observe this? At the "Evening Reception Honoring the Diverse Legacy and Phenomenal Achievements of President Clinton," in which we also saluted "unsung heroes," anonymous little worker bees like Cicely Tyson and Quincy Jones? Or perhaps at the Clinton speech at Little Rock's Central High, where, as history buffs will note, in 1957, against the wishes of Governor Orval Faubus, an 11-year-old Bill Clinton led the Little Rock Nine to school in the country's definitive desegregation battle, shortly after he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation?

Standing in the shadow of such greatness is a humbling experience. Indeed, it was hard to measure up. I mean sure, you could participate in the kickoff 5K Presidential Fun Run, retracing the giant steps Clinton used to take when he'd pull on those silky jogging shorts. But all you'd get for your $25 entry fee was a T-shirt and a cup of Gatorade. Your run would never be as fun as Clinton's, since, as Gennifer Flowers once wrote, "Bill loved to jog in the morning, and it was an easy way to get out of the mansion without arousing suspicions. He would jog just over a mile to my place, spend a half hour or so making love to me, then have his driver drop him off a block or two from the mansion. . . . He would show up at home properly out of breath."

Hold up a second. Was that me? Did I just say Gennifer Flowers? What an embarrassing lapse--she wasn't part of the official program! The thing to realize about Clinton Week, as did the legions of celebrities and former administration types who descended on Little Rock hauling oxygen tanks and defibrillator paddles to help resuscitate the legacy of their hero, is that this wasn't some hollow exercise, but rather, a religious experience. It's why people sat in the torrential downpour of the Clinton Center's dedication day, enduring hours of speeches and U2's Bono letting loose with yet another harangue about forgiving Third World debt. Mentioning Flowers, or Monica Lewinsky, or impeachment, or the myriad other Clinton scandals that most readily defined his presidency was, to borrow a regionalism, a bit like farting in church.

There were, however, strange smells emanating from the back pews. There was the protester in front of the Convention Center, brandishing a plumbing pipe from which dangled a kneepad in tribute to Lewinsky. "I'm drawing thumbs up, as well as middle fingers," he told me. "Right now, they're running about even."

Then there was the hardy band from, who ran 30 strong, including their small children, and who took to the streets in black T-shirts that read "Judge Rightly isn't some guy's name." Their message, as told through chants and signs, was elegantly simple: "Clinton Raped Juanita," a reference to former campaign volunteer Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed in 1999 that Clinton had raped her back in the seventies. As onlookers flocked to the Peabody Hotel hoping to spy Oprah or Brad Pitt coming out of what was formerly the Excelsior (where Clinton allegedly invited Paula Jones to "kiss it"), the shadowgov-ers screamed, "Clinton is a rapist!" eliciting all sorts of confused responses, from "Clinton is not a racist!" to "Who's Juanita?"