Deep in the heart of Clinton country

George W. Bush travels to Arkansas' Central High School to tout his education platform.

Published March 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Texas Gov. George W.
treaded on President Clinton's
home turf Friday, visiting Central High
School in Little Rock, Ark., a school
synonymous with the desegregation fights
of the 1950s and '60s. But the
daylong, well-scripted affair seemed, at
times, sacrilegious and hypocritical
to many who wondered why the Texas
governor chose Central
High to tout his education reforms just
a month after visiting Bob
Jones University.

Central High School, the country's most
powerful symbol for racial
integration, has historically been known
as Democratic territory. Bill and
Hillary Clinton attended the 40th
anniversary of the school's integration
1997. Today, two-thirds of the school's
students are African-American.

But for the Bush-led education
forum/photo-op Friday morning,
only a handful of teachers were invited
to attend the event
held in the school's library, and just
three students, one of whom was
Gov. Mike Huckabee's daughter, heard the
presidential candidate speak. The event
was vintage Bush, heading into territory
normally considered off-limits to
Republicans to send a vague message of
inclusiveness more symbolic than

On a day when Vice President Al Gore
went back to school in Michigan to learn
education "from the people who are
actually doing the hands-on work" in his
words, Bush used the well-controlled
environment of Central as a theatrical
backdrop complete with Volume I and II
of "America" and a book about Texas
placed behind the candidate. In the
crowd were 45
special invited guests, including
Arkansas Sen. Tim Hutchinson, a graduate
of Bob Jones University.

"This is a place where African-Americans
confronted injustice," said
Bush, "where white Americans confronted
their conscience, where the rule of
law ended the reign of segregation."

These words were in biting contrast to
his controversial visit last month
to Bob Jones University, which until a
few weeks ago banned interracial
dating. Many saw his visit and speech
about race as deceiving, a ploy to use
Central High, like last week's visit to
a Catholic church in Cleveland, as
another pawn to clean up the Bob Jones
mess that continues to dog Bush.

"Central High School is a symbol of many
things, including progressive
race relations," said Vaughn McQuary,
chairman of the Democratic Party of
Arkansas. "For Gov. Bush to come to
Central High accompanied by a
graduate of Bob Jones University is an
unbelievably bad choice."

In 1970, BJU gave up its federal
tax-exempt status rather than admit
black students.

Bush's visit at Central High also
generated debate on his education
policies. Central High Principal Rudolph
Howard told Bush "public education
needs a lift up." Bush interrupted the
principal, known throughout the state
as a man who rules Central with an iron
fist, and told him he shouldn't fear
competition from charter schools.

"I'm sorry that you think I fear
anything," snapped Howard. "If I feared
anything, I wouldn't be at Central."

Bush didn't get off easy when Derrick
Williams, 18, Central
High's student body president and a
member of the debate team, grilled him
about vouchers and charter schools.

"Public schools won't be able to compete
with vouchers," said Williams,
who hammered the idea that public
schools would fall behind if faced with
voucher and charter school programs.

Bush launched into his spiel about
meeting standards and taking education
to the local level. When finished,
Williams, who says he leans Democrat,
said, "May I rebut?" To that Bush
replied, "Sure, it's your school,"
getting a good laugh from the crowd.

Despite a few lighthearted moments, Bush
insisted he would not be a
"federal superintendent" for the
country's schools. He also said his
education policies are focused on
children, unlike Gore's, which he says
are more concerned with "bricks and
mortar." That signaled to Howard that
the $6.8 million needed for major
repairs -- plumbing and
electrical wiring -- as well as other
infrastructure needs would not be
to the school, or any school, in federal
funds if Bush were elected president.

But Bush's laser-focus on education, an
issue he is comfortable talking about
because he has grown familiar with the
issue as governor, appears to be paying
dividends. A new Pew Research Center
poll shows Bush holding a slight edge
over Gore when voters were asked which
candidate would "do the best job on
education." Though clinging to a slim
44-41 percent lead, it is all the more
striking because education is typically
considered a "Democratic issue," just as
national defense and tax cuts are
thought of as Republican issues.

Bush discovered friendlier turf a few
hours later as a host of wealthy
GOP-lovin' Arkansans dished out $1,000
to attend a luncheon fund-raiser.

Bush pocketed $350,000 at the lovefest
that included Rep. Asa
Hutchinson, a possible attorney general
candidate in a Bush administration
and also a Bob Jones graduate; Sheffield
Nelson, one of Clinton's worst
enemies, who has been accused of
masterminding schemes to topple the
administration; Richard Bearden, a local
political consultant working on
Mayor Rudy Giuliani's Senate campaign
and oil tycoon Madison Murphy, who heads
conservative commission to examine state

Arkansas ranks 30th out of 53 states and
territories in fund raising for Bush.
the event earned Bush a hefty amount for
a state that only a few years ago
had little Republican power. It also
offered the chance for the Arkansas GOP
to take a few jabs at the Clinton-Gore

Playing on the Buddhist Temple joke that
Gore left the room when iced tea
was served, Huckabee said, "We wondered
whether to serve iced tea today. Just
remember where you were and that you
were at a fund-raiser."

Bush shook hands, signed a GOP leather
jacket and fraternized before
giving his standard, slogan-ridden stump
speech -- touting his compassionate
conservative reform results. At the
luncheon, he took only a few swipes at
Gore, but continued to try to link him
to the scandals of the Clinton White

"Haven't we had enough politics of lost
e-mails and Buddhist Temples?" he
asked. Holding his hand as if taking the
oath of office, Bush added "It's
hard to usher in the era of
responsibility when figures of
don't behave responsibly."

Bush ended his day in Clinton country in
a sultry airplane hanger at a
private airstrip with John Mellencamp's
"R-O-C-K in the U.S.A." blaring, where
he continued his attacks on Gore before
a crowd of 300 cheering, pompom waving

"Al Gore may think he is going to take
Arkansas but we are going to show
him something different," Bush screamed.
"People of Arkansas know the best
way to get the White House back is to
the end the Clinton-Gore Era in
Washington, D.C."

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

MORE FROM Suzi Parker

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Bill Clinton Education George W. Bush