Pomp and populism

More than 30,000 of Bill Clinton's friends, along with a few onetime foes, gather to dedicate the presidential library in Little Rock.

By Suzanne Goldenberg
Published November 19, 2004 8:44PM (UTC)
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Four years after his exit from the White House, Bill Clinton reclaimed his place on the world stage Thursday, basking in the adulation of Hollywood jet-setters, Washington power brokers and his fellow Arkansans at the dedication of his presidential library.

Like Clinton's eight-year tenure, Thursday's rain-soaked ceremony outside the futuristic steel and glass library building was a mixture of pomp and populism, with a welfare mother and a school nurse offering testimonials to his leadership alongside presidents past and present.

As Clinton was escorted onstage to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," it was remarkably like old times. The former president, sidelined recently by heart disease, was back and milking the audience. "I can't see through all the umbrellas and all the ponchos, or whatever you call those classy things that make you all look so beautiful," he said as he offered a roll call of thanks to presidents and politicians, allies and adversaries, and families and friends in the 30,000-strong crowd.

Although Clinton was perhaps unrivaled among modern presidents for his intellectual reach and his grasp of the smallest policy detail, his stay at the White House will be remembered as much for the sex and impeachment scandal that tainted his last years as president. Thursday's opening of his personal memorial was an attempt to try to correct the record of those troubled years. The building had been envisaged as a bridge, the metaphor reinforced by its location seemingly floating above the Arkansas River.

In a 20-minute speech, Clinton expanded on his vision of public life and the need to transcend America's increasingly toxic political divide. "We all do better when we work together," he said. "Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.

"America has two great dominant strands of political thought -- we're represented up here on this stage -- conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place," he said.

Erstwhile opponents also appeared ready to look for common ground. "There is an inescapable bond that bonds together all those who have lived in the White House," said the elder George Bush. "One of the great blessings is the way political adversaries have a tendency to become friends."

With self-deprecating humor, the first President Bush recalled his defeat to Clinton in 1992 and rued his Democratic opponent's debating prowess. "Trust me, I learned the hard way," he said. "Bill Clinton enjoyed debates too much for my taste." Beneath his yellow umbrella Clinton chortled with delight and slapped his thighs. But the truth proved relatively short-lived.

Though outwardly polite the current President Bush delivered a somewhat dutiful tribute to Clinton. "President Bill Clinton led with optimism and a great affection for the American people," he said. "He gave his all to the job and the people gave him two terms."

Clinton summed up those two terms as a period of dramatic transformation -- sociological, technological and geopolitical. "That whole story is here in 80 million documents, 21 million e-mails, two of them mine," he said.

By the time U2's lead singer, Bono, appeared onstage under a green umbrella, the spirit of bipartisanship had washed away in the downpour. Bono saluted Clinton for forgiving the debts of the poorest nations and for his involvement in the Northern Ireland peace agreement, before launching into a rendition of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Bono's presence was part of the effort to combine humble talent and international sophistication.

An audience that included Clinton's friends in the international community, from former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the E.U.'s Romano Prodi to Jordan's Queen Noor, were treated to local bagpipers and a marching band from Clinton's high school playing "Soul Man."

Indeed, it was in many ways a local affair. In the six years since construction started on the library, downtown Little Rock has been galvanized by giddy economic revival. And Thursday it was time to repay Clinton for putting the town on the map and remembering his home state.

Beneath the downpour, Clinton's presence was everywhere Thursday: his voice booming out of restaurants and cafes; his face, slick with rain, tired but smiling, beaming out of TV sets and giant outdoor screens.

Under plastic awnings, souvenir sellers were hawking buttons reading "Hillary '08" -- a reminder to Clinton that the family's political fortunes now reside with his wife.

But in Little Rock at least, memories of Bill do not look as if they will easily fade.

Suzanne Goldenberg

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