LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas – Purgatory has never seen a better celebration. The Clinton enterprise may be in limbo between one former president and a potential future one, but it’s all the more reason for one last hurrah.
The 10th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s presidential library brought hundreds of people together, from old friends and some entertainment (Kool and the Gang for the baby boomers, Nick Jonas for the younger set) to a dash of celebrity (Kevin Spacey) and plenty of lengthy symposia. The soiree could also be seen as a grand finale, as Bill’s era may soon give way to a period dominated by his wife, especially if her expected run for the presidency in 2016 succeeds.
Bill Clinton’s story has largely been written, contained in the millions of documents locked away in the archives of his presidential library here. But Hillary’s story is, as her Twitter bio states, “TBD…”“This weekend we’re concentrating on President Clinton,” said Sheila Bronfman, an Arkansas Democratic activist who met the Clintons in 1976 and has been a friend and supporter ever since. “There will be another day and we’ll look forward to what’s happening” with Hillary Clinton, she said.
Bronfman was a leader of the 200 or so Arkansans who helped save Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential candidacy during the New Hampshire primary after it was rocked by draft dodging allegations. On their own volition, the “Arkansas Travelers” packed into buses and headed north to go door-to-door in the brutal New Hampshire winter to vouch for their governor.
“I would still follow him to the ends of the Earth,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, a former Clinton defense advisor who now runs the veterans charity Blue Star Families.
The spotlight was meant for the former president, but the looming 2016 presidential election caused the other Clinton to steal the show. “As soon as the midterm elections were over, the New Hampshire primary began,” said Terry Shumaker, a New Hampshire native who co-chaired Clinton’s 1992 campaign in the state and later served as an ambassador under the president.
Ready for Hillary, the super PAC trying to draft Hillary Clinton into the 2016 presidential race, had no official presence in Little Rock, though several of the Clinton alumni who came in from as far away as Los Angeles and London are involved in the RFH effort. One handed his business card with the super PAC’s logo sheepishly to a reporter, making it clear he was not here on that kind of business.
Mostly, the alumni wanted to look back and share old war stories.
There were also reflections of the night Clinton first won the presidency: When the campaign staff pushed all the tables together in a long row to celebrate at Doe’s Eat Place, a Clinton favorite that serves up no-frills three pound steaks. While others were ebullient, Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, felt vengeful, listing off names of people who had undermined the campaign and stabbing a steak knife into the table to punctuate each one. ‘Dead!” he screamed as the brought the knife down each time.
“It was like the Godfather, really,” Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton political advisor, recalled Saturday with a chuckle. A waitress at Doe’s said the former president still comes in at least once a year, though there’s little for him to eat there now that he’s a near-vegan.
Wes Clark, the former four star general who briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, recalled first meeting fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton at a conference at Georgetown when they were in college. “He was escorted by a young lady on each arm,” Clark said. He’s been loyal to Clinton ever since.
Late that night at the bar, economics advisor Gene Sperling recounted a time when the president intervened in his love life, urging him to call back a staffer with whom a senator had personally set Sperling up on a date.
Other former White House aides groused about how George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s former communications director, became what The New York Times dubbed a “thinking woman’s sex symbol.”
Karen Finney, a former aide to Hillary Clinton in the White House, recalled a warning given on their first day: “Anyone who leaked [to the press] would be punished accordingly. It was a little different on the president’s side,” she said at event hosted by Politico.
At the center of everything was the Clinton family, who looked relaxed among friends in their former hometown. Usually cloistered off from the public by barricades and Secret Service, there were no rope lines here. Bodyguards mostly kept their distance.
On Saturday morning, the Clintons mingled freely in the lobby of the $165 million presidential library building, which also has an apartment on the top floor for the family’s use when they’re in town.
Begala entered wearing a vintage denim jacket embossed with a giant logo of the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign logo on the back. “Begala’s still got his jacket!” Bill Clinton said upon seeing former political advisor, pointing it out to his wife. “Oh, I love that one, oh my gosh!” she said.
In her first public appearance since the midterm elections, Hillary and her daughter, Chelsea, discussed empowering women and girls at a panel of their “No Ceilings” project. “You have to look at the past, you have to see what we’ve done and why we did it and we learned from it in order to think about what you can do for the next ten years,” the former secretary of state said of their effort to help women.
Three panels of former officials on Friday made for the official retelling of what had been done at the Clinton White House. And reminiscing continued each night with the aid of bourbon at the venerable Capitol Hotel, where Barbra Streisand was staying and Kevin Spacey could be seen sharing photos of his dog on his iPhone.
Bill Clinton is inescapable in Little Rock, and everyone here seems to have a story about meeting him as attorney general or governor. Many restaurants have a picture of him on the walls, and some are even named named after him.
But even so, and with his approval ratings sky high, he could no longer save his own party in his home state. Democrats lost almost every major race in the Arkansas this month, despite Clinton’s best efforts.
“We’ve been riding on the back of Bill Clinton for so long, but he hasn’t been in office here for 23 years,” said Charles Blake, a Democrat from Little Rock who was just elected to the Arkansas state House. Democrats have seen their numbers halved in the lower chamber since 2006, dropping from 72 seats to just 36 after this month’s elections.
On Saturday night, 6,000 people filled into a giant tent set up outside the library for the final party: A concert featuring Kool and the Gang and Nick Jonas, among others. The Clinton Foundation had given away thousands of tickets to locals, especially teenagers eager to see one third of the Jonas Brothers.
The former first couple sat up front and center among friends and bobbed their heads to the music.
Outside, John Youngblood sold t-shirts and buttons of Clinton swag, including several promoting a Hillary Clinton presidential run. He said he had gotten some negative feedback from the crowd for focusing on 2016, but that the best-selling button of the night was one that featured a photo of the first couple as college students, with the labels “42” and “45.” (Bill was the 42nd president, Hillary would 45).
Finally, after the musical acts concluded, the man everyone came to honor appeared again to conclude the weekend. “I am the old horse that can run around the track one more time,” Bill Clinton joked.
Then, standing outside the library he built on the street named after him and looking out at his people in his home town, the former president draped his arm around his wife’s neck. “This is a good thing for us to do, but it’s just the beginning. And the whole idea is for it to go on and on and on and on,” he said.