Sorry for taking so long to put this up... I'm on a cruise in the middle of the Caribbean at the moment, and internet access has been spotty.
--------The William J. Clinton Presidential Center: the one library in the world where sex in the stacks isn't frowned upon.Wednesday, November 17th
When I first caught sight of the center, I thought "that's... interesting." The Economist describes it as "a mammoth modern glass rectangle, resembl[ing] an expensive mobile home." That's a bit harsh, but it wasn't exactly a looker. It's a cheesy glass box without any character. You couldn't differentiate it from thousands of similar structures that are supposed to look "modern", but really just look like a stupid soulless box. My friend described it as "very German", and by that she meant hard edges and an air of efficiency -- the kind of building that screams "we didn't waste our time on petty things like 'aesthetics'":
What you see is more of a sheath around the actual building itself, with a big gap between the building itself and that case of glass. There's also a gap below one side of the building, with the first floor being a patio in that section, rather than being in the building -- this is meant to symbolize "the bridge to the 21st century". It just makes it look like the trailer is up on cinder blocks. It did remind me somewhat of the I.M. Pei-designed Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell (you can probably guess that I'm not a fan of that building either, though it's not as bad).
Before heading inside, we went to a reception being held on that patio. It was a typical punch and cookies affair, but this is where we first saw the seal of the "William J. Clinton Presidential Center" embossed on everything. The seal looks like the presidential seal, but with "Willam Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center" around the perimeter. At the reception they not only had napkins with the embossed gold seal, but even cookies with the seal printed on them. Having learned the nutritional value of newspaper as a young child, I figured printed cookies must be similarly good, so I picked up a few (along with a whole stack of the embossed napkins... the first of the many eBayable things I got from the center).
We had arrived at the center at 4:30pm, though our tickets were to visit the museum from 3-5pm (many, many transportation mishaps). Undeterred, we wandered in anyway. The place that looks like the main, logical entrance was not actually the entrance. We had to walk over to the other end of the building, enter there, and then walk back to the logical entrance, where the exhibits actually started. You might think that this was for security purposes, but you'd be wrong. There was in fact a metal detector and an x-ray belt, but nobody manning them. We asked "umm… should we go through the metal detector?", to which the little old lady taking tickets replied "oh no darlin', just head on in."
We almost had the place to ourselves -- not very many people were in at that time. Larry King was there though, taking a look around before broadcasting that night from the center. We also ran into Hillary, who said hi and asked how I was doing, as if I wasn't some random dude who had gotten tickets from a friend. The most amusing thing is that as she goes down a hallway, there are Secret Service agents going in front of her, whispering
for people to stop and stand against the wall, to make sure her entourage has maximum horizontal space.
The inside of the library is much nicer than the outside -- not because there's anything all that special about it, but because normalcy is a big step up from the hideous exterior. It has full-scale reproductions of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, gifts from various heads of state, and campaign memorabilia. The most interesting area is a wing that gives on overview of Clinton's presidency (to be fair after bashing how it looks, I should mention that this wing was rather nice, with the second floor having a large opening down to the first, where you can see everything going on below).
There were sections for each major topic area, recapping Clinton's term. Foreign affairs, the budget deficit, crime, technology, the dot-com boom, the environment, and a few others. It was all very well put-together, and really drove home the point of just how great those 8 years were for the country as a whole. Top-notch exhibition.
We tried to stop in the official William J. Clinton Presidential Center Store, but the highly-skilled businesspeople managing the store decided to have it closed while people were there for the open house. Brilliant. A crew from a CBS affiliate was there too though, and they interviewed me. I have no idea if it made it onto the air or not though.
Getting back to the hotel was a real pain. It was practically impossible to get a taxi in Little Rock that week -- I don't know if lack of foresight or an overzealous taxi licensing scheme is to blame for not bringing in taxis from other localities, but it was horrendous. Things like that leave a bad taste in the mouth of visitors, and undercut efforts to "showcase the city". I actually had to resort to jogging behind a taxi as he drove his passengers around, waiting for him to stop and let them out, and then snatching it up.Thursday November 18th
We woke up bright and early in the morning, and made our way downtown, with the assistance of a very kind couple from Chicago (his father was a Clinton appointee). From there we wandered down to the gates of the presidential center. There was a big line, but we eventually got in, after a lot of waiting, and made it to our designated seats. We had a very nice spot -- it wasn't in the Barbara Streisand section, but it was pretty good (our hook-up for the tickets was a non-cabinet-level "Secretary of [redacted]" in the Clinton administration who couldn't make it).
If you heard anything on the news about the ceremony, you heard that it rained
. Hard. And the ceremony was all outdoors, without any covering. We were told beforehand that umbrellas were banned from the ceremony, both because they block people's views and because they can be considered a "weapon". No cell phones either, because they can be used to set off a bomb. Being a decent law-abiding citizen with no overriding desire to be tackled by anyone other than my girlfriend, I followed the rules and didn't bring an umbrella. It ends up that not only did they allow umbrellas, but they were actually handing out free ones in a tent somewhere. I of course found out about this in the newspaper the following day, long after it would have been any use to me. Instead I walked around with a plastic shopping bag on my head -- it had the seal of the presidential center on it, so I looked official. People were looking at me and whispering, undoubtedly saying "wow, he looks important. Would it be rude to ask for his autograph? If we scream and throw our undergarments at him, maybe he'll take us to the after-party and whisper sweet things about economic policy."
But I couldn't be distracted by my fans -- I was on a quest. Everything other than my head was quickly getting soaked. A stop by the first aid tent asking for pre-emptive treatment for pneumonia, or failing that a simple trash bag, was unsuccessful. The knickknack vendors offered me another, less prestigious shopping bag. I took it just in case, but didn't use it -- I still have my pride, even when wet.
And then I spotted a beautiful sight: palates of Presidential Center bottled water (you know, in case people got dehydrated in the scorching sun). I wasn't excited about the water -- I assume it's like Trump Ice, but without the "bankruptcy" aftertaste. What really caught my eye was the fact that the palates were encased in plastic wrap, which I could make into a crappy poncho. Dripping wet, I started ripping the plastic wrap off, trying to get as big of a piece as possible. It was pretty futile, and it became clear that I wasn't going to get a decent poncho out of it. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that someone had found a roll of heavy-duty plastic wrap, and was cutting a sheet off. I hurried over, and cut off a large enough sheet to make a two-person poncho without a problem. By that time a crowd had gathered around, all eyeing the last remaining bit of plastic wrap on the roll – about 1 poncho's worth. I decided to drop the scissors in the middle, letting the quickest and strongest person make a poncho for his young. As for the rest, "Believe in evolution now, suckers?"
The rain let up a few times during the ceremony, but it was pretty bad. If I hadn't found that plastic wrap, it wouldn't have been pretty. A decent number of people without sufficient rain protection had to leave during the ceremony because it was just too cold and wet.
The ceremony opened with a color guard, and the singing of patriotic song. It shouldn't be surprising that the Jumbotron ignored the solider singing, and focused on celebrities in the audience: Robin Williams, Barbara Streisand, Geraldo, John Kerry, and Burt Reynolds.
After that, the notables started filing in. Ambassadors and Heads of State came in at what seemed to be a random order -- it wasn't alphabetical or in order of "importance", though I assume that Pastrana was first because he spoke on stage. Of course the most dramatic moment was watching four presidents of the United States entering together:
The entrance of the first ladies was also of note:
After that, there was a bunch of random musical things, like Clinton's high school band. It was nice, but there was really too much of it. Bono said a few words about debt relief for African nations, played a song I didn't recognize, and then said a few words about Clinton's efforts in Northern Ireland, and played "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." Very powerful in that context... it made you think about how great it is that peace has finally come to Northern Ireland, and people no longer have to live through that.
Then came a string of "real people" talking about how Clinton's policies changed their lives. The man talking about how the Family and Medical Leave Act helped him spend time with his daughter in the last month before she died of leukemia was especially moving. A woman talked about how welfare reform and "empowerment zones
" helped take her from being on welfare to being a small business owner. She got so worked up that she started having contractions and thought she was going into labor (once she got to the hospital everything checked out).
Then finally, the real reason we all came: the presidential speeches. They were fairly brief, and the links are below (videos also available online). It was amazing... the talking heads kept saying that the only other time you'll see all of the former presidents together is at a state funeral. Here are my thoughts on the individual speeches:
Jimmy Carter: Ho-hum, like his presidency. He didn't have a lot to say, and seemed a bit more removed from the rest. Clinton seemed more buddy-buddy with the Bushes -- the pundits said that Carter is still bitter about Clinton pointing to Carter's presidency as a failure. Points for admitting that his handling of the Mariel boat lift may have cost Clinton his re-election as Governor of Arkansas, and apologizing to him for it.
George H.W. Bush: Great speech. Everyone seemed to really like it, with many saying they thought it was the best speech of the day (the rest saying it was second best after Clinton's). He showed all of the humanity and humor that he seemed to lack as president. He talked about how tough it was to campaign against Clinton. Made a reference to looking at his watch during the debate, saying that he really did hope it would soon be over.
George W. Bush: Good, but not as good as daddy's. Not much to say about it.
Bill Clinton: Another great speech. There are two soundbytes you probably heard from his speech:
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.
You know, am I the only person in the entire United States of America who likes both George W. Bush and John Kerry, who believes they're both good people, who believes they both love our country and they just see the world differently?
Essentially he was calling for centrism, for a continuation of the "3rd way" -- a big contrast with the elements within the party that are saying that the way to win more red states is to be even MORE leftist. Hopefully democratic leaders who went to this event will be reminded of the Clinton glory years, and conclude that the party needs a candidate with Clinton's positions and geography if it wants to be successful.
After Clinton's speech, most people filed out. My friend and I decided to wander up to the Barbara Streisand section, and got the up-close view of the last bit. While up there, I took the namecards of some notables off of their vacated seats: Donald Trump, Roger Clinton, Hugh Rodham (Hillary's father), Romano Prodi, Joe Lockhart, John Sweeny, and a few others. We then headed up to the stage itself, and took some pictures of us speaking at the podium. At that point I ditched the plastic wrap and picked up Hillary's umbrella, which she'd left on stage.
As we went to leave, past the rows and rows of giant satellite trucks for TV reporters, we were stopped by the Secret Service: "Excuse me, do you have credentials?" "No." He seemed a bit shocked, expecting me to either say yes or give some roundabout excuse about having lost them or something. "How the hell did you get in here then?"
We had managed to bumble past some of the strongest security this country has to offer -- protecting 4 presidents, half of Congress, current and former cabinet members, and numerous ambassadors and heads of state -- without even realizing it. I take my martinis shaken, not stirred.
We took a brief detour to the Clinton Center Gift Shop, which had such unique gifts as a talking Clinton doll that said "The era of big government is over." My personal favorite was a silver cigar box with the seal of the Clinton Center on it. Someone there has a good sense of humor.
Next stop was the Clinton staff barbeque, intended as a chance for Clinton staffers to see good friends and reminisce about old times. I was only 11 years old when Clinton took office, so I had neither good friends nor old times in the Clinton White House. But it was fun to pretend. Turnout was fairly low, but the BBQ was damn good.
I was interviewed by the Arkansas Democratic Gazette at the BBQ. I talked about how Clinton's term was while I was age 11-19, and so as I learned about politics, everything was through the lens of Clinton's policies. I revered him growing up as a young politics buff, and I yearn for him now as a grown-up centrist. The editor turned that into this:
"I was growing up all throughout the Clinton years," said Crouch, 22. "He made a campaign stop at my elementary school. I was there when it all began."
Clearly I need to get better at giving soundbytes, or I'll continue to have my name associated with drivel.
The only remaining event of note was my taxi ride back to my hotel. The driver actually had a portable DVD player attached to his dash, showing rap videos and lesbian sex shows. Coolest cab ride ever. He also told me about how there are "taxi groupies", who are infatuated with the Little Rock taxi drivers, and apparently use their bodies to get in on the glamour.
He also told me the story of when he'd been shot at. He was lying beside the pool in his old apartment complex, reading a book, when a woman came over and bugged him, distracting him from his scholarly pursuits. The woman's boyfriend saw this, and became quite angry, vowing to kill him. The woman came to his apartment later in the day, informing him that her boyfriend was indeed serious, so he bought himself a Tec-9. That night a band of miscreants came by, and unloaded an AK-47. He said that the bullets miraculously whizzed by him, missing his body, but coming close enough for him to feel their heat. "Like there was a shield, man". He then set out to hunt each one down, one by one. He would hide in the bushes outside their houses, and then jump out and put a gun to his mark's temple, threatening to kill him on the spot. In time each one was either run out of town, or scared shitless of him.
He took a real liking to me, and actually gave me his phone number in case I'm ever in Little Rock again. It's a shame that I lost the number, and hence probably one of the more useful connections I made while in Little Rock.