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Presidential Treatment in Little Rock

That attraction, obviously, is not identified in the official booklet "A Guided Tour of President Clinton's Little Rock"—though the McDonald's where he often stopped for coffee is—but the Clinton library's exhibition space does promise a relatively unvarnished look at the sometimes unsavory governmental and political processes that existed during the Clinton era. Leading me through the still-under-construction building in May, James L. "Skip" Rutherford, the head of the Clinton Foundation, mentions, unbidden, that an impeachment installation will make up part of one alcove.

By all accounts, the project extends the role of the presidential library in unprecedented ways. "We've put more emphasis on tourism than any presidential library ever has," Rutherford says. "It was clearly one of our strong missions from day one. Many of the libraries are located in sentimental or remote locations. We looked at them and said, 'How do we maximize visitation for in-state and out-of-state travelers?'" One way is by making it easier to get to. The building is near the junction of Interstates 30 and 40, which carry more than 41 million carsa year through the city, and the library will have two marked exits. In the past few years, Little Rock's airport extended a runway, refurbished its terminal, and added a parking deck, and carriers have recently instituted direct flights from Denver and Newark.

Fliers banking over the river to land will get a good look at the center, Little Rock's most significant piece of modern architecture, by the Polshek Partnership Architects in New York. "The Polshek firm designed one of my favorite buildings," Clinton wrote to me, the Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The works share a glass exterior, and the Clinton Center includes environmentally friendly features such as photovoltaic panels and radiant flooring. "Design elements such as openness and natural light were important to me and are prevalent," he added. "I hope that the Clinton Center will be a model of how economic development and the environment can complement each other." Not everyone is as impressed. Both a local tourist looking at the building when I visited and a hip New Yorker to whom I later showed a postcard commented that the building resembled a trailer.

That comparison rings true, considering that high and low culture were never strangers during the Clinton administration. The planners, including Clinton—always the populist—seem determined that the library be as much a "fun" center as a center of gravity. One of the floors will be devoted to what Rutherford enthusiastically calls "the People magazine section," an exhibition area that will cover human-interest angles such as White House pets and Clinton's affinity for Elvis, to whom he is freely compared. Plans are in the works for Little Rock to link up with Memphis as a regional tourism destination that will include the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland. Parallels are not strained, and when Clinton welcomes the world to his world, Little Rock will have something like Clintonland in the museum, a 31-acre riverside park, nearby gift shop(selling cookbooks and T-shirts), and possible burial site. Until that time—and, unlike Elvis—one attraction will be Clinton himself: Rutherford estimates that for 7 to 10 days a month he'll be in residence, literally so, staying in an apartment he'll have in the building while, among other things, teaching at the University of Arkansas-associated Clinton School of Public Service, a renovated 1899 former train station connected by a path to the new structure.

That walk, bridging more than 100 years from Little Rock's modest past to its shiny present, raises the question of where the path from the Clinton library might lead next. The president's legacy has already—suddenly and thoroughly—made Little Rock much more than it was, but will the city one day transcend the influence to become more than Clintonland?

Brooklyn-based JAY JENNINGS has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Vogue.


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