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Visiting Little Rock Arkansas

Jason Perez

Photo: Jason Perez

A surprisingly pristine and sedate city on the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock is now known to the world as Bubba's town, a scandal-dogged Babylon full of courtroom dramas, sexcapades, and spareribs. As Bill Clinton's presidency fades into the history books, tributes to the city's most famous (and infamous) son are popping up all over, albeit not without controversy. While 67 percent of the residents supported the establishment of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library complex, a letter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called it a "monument in perpetuity to unabashed debauchery and moral sewage." Construction of the $200 million site has been stalled by Pardongate, and the papers and artifacts from the Clinton presidency are currently stashed in a former car dealership. Moral sewage notwithstanding, an exhibition on the impeachment hearings is expected to be a huge draw. Two hours west of Graceland, Little Rock is becoming a mecca for American scholars, European tourists, and kitsch-collectors, all thanks to the South's other pelvis-proud king.

What to See

President Clinton Avenue When critics objected to the renaming of East Markham Street, the mayor asked himself, What would Jesus do? and then, Solomon-like, just renamed several blocks of it. Local lore has it that this was once an avenue of bordellos.

Site of William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library & Complex Clinton Presidential Park. Currently a desolate zone of empty warehouses and dirt piles, this strip on the banks of the Arkansas River is sometimes called Murky Bottoms by members of the local press.

Clinton's Materials Project Balch's Oldsmobile Dealership, 1100 La Harpe Blvd.; 501/244-9759. The ex-president's archives are stored in this climate-controlled former Oldsmobile dealership. Over the next few years, 625 tons of historical material will be catalogued and prepared for display. (Most highly anticipated: Clinton's collection of Elvis memorabilia and perhaps some "hot" White House furniture.) Open by appointment.

State Capitol Capitol Ave. and Wood Lane; 501/682-5080. Clinton served as governor here for 12 years, from 1979 to '81 and from 1983 to '92. The marble rotunda displays a portrait of Clinton as president along with a brief history of his public life in Arkansas. You'll find an oil painting of a boyish Clinton, at 32 the youngest leader in the state's history, amid the portraits of other governors.

Governor's Mansion 1800 Center St.; 501/324-9805. Currently home to Republican governor Mike Huckabee, Clinton's onetime residence pays him tribute with a life-sized bronze bust (without the White House bags under his eyes), which rests on the lawn just inside the front gates.

Old State House Museum 300 W. Markham St.; 501/324-9685. This white-pillared Greek Revival served as the backdrop for Clinton's '92 and '96 presidential victory celebrations. On display: the saxophone he played (and Blues Brothers sunglasses he wore) on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 and a beat-up pair of jogging shoes.

Rose Law Firm 120 E. Fourth St. The notorious firm where Hillary Rodham Clinton and her colleagues Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell became involved in events leading to the Whitewater investigation and ensuing scandal.

Little Rock Central High School 1500 S. Park St.; 501/324-2300. President Clinton spoke here on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the school's integration in 1957.

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Side Trips

Clinton Center & Birthplace Museum 415 W. Division St., Hope; 870/777-4455. Visit the town where it all began: a place called Hope. You'll find Clinton's very first white house, a six-room bungalow. Graceland it's not, but you can get a look at baby William's white wicker bassinet and a book called Kitten Surprise.

Historic City & National Park Bus Tour 350 Central Ave., Hot Springs; 800/489-8687. While a guide tells anecdotes provided by Clinton's mom, you visit one of his boyhood homes, his church, his favorite barbecue joint, and the Polar Bar (now Bailey's Dairy Treat), where Clinton chowed down on chili cheeseburgers.

Where to Stay

Excelsior Hotel 3 Statehouse Plaza; 800/527-1745 or 501/375-5000, fax 501/375-4721; doubles from $145. In 1991, the future president invited Paula Jones (via an Arkansas state trooper) up to his eighth-floor suite—a fateful rendezvous that ultimately led to his impeachment trial.

Capital Hotel 111 W. Markham St.; 800/766-7666 or 501/374-7474, fax 501/370-7091; doubles from $115. Across the street from the Excelsior, this media-favored hotel is where many a Clinton story was broken. Built in 1872, the landmark building has a cast-iron façade and Corinthian columns. Recent renovations have made the 126 rooms Internet-ready, for fast-breaking scoops.

Empress of Little Rock 2120 S. Louisiana St.; 877/374-7966 or 501/374-7966, fax 501/375-4537; doubles from $125. A Gothic—Queen Anne mansion that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Each of the five rooms is decorated with a different 19th-century theme: cottage, Navy, Civil War. And instead of bathrobes, guests are provided with smoking jackets and dressing gowns.

Where to Eat

Doe's Eat Place 1023 W. Markham St.; 501/376-1195; dinner for two $60. A real hillbilly steak house, which charges by the pound. A Clinton staff favorite.

Capital Bar & Grill At the Capital Hotel, 111 W. Markham St.; 501/374-7474; dinner for two $30. In the past, Dan Rather and James Carville have been spotted here, but today you're more likely to see a Court TV reporter.

Sim's Bar-B-Que 716 W. 33rd St.; 501/372-6868; lunch for two $18. Rumored to be the model for the barbecue joint in Primary Colors, it still serves Clinton's dish of choice: ribs and slaw. Its waiters made several trips out to a parked Air Force One during POTUS's hometown stopovers.

McDonald's 701 Broadway; 501/374-8861. Where candidate Clinton stopped for a snack during his runs (the basis of those Saturday Night Live skits).

Fulin 200 N. Bowman Rd.; 501/225-8989; lunch for two $15. Another Clinton favorite, once owned by Charlie Trie, an F.O.B. linked to the 1996 campaign-finance scandal.

Juanita's Cantina 1300 S. Main St.; 501/372-1228; lunch for two $16. A photo of Clinton jogging in his Juanita's T-shirt was recently stolen from the wall of this popular hangout.

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