Thursday, January 22, 2015


Love him or hate him, you have to be intrigued by Bill Clinton, In America, we love our rags to riches stories, and Bill's is a pretty good one.

Bill Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas, a small town 112 miles from Little Rock. His father was killed in an accident three months before he was born, so Bill lived in this cute little frame house with his maternal grandparents for the first four years of his life while his mother studied nursing in New Orleans.
When his mother remarried, he moved to another house in Hope before eventually moving to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he graduated from high school. Clinton went to college at Georgetown University on a scholarship--I'm guessing that was not something that happened often to Hot Springs High School graduates. Upon graduation he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, following which got his JD from Yale University. After graduation he married Hilary, and a few years later he returned to Arkansas, where he was elected governor in 1978 at age 32.

Impressive stuff for a little boy from Hope.

Clinton notes that when it came time to build his library, members of his graduating class at Georgetown offered him $30 million if he would build it in Washington, D.C.  He told them he couldn't do that. "I have to put it in Arkansas, and I have to put in in Little Rock, because I would never have become president without the people of Arkansas," he said.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park is a complex that includes the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, housed in what was once a train depot, followed by a newspaper office, and then--believe it or not--a Spaghetti Factory restaurant. Perfect for a president known for his love of carbs.
In contrast, the building next door, the Clinton Presidential Library, is a somewhat sterile modernist steel and glass building cantilevered over the Arkansas River. (There are those who criticize it for looking like "a trailer on stilts.")
The land, worth $11.5 million, was donated by Little Rock, and the cost of the building itself was $165 million, making it the most expensive of the thirteen existing presidential libraries. Clinton didn't waste any time in creating this legacy. It was dedicated in November 2004, less than four years after he left office.
Its location next to the Arkansas River is part of its design. A walkway leads from the museum to the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, a structure that began life as a train bridge but that has been transformed into a pedestrian and cycling bridge. 
It is supposed to be symbolic of Clinton's efforts to build bridges.

Pansies in December in flower boxes on the bridge
The complex also includes a 30-acre park that replaced run-down warehouses.

A Christmas tree AND a menorah graced the front lawn, although we weren't too impressed by the placement of the power box behind the menorah.

The fountain had a temporary exhibit of 200 red glass reeds created by artist Dale Chihuly, who also had a traveling exhibit inside that I'll cover later in this post.
These "reeds" were a bit disturbing. I thought they looked more like missiles than pond plants:
Bill Clinton is the only president I've actually seen in person. I attended a speech he gave at the school where I was teaching at the time, and I was totally sucked in by how charismatic he is in person. He had the crowd whipped into a frenzy with his energy, magnetism, strength of delivery, and panache. This was our seventh visit to a presidential library, and I really expected it to blow most of the other libraries out of the water just by force of Clinton's personality alone.

Alas, I think that of all the libraries we've visited, this one just might be my least favorite. Clinton is all about flamboyance and curves (not just the female kind), and this museum is one straight line after another. It just doesn't capture Clinton's pizzazz.

There is a theater that shows a really well-done video narrated by Clinton, and there are some great photos sprinkled around:
I always loved that Bill played the sax. 
Playing ping-pong with Chelsea
Elvis endorsed Bill? Okay, I'll vote for him.
This is one of my favorite pictures in the entire library. I love the simple kitchen setting,
Bill's snuggle with Chelsea, Hilary's smile, and the can of Canada Dry.
An important Presidential Pardon
Most of the displays, however, are slanted boards full of information, and they don't work for me:
There are so  many small photos and small videos playing that it is impossible to focus on anything:
Close-up of one panel:
I looked hard for info about the scandals that rocked Clinton's presidency, and in all of that busy-ness, there is this little nod to Clinton's impeachment. I guess I can't blame him for not highlighting the negative. Who would?
Having recently traveled in the Balkans, I was interested in this:
There is a ten-foot-tall statue of President Clinton in the main square in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo, and our guide in Prizren raved about Clinton and the United States's support for Kosovo in their war with Serbia in 1998-1999.
I like these displays with their bigger color photos better than the sterile silver boards, but the format is still the same:
Some of the post-presidency displays are also intriguing, but yet again the format is a flat wall, text, photos, and videos. It gets old really fast:
A mock-up of the Cabinet Room is a nice break from wall after all of information.  Each chair is labeled with the office of the person who sat there, and visitors are allowed to sit in any of the chairs. Where do you think the President and Vice President sit?  Not at the two ends, which is what I thought.  They sit across from each other in the center of each long side where they have more access to the other Knights of the Round (okay, oval) Table.
I think every presidential library we've seen has a re-creation of the Oval Office, and I really love Clinton's. It is more colorful and full of more interesting doodads than the others we have seen--one of the few places where his personality pops out.
Unfortunately, the guy who always wanted to shake everyone's hand doesn't want anyone to sit behind his desk. Unlike other presidential library Oval Offices, we were kept out of the room by heavy velvet cords across the doors. Bummer.

This formal table setting highlighting the Clinton china is perched at the top of the stairs at the end of a long hallway. Weird.

I enjoy the displays of the First Lady's gowns that are often included in these museums, and there are several of Hilary's, including this Oscar de la Renta gown she wore to the 1997 Inaugural Balls. (There were fourteen of them that night--balls, not gowns.)

The state gifts that are part of every presidential library are also fun to look at. A sign at the Clinton Library notes, "These gestures of diplomacy and goodwill date back to the earliest days of our history, though the founders of our nation accepted the practice reluctantly. There was a fear that giving or accepting a gift might look like a bribe. President George Washington, however, soon discovered that there was simply no polite way to refuse a gift from other heads of state or their representatives. So to avoid diplomatic misunderstandings, presidents may accept gifts, but only on behalf of the people of the United States. Today, all such gifts from world leaders are in the care of the National Archives and its Presidential Libraries, and do indeed belong to the people."

There is the usual collection of ornate china figures, jewelry, paintings, dishes, and so on:

. . . but the fun part of this section is the display of gifts from American citizens:
Clinton's sax collection is on display, including a tenor sax (center right) that was a gift from Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, who shared Clinton's love of Jazz:
This bike was a gift from Lance Armstrong:
Overall, there is lots of great info, but there ISN'T the excitement and charisma that is Bill Clinton.

The day we were there, the view from the end of the building facing the river showed a dreary exterior that unfortunately matched the interior color scheme:
To top it all off, there isn't even a proper gift shop. There are only a few things for sale in the main lobby. I like perusing the books, "artifacts," and trinkets for sale in presidential libraries. In particular, I had hoped to find a biography other than Clinton's 1056-page-long autobiography My Life, which is more than I want to know about him (somewhat like the minutiae of his library). Unfortunately, the options were not impressive.
It was only after returning home that we learned that the Clinton Museum Store is located a few blocks away. There is some legal issue that involves state development funds that prohibits the store from being part of the library itself.  You'd think a past POTUS could get that changed, wouldn't you?

We would have probably made the trek to the store if someone in the library had told us about it, but no one did. This is a Big Fail in my book because many reviews say that the store is better than the museum itself. A little map showing where it is, a comment from the person behind the counter when we purchased our tickets, even a sign next to the "I miss Bill" shirts would have been helpful. Too bad that "I missed Bill's shop."

There is, however, one truly fantastic part of the library, but unfortunately it is only temporary: a traveling exhibit of Dale Chihuly's phantasmagorical blown glass. This giant tree-shaped sculpture in the lobby looks like Medusa on steroids:
You know the seaweed on Southern California beaches with the bulbs that you can pop with your foot? There is some of that:
En masse it looks a bit like bean sprouts:
This crazy conglomeration of shapes, textures, and colors rises from a mirrored base and reminds me of scenery in the movie Avatar:
Or maybe it's an underwater garden in a science fiction book or movie as seen through an LSD haze:
A room filled with Chihuly seashells completes the exhibit. 
A few of my favorites:

We timed our trip just right as far as Chihuly special exhibits go. Besides this one in Little Rock, we saw more Chihuly glass in the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and then again in the Dallas Museum of Art.

Bill's architects and decorators should have gotten a few tips from Chihuly about how to make something rise above the ordinary to the level of spectacular. Still, the stop was well-worth our time, and, as with every visit to a presidential library, I came away with a new respect for the many things Clinton was able to accomplish.


  1. I agree, looks like a pretty sterile library, and kind of reminds me of a high school project somehow. Unbelievable that there is no notice about the museum store. That's got to cut their sales--you'd have to know where to look, or accidently stubble across it.
    The glass art exhibit is fabulous!

  2. I'm blown away by the cost of the library. I would never have guessed. The library lacked warmth. The great communicator was not communicating.