Little Rock, Ark. —
I don’t just have a bucket list; I have a bucket outline complete with heads and subheads. High on that list is “See all the presidential libraries.” There are 13 subheads for the thirteen official presidential libraries/museums (with an asterisk for President Ford, whose museum is in Grand Rapids, Mich. and whose library is in Ann Arbor, Mich.) Of all these destinations, I’ve checked off eight plus the asterisk.
One of my favorites is the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark. At 350 miles, it’s an easy drive – and one I did quite recently.
Perched on the banks of the Arkansas River at the east end of downtown Little Rock, the boxy, elevated structure echoes the lines of the old Rock Island Railway Bridge (now a pedestrian/cyclist bridge renamed the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge.) The architecture recalls the words of President Clinton in his presidential nomination acceptance speech in 1996 — the pledge “to build a bridge to the 21st century.”
Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who realized that historical documents and previous presidents’ papers were being sold, destroyed or poorly stored, an effort was started to preserve presidential records for future generations. Now, by law, every piece of paper, every photo, and every presidential gift produced during a term of office belong to the American people and are protected by the National Archives.
There are several parts to the Clinton Presidential Center: the Archives, open to researchers, scholars and students with a need to access primary sources; the Museum exhibits, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation. All in all, the facilities house 80 million pages of documents, two million photographs, 13 thousand video tapes, 83 thousand artifacts and 20 million emails. For the vast majority of visitors, the museum exhibits are of primary interest.
The logical place to start exploring the history of the Clinton years is by taking 12 minutes to watch an introductory video which skims quickly through the President’s biography, campaigns and accomplishments. Don’t miss this.
Next stop, the Clinton Cabinet Room. This is a full-scale recreation of the room where President Clinton met with Cabinet Secretaries and advisors. Around the oval table are touch screens with information about each cabinet position and how critical decisions were made.
The main exhibit center is a long room bisected by a display area which features, on one side a timeline of the Clinton White House years and a complete set of daily schedules for the nearly 3000 days of the administration. Cases on the other side of the timeline contain a selection of correspondence during each year.
Along the long walls on the second floor are alcoves, each of which addresses a different policy issue from education to foreign relations. In the alcove labeled “Making Communities Safer” I was surprised to see a letter dated March 3, 1993. The return address was that of Charles Haskell Elementary School in Edmond. The writer was Holly May Branson, an eight-year-old in Mrs. Cummings third grade class.
She wrote, “I am worried about all the shooting that’s been going on a whole bunch of people have been killed from it… Please help all the kids that are concerned.” I wondered where Holly is now. And what she thinks about the safety of her community in 2013. Does anyone out there know Holly? If you do, please email me at email@example.com.
Between each alcove are 28-foot columns packed with nearly 5000 archival boxes containing actual historical documents — nearly eight percent of the total documents stored on-site.
The highlight of the third floor is a full-sized re-creation of the Clinton Oval Office. Both an office and a ceremonial room, this was President Clinton’s major workplace. He often worked there on weekends and, many times, late into the night. Every detail of the original office is replicated exactly — even to the small busts of two of his role models, FDR and Harry Truman, on the desk.
Other exhibits on this floor offer a closer look into Clinton family life in the White House. One wall has a display of beautiful gifts given to the President and First Family during his time in office.
This floor also houses temporary exhibits. The current exhibit, Oscar de la Renta: American Icon, runs through December 1. The exhibit features more than thirty of his creations. The 81-year-old designer, born in the Dominican Republic, has been a close friend of the Clintons and designed a number of outfits for Hillary Clinton, including gowns for both of her husband’s inaugurations. He also designed the teal pants suit she wore when she was sworn in as a U.S. Senator. And in the future…
All of America’s Presidential Libraries give important insights into our country’s history and accomplishments. The Clinton Presidential Center is a great repository and look-back at a significant time in our country. I always enjoy my visits there — but I look forward to seeing the museums I haven’t seen: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. Feel free to add the Presidential Libraries/Museums to your bucket list, too.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.