William J. Clinton Presidential Library Little Rock, Ark. Visited: August 30, 2005 NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site Presidential Library Visted: 10 of 12 Local Website
WHAT IS IT? The Presidential Library and Museum of our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton.
BEAUTY (4/10) The Clinton Library and Museum looks like a giant glass 2x4. Half of the building seems suspended in mid-air, jutting out towards the Arkansas River. The Museum means to recall Clinton’s 1997 Inaugural speech that stressed a bridge to the 21st century. The building is not a particular good metaphor since the faux bridge goes nowhere, feebly sitting lost in midair. The nearby railroad bridge, whose design the Museum mimics, is old, rusted and no longer in use.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10) The Museum is an in-depth and almost over-whelming centrist global history of the 1990’s. The Museum does not give the president credit for the era, but it does portray a time of fattened pocket books, low unemployment, general good feeling, greater world peace, global togetherness and free trade partnerships. The list goes on: Middle Eastern peace talks, the shrinking of the deficit, vast nuclear arms reduction, world economic prosperity, safer domestic communities and a technology boom matched only by the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.
Things were not perfect; the Museum acknowledges Waco, Oklahoma City, the Asian Financial crisis, the averted World Trade Center bombing, the global AIDS epidemic and Somalia but for the most part, the 90’s were a good decade to be alive.
CROWDS (7/10) Presidential Libraries and Museums are popular places. The newly opened Clinton Museum is the centerpiece of the revived Little Rock River Market District and is, not surprisingly, full of people. While busloads fill the Site everyday, there is ample Museum parking and enough exhibits to keep everyone individually occupied.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Clinton Library is located near downtown Little Rock just south of the Arkansas River, a stones throw from Interstate 40. Exits 140-A and 140-B will both get you to the Site, which is located on President Clinton Avenue. The Library has a large free parking and access to a free wireless internet connection. The Site is fully wheelchair accessible.
The Library’s bookstore is about a ½ mile to the west of the Museum, in a separate building also on President Clinton Avenue. There are a few free parking spaces in front of the bookstore but these were full during our visit. We tried and failed to get an answer to why the bookstore is in Little Rock’s trendy River Market District rather than in the Museum.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Once we got to the bookstore, it was long on goofy trinkets, crafts and keepsakes but short on critical presidential texts.
The Museum avers that there was an eight-year right wing attack on Clinton employing “new, aggressive tactics” and “character assassination”. The Site refers to this as the “Politics of Personal Destruction”. We would have enjoyed seeing some of these rabid anti-Clinton texts for sale at the bookstore.
Do not just tell us about the attacks on Bill and Hillary, sell the books that fueled the rebirth of political book sales. It would be a win-win situation for the Museum: they would seem above the fray and without bitterness. Not only that, but as the middleman, they would pocket money off the books’ sale.
Neutral portrayals like Primary Colors and the spectacular D.A. Pannebaker documentary, The War Room are also missing.
Not missing are books found in Clinton’s Oval Office library, titles like The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ernest Becker’s 1974 psychology classic, The Denial of Death. Reading these titles is similar to when you visit a friend’s house for the first time and scour their books for cool and interesting things. The inclusion of Clinton’s most beloved books for sale is either endearing or calculated. Maybe both. We can’t decide.
COSTS (2/5) Entry is $7 per person. We found two $2-off coupons in a Welcome to Little Rock coupon booklet.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) Numerous uniformed docents sit at strategic points throughout the Museum. Michael had many questions but none of the docents had any answers.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) The Museum is like a $100 million Power Point presentation. Graphs, numbers, bulleted lists, to-the-point essays and statistics displayed with dozens if not hundreds of flat-screen TV’s, readable fonts, highlighted (with yellow highlighter pen) major points, perfectly clear interweaving time-lines of each presidential year and easily navigated touch screen computers that allow you to view Clinton’s personal schedule for every day of his Presidency.
The Museum has a clear villain, Newt Gingrich, whose methods and dastardly quotes appear in numerous displays. At every turn, Newt is out to stymie the Museum’s hero, not President Clinton, but global progress on an economic, social and technological scale. Their statistics prove that Bill Clinton was trying to steer the boat along the wave of global progress and, ultimately, it is hard to argue with eight years of peace and prosperity, regardless of your political affiliation.
Bill Clinton, the man, is not the Museum’s priority. The focus is on his Presidency, its results and its actions. Clinton’s personal history, i.e. his birth, family, college, even Hillary, is relegated to clear glass tables on the second floor. We almost missed these displays because they are flat and look like nothing from eye level.
The Museum’s first, and perhaps signature display is all full-scale reproduction of the Cabinet Room. This exhibit is fully interactive. You can sit around the desk in one of the many comfortable leather chairs and learn, via touch screen computer, who the cabinet members were, what they did, what laws came about during their Clinton tenure and how they individually contributed to Clinton’s touchstone executive decisions. Again, the emphasis is not on the president but on the people and events around him.
FUN (6/10) Everything about the Museum screams success. All the line graphs go up. The numbers quoted all go in the right direction. Everybody is smiling and the people who are fighting are either signing peace treaties or facing sanctions and imprisonment because of their bad behavior. What a wonderful place and what a wonderful time.
Why then, President Clinton, did you have to mess everything up with your sexual indiscretions? The Museum cannot answer this question. It does not even try. The explanation of House Republicans and Kenneth Starr overstepping the Constitution, using millions of taxpayers’ dollars for personal attacks and general vindictive idiocy, while true, answers nothing.
It is hard to visit the Museum without leaving either angry or sad. The decade’s achievements and successes ended fast and now are a fleeting memory.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) Who knew recent history could seem so far away yet so timely. The Clinton Library has its shortcomings but it is refreshing that it follows the pattern of the better Presidential Libraries, Truman, LBJ and Eisenhower, and focuses on the history of the president’s tenure rather than the history of the man.
If you are in Little Rock, the Museum warrants a visit regardless of your feelings towards Clinton because it reflects a fair and accurate history of the decade in which we all have lived. The nearby State Capitol displays a better understanding of Clinton’s early career and political life. The Capitol’s few exhibits examine the State’s more famous governors, their vital statewide issues and their common political qualities.
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