updated 7/16/2008 5:15:54 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:15:54

Two weeks after the 2004 election, four American presidents journeyed to Little Rock, Arkansas, to open the $165 million William J. Clinton Presidential Center. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush gave gracious tribute to the president who defeated the former and was succeeded by the latter, and Jimmy Carter added words of praise. The Clinton Center is the largest of our presidential libraries, and the first with electronic records as well as paper documents; in its alcoves are exhibits and electronic connections to what the 42d president considers his great achievements along with a treatment of “the politics of persecution,” Bill Clinton’s take on the impeachment controversy. But not all is serious here: Clinton the hearty eater decreed that there be space on the grounds for picnics and cookouts. Bill Clinton may not have returned to live in Arkansas (nor did eight other presidents return to their home states), but he clearly is Arkansas’s most distinguished politician and a man whose articulateness and earthiness, outsized ambitions and overly visible faults are redolent of the state from which he began his unlikely ascent to national and international prominence. Clinton still has his detractors in Arkansas, but as his presidential center opened most Arkansans and Americans considered him an outstanding or above average president. As one said when he left Little Rock for Washington in January 1993, “I distinctly remember thinking that this was finally going to wipe away the stain left by Faubus”—the governor whose disobedience of an order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops to enforce it in 1957. Clinton certainly did that—no small accomplishment, but the scandals associated with him, if they did not bring him down, tarnished the reputations of many other Arkansans.

Arkansas, like Clinton, began life without many advantages. In area, it’s the smallest state between the Mississippi River and the Pacific; in population, it’s the smallest state in the South; it has not been blessed with any great natural resource—unless you count flame-retarding bromine, of which it produces half the world supply—or any growing major industry. Arkansas is the land left over when Louisiana and Missouri were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase and what is now Oklahoma was fenced off as Indian Territory. Settled by poor farmers with large families, few slaves and little cash, it has had no Atlanta or Dallas or even Memphis to be a focus of growth. Arkansas has the second lowest income levels of any state, the third lowest percentage of college graduates and the second lowest percentage of Internet use. Its economy—food processing, aerospace, auto parts, medical and construction equipment—recovered from the 2001 recession, despite some loss of manufacturing jobs, and the Clinton Center has been bringing in a steady stream of tourists. Growth is concentrated in the booming northwest corner of the state, in Little Rock and in counties along the Interstate highways. From 2000 to 2006, the Little Rock metro area grew 7%, the Fayetteville-Bentonville area in the northwest a whopping 21% (think Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods) and the Fort Smith metro area just to the south 6%; the rest of the state, with a little more than half the population, grew only 1%. It’s the only southern state without a big auto plant; in February 2007 Toyota rejected for the second time a site in Marion, in favor of Tupelo, Mississippi. Arkansas prides itself on being a traditional values state—58% of adults are married, higher than any other state except Idaho and Utah. But the divorce rate has also been higher than average, prompting Governor Mike Huckabee to declare “a state of marital emergency” and, in February 2005, to convert his marriage into a covenant marriage. In 2004 voters passed an amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and civil unions by 74%-26%.

As the late Arkansas political scientist Diane Blair noted, Arkansas never had a power elite of great plantation owners or economic robber barons. That has left it a heritage without honored traditions or tight standards, but has also made Arkansas a land of great opportunities, where talented people can move up fast, amassing huge fortunes by taking break-through ideas and making them work. Sam Walton believed that rural and small town America would support a chain of giant discount stores which, through tough bargaining with vendors and ultra-quick distribution, could undersell competitors, but through demanding management and employee profit-sharing could embody small town friendliness and service. Walton was the richest American when he died in April 1992, and Wal-Mart today is the largest private employer in the world, with a payroll of 1.8 million. Jack Stephens and his late brother Witt started an investment banking house in Little Rock specializing in underwriting municipal bonds and investing in businesses that are a mix of private enterprise, government subsidies and public regulation; their success—and political connections in Arkansas and elsewhere—amassed a billion dollar fortune. Don Tyson took his father’s chicken business and made it one of the biggest food producers in America. Another big Arkansas operation is J.B. Hunt’s trucking empire. These business giants have cultivated a down-home, laid-back style, but they have also skillfully united their interests with those of the state’s politicians, including Bill Clinton.

Politically, Arkansas was long solidly Democratic, with Republican pockets in the mountains in the northwest. For years it produced politicians who accumulated great seniority and power in Washington—longtime House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, Senators John McClellan and William Fulbright, who represented the state for a total of 65 years from the 1940s to the 1970s, and Senators Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, who served a total of 42 years from the 1970s to the 1990s. But in the 108th Congress, Arkansas was represented by two freshman senators and four House members with an average of four years of seniority—the delegation with the least clout of any state according to Roll Call. Republicans have won top of the line races occasionally—Winthrop Rockefeller, Sr., was elected governor in 1966 and 1968, following Orval Faubus, and Frank White beat Bill Clinton in 1980. Mike Huckabee took over as governor when Jim Guy Tucker was convicted and forced from office in 1996, and was reelected in 1998 and 2002; born in the same town as Bill Clinton, Hope, he launched a campaign for president in 2007. But he was succeeded by Democrat Mike Beebe, who won 56%-41%, and Arkansas’s two Senate seats are held by Democrats: Blanche Lincoln was elected to succeed David Pryor in 1996, and Mark Pryor, David Pryor’s son, beat one-term Republican Tim Hutchinson in 2002. Democrats now hold three of Arkansas’s four House seats (although George W. Bush carried all four of them in 2004), and the legislature remains, as it has been since Reconstruction, overwhelmingly Democratic. One reason Republicans have not been able to convert their predominance in post-Clinton presidential politics into statewide victories is that Republican primaries tend to be dominated by voters from the atypically booming northwest corner of the state, and they have chosen nominees who had a hard time appealing to voters in Little Rock and the economically more quiescent counties in the east and south.

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