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Bill Clinton’s legacy revealed, warts and all

From Middle East policy to Monica Lewinsky, this newest Presidential Library doesn't pull its punches
Monica Lewinsky embraces President Clinton as he greeted well-wishers at a White House lawn party in Washington on Nov. 6, 1996.
In this image taken from video, Monica Lewinsky embraces President Clinton as he greeted well-wishers at a White House lawn party in Washington on Nov. 6, 1996. One of the Presidential Library alcove themes will be “impeachment.” AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Whether Bill Clinton's presidential library breaks the mold by drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year and driving central Arkansas' economy, only time will tell. But as the library is unveiled Thursday as a metaphorical “bridge to the 21st century,” one thing is certain: It will be forced to break the mold of a historical museum because its subject is a 58-year-old political superstar who still sets the Democratic agenda.

“Bill Clinton is a rock star,” said Skip Rutherford, head of Clinton's nonprofit foundation that built the $165 million library and continues his post-presidential AIDS-fighting and racial reconciliation initiatives. “He is Elvis.”

His drawing power will be on full display this week, when the current and former U.S. presidents, foreign leaders and celebrities are expected to be among 30,000 invited guests gathered on the library lawn, overlooking the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock.

For a solid week, Little Rock will be focused on everything Clinton. From a symposium on Clinton's impact on race relations to a talk by his White House pastry chef. Celebrations of his time as Arkansas governor, of his family, of his friends, of his political supporters. Film festivals and art exhibits.

Conversely, the world will be focused on Arkansas, and Little Rock wants to put its best foot forward. There'll be an Aretha Franklin concert, a science discussion by astronaut and former Democratic Sen. John Glenn, new sculptures on the riverfront and at the airport, legions of volunteers working at information stations, and security coordinated by the U.S. Secret Service.

At Thursday morning's grand opening, Clinton, his wife Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Bush, former President Bush, President Carter and other dignitaries will speak, U2's Bono and The Edge will perform and the throng will get its first look at New York architect James Polshek's 150,000-square-foot glass and steel creation—at least from the outside.

The delicate task of serving history

Starting the next day, the public will be able to pay $7 admission to see the inside—black marble floors, plenty of open space, an exact replica of the Oval Office, a Great Hall reception room with 40-foot ceilings, a 20,000-square-foot museum section with thematic alcoves, a multi-media timeline, interactive flat-screen displays and a whir of high-tech gadgets.

In that museum area, visitors will also get to see how Clinton, his closest advisers and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum tell Clinton's story. Even before the library was planned, there was speculation about what political, legal and personal controversies would be addressed.

Clinton has responded by promising to give scholars early archives access to heretofore private policy advice and other documents he doesn't have to release until 2006. He also has taken some of the edge off by writing about the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones sex scandals, impeachment and his political missteps in his memoirs, the best-selling “My Life.”

Appelbaum has promised that one of the alcove themes will be “impeachment.” Sen. Clinton told The Associated Press last year that Lewinsky's name and other controversial subjects shouldn't be kept out of the library because “this is part of history.” Friday, she said the library would be “a comprehensive accurate story of the eight years of the Clinton administration.”

Still, a Houston businessman and conservative former New York congressman were wary enough of the potential for “propaganda” in the exhibits to form a nonprofit to build a Counter Clinton Library. The effort has sputtered and been delayed, but has the support of disgruntled former Clinton adviser Dick Morris.

The biggest question about the historical value of the museum has been raised by political scientists and Clinton confidants like Rutherford, who have repeatedly said it will take decades to establish the definitive view of the Clinton presidency.

It's clear Clinton is interested in setting the tone for his legacy. Last year, he spoke to students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in a nationally televised weekly lecture class on his presidency and showed them a compendium of accomplishments in his administration.

“That's the way I kept score, but it's not the way a lot of others kept score,” he said.

The "Elvis" factor

All of the debate, however, could be the library's blueprint for success. Because Clinton is still so topical, Rutherford insists the 12th presidential library will establish a new model for the genre—a tourism-driven model.

The other presidential libraries struggle to draw more than 150,000 paying customers. Rutherford said it's because they are either in sentimental locations too far off the beaten path or lost in larger metropolises. Downtown Little Rock is the happy medium, he said.

He has doggedly worked the tourism circuit for the last two years, speaking at motor coach conventions, strategizing with institutions in Memphis, Tenn., to draw visitors from the international gateway two hours down the interstate and lining up national conventions for 2005 and beyond.

The library has already had an economic impact. Since the site was chosen in 1997, the depressed surrounding warehouse district is reinvigorated and downtown, with shiny new condos, hip renovated lofts and swanky restaurants, is suddenly the place to be.

The library has directly or indirectly inspired: $800 million in new downtown development, 2,000 new or refurbished hotel rooms in the immediate area, renewed cultural events in the nearby River Market District, a streetcar line that opened Nov. 1, the selection of Alltel Arena as an opening-round venue for the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, plans for a new minor-league ballpark, talk of a $100 million arts and entertainment district and efforts to start a nonprofit corridor anchored by Clinton's foundation.