Bill Clinton, America’s first baby boomer president, opened his library Thursday with a rock ’n’ roll gala that hailed the $165 million glass-and-steel museum as “a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future.”
Despite a steady, bone-chilling rain, nearly 30,000 people joined a celebration that included tributes from President Bush, his father and former President Jimmy Carter. Among living former presidents, only Gerald Ford was missing, too frail to attend.
Rock stars Bono and The Edge of the band U2 performed a three-song set before Clinton spoke to a crowd that included dignitaries and ordinary folk. Poetry and gospel singing added a down-home flavor.
“The story that began in a little house on Hervey Street in Hope, Arkansas, inspires people from every background all over America,” President Bush said of Clinton’s rise from small-town beginnings to the White House.
A real bridge in the 21st century
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center is a sleek, futuristic complex that contains more than 80 million items from the former president’s life, including photographs, e-mail messages, excerpts from famous speeches and gifts from world leaders. The library celebrates eight years of peace and prosperity and dismisses his impeachment as a Republican vendetta.
The 27-acre complex is cantilevered out over the Arkansas River — an allusion to Clinton’s desire during his presidency to build a “bridge to the 21st century.”
“What it is to me is a symbol of not only what I tried to do but what I want to do with the rest of my life, building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow, building bridges across racial and religious and ethnic and income and political divides,” said Clinton, 58, who was accompanied by his wife and daughter.
“I want young people to want to see not only what I did with my life but to see what they could do with their lives,” he said, “because this is mostly the story of what we, the people, can do when we work together.”
Bush called the library “a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future, and today we thank him for loving and serving America.”
A number of celebrities traveled to Little Rock for the opening, including actors Ed Begley Jr., Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, but the gala was really the party the Democrats were denied on Election Day, as scores of alumni of the Clinton administration showed up to reminisce, among them Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president.
Clinton said that during the eight years he and Gore led the country, the nation reduced the national debt and reformed the military while also reducing poverty and making college accessible to more people.
Sen. John Kerry tried to blend in with the crowd, leaving Clinton to address the underlying tension from the hard-fought campaign he lost to Bush this month.
“Am I the only person in the entire United States of America who likes both George W. Bush and John Kerry?” Clinton asked. “We all do better when we work together.”
A steady rain pelted the crowd throughout the ceremony, and a soldier stood near the podium bearing an umbrella to protect each speaker from the elements.
A tent had been set up Wednesday to shield dignitaries from the rain, but it was taken down because of faith placed in an overly optimistic weather report. The presidents and the first ladies held their own umbrellas and tipped dry their own rain-slicked chairs. By the end of the two-hour ceremony, Clinton’s usually poofy hair was matted down.
“If my beloved mother were here, she would remind me that rain is liquid sunshine and I shouldn’t complain about this because the ground probably needs it and somebody is benefiting from it,” said Clinton, who was raised by a hard-working widow, the late Virginia Kelley.
‘It’s filled with life’
Clinton, much thinner as a result of his September heart surgery, chuckled several times as the other ex-presidents recounted stories of past meetings with him, and he often slapped his thigh.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said the new library “is like my husband: It’s open, it’s expansive, it’s welcoming, it’s filled with life, and the exhibits tell the story of someone who loves his fellow man, who cares deeply about all of our children, who recognizes our common humanity.”
President Bush admired Clinton’s talent as a man of the people, telling the story of a voter who praised Clinton’s ability to look you in the eye, shake your hand, hold your baby and pet your dog, “all at the same time.”
The president’s father said he was vexed by Clinton’s political skill when he lost his re-election bid to him in 1992.
“It has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Believe me — I learned that the hard way,” the elder Bush said to uproarious laughter. “He made it look too easy, and oh, how I hated him for that.”
Economic lifeline for downtown
Clinton chose the site for the library in 1997, and construction has transformed a rusty abandoned warehouse district into a sprawling complex that has fueled $1 billion in development in downtown Little Rock.
A presidential timeline at the library explores Clinton’s highlights and headaches — economic prosperity and peace efforts in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East, along with his partisan fights with Congress, Whitewater and his impeachment and acquittal over lies he told in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
The Lewinsky matter and Whitewater are covered briefly in an alcove dedicated to the “politics of persecution,” which also mentions Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Defenders unapologetically said that it was Clinton’s library and that he could commemorate his presidency any way he chose.
A highlight of the museum is the only full-scale replica of the Oval Office in a presidential library, the last major exhibit on the two-story tour.
After the ceremony, John Miles of Hot Springs grabbed a barbecue sandwich in the nearby River Market and said the lousy weather had not dampened the enthusiasm of him and his wife.
“We stayed there all the time in the rain and enjoyed every minute of it,” Miles said. “We’re proud that somebody can go from Hope to the White House. We’re proud of what he did when he got there. For us, he’s the fulfillment of the American dream.”