Bill Clinton: The power and the story
27 000 guests due at opening of Clinton library
Let’s get this out of the way: there is no sign of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress in Bill Clinton’s personal monument to his immortality, a cantilevered span of steel and glass that houses the physical remains of his presidency.
But the William J Clinton presidential centre, which opens on Thursday, is none the less a living mausoleum to America in the 1990s, redolent of the achievement, glitz and tawdry scandals that will endow his legacy.
Clinton is the 12th American leader to consign his presidential papers, and the flotsam of his political career, to history. But as might be expected from an opening marked by a week of revelry, Clinton’s ideas of posterity have been realised on a far grander scale.
Thursday’s opening event, to be attended by President George Bush, and past presidents Bush and Carter, has attracted a roster of stars and Democratic party luminaries and will feature performances by Bono and U2.
About 27 000 people, more than the population of most Arkansas towns, are expected to attend.
A 757 packed full of celebrities arrived from Hollywood. By lunchtime on Wednesday, the average time on line for the museum shop for Bill Clinton dolls and jean jackets was half an hour, with the wait enlivened by a protester wearing a placard reading: “Hillary dump him, that evil trash.”
But it’s a bitter-sweet moment for Clinton, and for the thousands of his admirers who descended on Little Rock this week to try to conjure up those years of the 1990s, when America’s economy was roaring, its political obsessions frivolous, and a Democrat was in the White House.
Less than two months after emerging from open heart surgery, Clinton was being called upon to think once more about mortality—and the painful truth that his best days are behind him. “The great thing about a man in my position is I can say exactly what I think,” he told the local chamber of commerce on Tuesday. “But the bad thing is nobody’s listening because I don’t have any power any more.”
Most architectural critics have conceded the building, which was designed by New York architect James Polshek, is breathtaking. But at $165-million, the cost of housing the Clinton legacy is twice as expensive as the repository for George HW Bush’s presidential papers in Texas. Then again Clinton leaves a far fuller record of his presidency than any other leader. His eight-year stay at the White House generated 80-million pieces of paper, 21-million electronic documents, 2-million photographs and 79 000 objects, some of which could most kindly be described as kitsch.
Clinton’s hand is ever-present—“curator-in-chief”, the exhibit’s designer, Ralph Applebaum, said on Wednesday. The former president edited the text in the display cases and, only hours before the opening, was tinkering with the medals in the Oval Office.
The life-size replica of the Oval Office, as furnished by the Clintons, is the jewel of the museum. It has a moon rock on the coffee table and, curiously for a man derided by the right as a draft dodger, two display cases of military medals.
The substance of the presidency is on display in a mock Cabinet room with interactive displays allowing visitors to review the history of the Balkans before seeing how the decision was made for military intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
But Clinton’s not-so-secret weakness for glitz is also there, from the gushing celebrity thank you notes—Whoopi Goldberg wrote: “I think you’re the cat’s pyjamas”; Clinton replied: “From the moment I met you I felt I had found a friend”—to the sunglasses he wore playing his saxophone on a late-night TV show.
The spine of the museum is a 33m timeline of Clinton’s eight years in the White House, using photographs and videos to chart the highlights of his presidency, as well as events in the world. A row of blue binders below contains Clinton’s daily schedules, beginning from his first day as president on January 21 1993, with an 8.40am CIA briefing.
Fourteen alcoves on either side of the timeline focus on the achievements and pre-occupations of those years—from the upward slope of red lights delineating the economic prosperity of the 90s to the most tawdry chapter of his life, the 1998 impeachment scandal arising from Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky.
That section is entitled The Fight for Power, and eight years of reflection do not appear to have diminished Clinton’s rancour about the controversy.
Sections of the text, marked out in yellow highlighter, provide a glimpse at Clinton’s thoughts about the scandals of his second term. “Character assassination”, “rumours and accusations”, “politics of persecution”, and a broadside against the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, for overstepping his brief.
Applebaum deflected charges that he had tried to absolve Clinton by blaming the controversy and a power-mad Republican Congress. “What we tried to show was that this episode was embedded in a very rich and very complicated, and very full-blown activity of the presidency,” he said. In the end, how ever, even the exhibit could not shirk the cold hard truth. “In September 1998, President Clinton acknowledged that he had not been forthcoming about the relationship,” the section reads.
Clinton has also been generous with personal memorabilia, from a drawing he did as a six-year-old of the shoot-out in the movie High Noon to his cub scout membership card, and Chelsea Clinton’s baby book and pink ballet slippers.
Barely 8% of the material is on display in the main exhibition centre. The rest is consigned to an archive building partly sunk into the ground where it is estimated it will take scholars 50 years to sift through the physical remains of the Clinton presidency.
An old railroad station houses the Clinton school of public service, and when the landscaping is complete next spring, the 27-acre park on the south bank of the Arkansas river will be adorned with walking trails and barbecue pits.
The state’s tourism department expects 300 000 visitors a year. Clinton could also be on view: he has an apartment in the complex.
The power and the story
British leaders’ comments: Where to find them
Clement Attlee (1945-51)
Most of Attlee’s papers are at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford
Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-55)
In April 1995, grants from the National Heritage Lottery Fund and the John Paul Getty Foundation enabled the Chartwell papers to be bought from the Chartwell trust. They are at the Churchill Archives Centre
Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57)
Many of Eden’s papers are held in special collections by Birmingham University’s information services
Harold Macmillan (1957-63)
Many of Macmillan’s papers are at the Bodleian Library and his Foreign Office papers are at the Public Record Office
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64)
Many of Lord Home’s papers are at the National Library of Scotland and Birmingham University
Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)
Wilson’s papers are held by the Bodleian, while his correspondence on colonial issues from the 1950s is held at the Rhodes House Library in Oxford
Edward Heath (1970-74)
Heath’s papers and correspondence are in private possession. However, the Public Record Office holds others
James Callaghan (1976-79)
Callaghan’s political papers are held between the archives division of the London School of Economics and the Bodleian. Other material is at the Rhodes House Library
Margaret Thatcher (1979-90)
Thatcher’s archive, containing documents relating to her life and career is housed at the Churchill Archives Centre comprises around 100 archive boxes. Papers are online at margaretthatcher.org
John Major (1990-97)
No material has so far been deposited in archives by John Major - Guardian Unlimited Â