At Home in the U.S.A. - 2005-05-01

Little Rock, AR

Photo Op

Suzie Amer meets a favorite son on his own turf

I've only been to Arkansas once in my life, and damned if I didn't meet Bill Clinton.

I have to admit, I've always liked President Clinton. Sure, he had his faults, but so do all tragic heroes. It doesn't make him any less charming—or disarming—than everyone says he is.

You'll have to take my word for it. I met Bubba when I was invited, along with several other journalists, to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the new headquarters of the global aid organization, Heifer International. Heifer works to solve hunger and poverty by providing families with income- and food-producing animals that serve as a means toward self-sufficiency. Its CEO, Jo Luck, also served as then-Governor Clinton's first cabinet appointee as director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism.

Clinton was scheduled to speak at the ceremony, and our chartered bus was abuzz with speculation about whether we'd actually get to meet the man, much less ask him any questions. Mind you, this was all before the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library last November. Tourism, according to James L. "Skip" Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, has been extraordinary ever since. "Our annual projection for attendance was 300,000. Here we are at four months, and we've had more than 210,000 visitors, so we'll easily exceed expectations." Rutherford says the library has booked more than 200 groups for 2005.

Back then, however, some of us were getting our first taste of Arkansas. Three days prior to the Heifer groundbreaking, we toured around the Natural State. In Little Rock, we watched (by way of a glass-sided elevator) as the local contingent of Peabody ducks marched to and from their rooftop coop at our host hotel, the 418-room Peabody Little Rock. In addition to a family of ducks, the Peabody Little Rock features 40,000 square feet of function space, including the 10,824-square-foot Peabody Grand Ballroom.

In Eureka Springs, we walked through the life-sized recreation of the Holy Land, in which The Great Passion Plays (America's number-one attended outdoor drama) annually re-enact Christ's last days. Although it was the show's off-season, we wandered through three-story "Jerusalem" (roughly the size of two football fields), peeked into the 4,100-seat amphitheatre, browsed the Bible Museum, and learned about the dedicated paid cast of 250 actors and live animals. We then gazed through a coin-operated binocular at Christ of the Ozarks, the largest Christ memorial statue in the U.S. (smaller than, but strongly resembling, the one in Rio). Later, in Hot Springs National Park—actually the name of the town—we partook of the healing waters in a traditional bathhouse at the Velda Rose Resort Hotel & Spa. We stayed overnight at the grand old 484-room Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, an historic hotel with enormous guest rooms and more than 45,000 square feet of meeting space, including the Crystal Ballroom, with seating for up to 650, theater-style.

Next thing we knew, we were back in Little Rock, watching the groundbreaking ceremony on a dirt plot adjacent to the then-still-under-construction Clinton Presidential Library and Park. As the proceedings drew to a close, Clinton began to work the crowd under the watchful eyes of several Secret Service agents. The crowd, which included a writer with beautiful blonde hair and bright blue eyes (someone I'll admiringly call a "Southern belle") and myself, pushed forward to shake hands with the former President. It soon became clear that he would shake every hand there, but even as he took one, his eyes were already settling on the next appreciative fan.

Until, that is, he got to us. "Well hello," he said, most graciously—to my companion, the Belle. "And where are you from? Are you from the local press?" The Belle, now blushing under the heat of such individualized Presidential attention, brought a fluttering hand to her chest. He shook her other hand, then put his arm around her shoulders. I stood there, thinking, "Is he . . . flirting with her? Am I witnessing the much-discussed, much-depositioned tragic flaw before my very own eyes?"

While wrestling with these questions, I suddenly realized that the Belle and the former President of the United States were looking at me expectantly. He had invited her to take a picture with him, and she had handed me her camera. Shaken out of my trance into a full fluster, I fumbled with the camera. That's when President Clinton spoke to me.

He leaned forward, reaching out to me. Actually, to the camera. "Here," he said, helpfully pointing to the shutter. "I think you just need to push this button."

By the time Bubba and the Belle said their goodbyes, I was in a state. Not only did Clinton have to show me how to use a camera, but I'd missed the chance for my own Presidential photo op.