Monday, August 17, 2009

'I'm at Slick Willie's place'

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The couple on the elevator snickered.

"You mean that trailer on stilts?" the husband said.

My companions on the ride from the fifth floor to the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in downtown Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday were of course speaking of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, on the south shore of the Arkansas River.

After a country breakfast at the farmer's market, I walked several blocks from the River Market district in Little Rock to the Clinton museum, a silvery structure that is oddly rectangular and lounges off an incline toward the Arkansas River and a rusty relic of an abandoned railroad bridge.

The architectural comparison of Clinton's museum to a mobile home or a package of Reynolds Wrap hanging on a table isn't clever. It's obvious.

At the entrance outside the facility that archives the life and service of our 42nd commander in chief, I encountered some early-morning smokers, a husband and wife taking their last draws of nicotine before the tour.

The man, sporting a generous gut and speaking with a deep Southern drawl, pulled out his cell phone, and called a buddy.

"You'll never guess where I'm at," he said into the phone, laughing, and looking conspiratorially at his wife. "I'm at Slick Willie's place."

"Slick Willie's place" is much like President Bill Clinton. On the outside, it appears sort of white trashy, an easy punchline. But inside is a modern, intelligent, brilliantly organized presentation of Clinton's two terms as our president, with a dash of history about his life as governor, childhood and college years. Built with generous amounts of glass the Clinton museum allows visitors fantastic views of Little Rock and the sleepy, serene Arkansas River community. You get the distinct sense that you are in Clinton's brain looking at the outside world. It's a remarkable effect.

Inside the museum, I spent hours reading Clinton's speeches and going through displays. Among the most impressive was one dealing with the Internet and science. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore understood the intersection of technology and commerce in a way no president ever has, or perhaps ever will.

I'm on the edge of turning 40, a statistically likely halfway point for life. It's entirely possible that in 2050, if I'm near death and highly reflective, I will look back on the 1990s - the years of peace and prosperity under Clinton - as the best ones of my American life. Some will argue the Republican Congress deserves credit for those times and others maintain the positives of that period happened in spite of Clinton, not because of him.

For so many reasons, his presidency is deserving of reverence and high-minded debate. As is his work as a post president.

But with that there's always the taint, an eye roll.

In recent days, former President Clinton has been much in the news for his role in the retrieval of jailed American journalists in North Korea.

For this Clinton has been celebrated.

And mocked.

Because the reporters were female, there's been much late-night hee-hawing from Conan and Jimmy about the Clinton-led rescue - all stemming from Clinton's Monica Lewinsky infamy.

The jokes flow from the same theme: Did he hit on the journalists? It's a sick premise considering the import of the situation for the women, but let's face it, the thought occurred to more people than Rush Limbaugh.

As the man at the museum door said, "I'm at Slick Willie's place."

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