Friday, May 28, 2010

Ah, to be an FOB

Everyone in Arkansas is a Friend of Bill. An FOB. (I mean, you knew what that stood for, right?) Arkansans tend to think of "FOB" as a generic team even those not in the inner circle (and by that I mean anyone not from Arkansas) should know. Not really the case, and I'll be the first to admit it, but I'll also admit that by now, I'm fully in the I-like-to-think-I'm-an-FOB-and-you-better-believe-it club.

So, I can't really pass up a chance to get a photo with or of Bill Clinton any time we're in the same room -- or across a football field from each other, same difference. As of today, I now count my meetings (I'm going to use that word loosely) with the President at four. The first was during Obama's inauguration, in January 2009, at the Arkansas Gala in Washington. One of the perks of writing for High Profile was the chance to cover the Arkansas State Society's ball at the National Press Club, along with other Arkansas-related inauguration festivities.

Everyone had an inkling that Bill would drop by and steal the show. Good thing he pulled through because my press pass was less than effective at getting me past all the checkpoints I was supposed to that week.

Often, the President attends and speaks at multiple events on a single trip home. In June of 2009, he joined Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, both former Arkansas governors and senators, to share stories of their lives in politics at the Clinton Presidential Center's annual Kumpuris Lecture. Former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty was the moderator, and Governor Beebe introduced everyone. It was quite the Arkansas political timeline personified that night. The following evening, President Clinton and four fellow Arkansas governors formally opened the doors of the Arkansas Studies Institute, a beautiful facility in the River Market that is a joint project of the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas System. The now united trio of buildings, each built in a different century (1882, 1914 and 2009), also houses the papers of seven Arkansas governors. This was my first photo with the President. People had many comments on this one, though the best came from my boyfriend at the time: "42's holding you kind of close."

Over a year went by before I would get another chance to see the President in person. I often heard he was in town, jetting in for a night or two to attend a private event, pay his respects at a funeral, or headline a fundraiser that cost more than my paycheck to attend. When he is here, he stays at an apartment above the Clinton Library. From what I am told, it is the only residence he still has in Arkansas. People with connections have seen the inside; I'm still waiting for my invitation.

So, back to the motivation for this post. My most recent Bill sighting was today, at the groundbreaking of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. The structure dates to 1899, when it was a railroad crossing over the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock. Though it is old and in need of serious restoration, which -- $13 million later -- is now going to become a reality, it is elegant and charming in its history. There's a picture of it on my first post on the blog. Converting the bridge into a pedestrian/bicycle crossing was part of Clinton's plan when he first decided to build his Presidential library on a site adjacent to it in Little Rock. But it's taken years for the funds to be raised, a combination of monies from the City of Little Rock, City of North Little Rock, Clinton Foundation, and federal funds. Today, the work officially begins, and the Clinton Foundation anticipates it opening for use within the next several months.

At one point, the bridge was named the Rock Island Bridge, after a railroad line that owned it. But in recent weeks, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors voted to change the name to honor President Clinton and to more strongly connect it to the Clinton Presidential Center, on whose grounds today's event was held.

This morning, it was about 90 degrees as the crowd awaited the President's arrival. Appropriately, "Rolling on the River" played on the stereo. When it came time for Governor Beebe to introduce Clinton, he didn't waste any time (let's just say he didn't need my talking points today), and his brief time at the podium did not go unnoticed by the President.

"This is why Governor Beebe's approval rating hovers at around 70 percent," Clinton said, to thunderous applause and a chuckle from the Governor.

Obviously proud to return to the Library on the occasion of the bridge progress, Clinton had strong things to say about the power of this bridge to continue to revitalize downtown Little Rock and to further connect the communities of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

"If we do this bridge right, there will be no city in America that will have a more defining landmark," he said. I think he has a thing for bridges; his library was intended to reflect the concept of "the bridge to the 21st century." Viewed from the correct vantage point, it's truly a stunning site against the Arkansas River.

The turning of the dirt followed (yes, this is an actual term I have now heard used many times at such events featuring shining shovels for men in suits to hold):

Though the President and Governor had to rush to a second event, Clinton took time to greet guests, many of whom I'm certain he knew personally and genuinely wanted to catch up with. I got my chance to shake his hand and get a quick photo, courtesy of Denver Peacock of CJRW. I wish there was ever enough time to tell him we're both Hoyas and that my stepfather worked for the State when he was Governor.

The event was wonderful, and I was glad for one more chance to hear him address a crowd. As I count the instances I've seen him in person, though, I shouldn't fail to mention the time my family spotted the Clintons at Cirque du Soleil in Washington while they were still in the White House. My brother swears Hillary waved to him. I'll let him decide which is better -- that or when she kissed my cheek and called me "dear" at the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 2008.

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