by Max Brantley
UPDATE: Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System, says the rock will be returned to the state soon. He said it was clearly a gift to the people of Arkansas and he believes it might have gotten mistakenly put with Clinton papers and other items, which are now being processed at the library's Butler Center, at the end of his first term as governor in 1980. He figures it has been sitting in a box since then. He said he's been in touch with the Clinton organization and they agree with its return.
In 1976, NASA presented chips of lunar rock as goodwill gestures to the states from the Apollo 17 mission. In recent years, searches have been mounted to find them. Many states have misplaced the rocks, which were encased in clear plastic and mounted on wooden plaques.
This morning, Michael Hodge, who's archiving materials in the Bill Clinton State Government Project, found the plaque while recording other plaques and memorabilia, said Nathania Sawyer, associate head of special projects for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, an arm of the Central Arkansas Library System.
"We will catalogue it, note its condition and then it will be part of the collection," Sawyer told me this morning. But, subsequently, that changed a bit. It won't be staying around.
According to the account linked at the top, the state received the rock, presented by astronaut Dick Truly, when David Pryor was governor, in 1976. Some think chunks of the moon, even this small, could be worth $5 million though the sales are illegal.
I had thought the plaque might have found its way into Clinton materials during the chaotic period in 1992 when he left the governor's office to prepare to move to Washington. Bobby Roberts thinks not.
Clinton was defeated for re-election by Frank White in 1980. Roberts had worked for Clinton and was part of the crew that filled up more than 100 boxes with Clinton papers, which were shipped to UALR archives for storage in 1980. When the 1992 campaign began, those boxes were sent to the Clinton campaign. Roberts asked for the gubernatorial papers when the Clinton presidency was over. And eventually they arrived, for cataloguing and storage at the Butler Center.
Roberts said the discovery today was by chance as Hodge was processing some items of small research value. A rough inventory said the box contained a "flag plaque." Hodge opened it and found a plaque mentioning a donation of the moon rock to the people of Arkansas. The rock itself, in a clear plastic ball, had fallen off the plaque because the glue apparently wore out. But it was in the container. Both rock and plaque are now safely in the library vault.
Said Roberts: "I'll probably call the governor's office and say, 'You want your rock back?'"
Roberts doubts the mystery of how it wound up in Clinton papers — and when — will be solved. But he said the Frank White and subsequent Clinton administrations made no mention of the moon rock in their records and he's convinced that it was boxed up in 1980 and that he likely had a hand in it.
"We've solved one mystery, but created another," he said.
In the meanwhile, he said, he and the former president are in absolute agreement: "It belongs to the people of Arkansas and needs to go back to the people of Arkansas. We'll get it where it belongs."