It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
The big story of 1993 came early to Arkansas: the ascendancy of a native son to the White House; the January inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton. Soon after, however, a smaller story appeared in our pages. It didn't seem to amount to much, something about a land deal, a failed savings and loan, and recently-installed Governor Tucker. It was a story we called "typical" of others brought to light during the S&L collapses of the 1980's. But -as Clinton's humble beginnings prove- from tiny rivulets, great rivers spring.
In the beginning, though, there was the Power and the Glory. Editor Max Brantley and columnist John Brummett were two of the thousands of Arkansans who descended on Washington, D.C. for the inauguration, issuing rare two-issue coverage to document the festivities. Like most Arkansans, Brantley and Brummett were in a cheering mood. Given the circumstances, you couldn't help but cheer with them.
Brantley, usually the world's most star-struckproof of observers, was clearly dazzled by the bright lights, admitting he was in tourist mode from the outset. He name-dropped with the best of them, dishing on celebrities in attendance: Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Fonz and Donna Mills, Bob Dylan and LL Cool J, Aretha Franklin and Lauren Bacall. Brummett bore witness to what will probably stand for all time as a Washington D.C. record: 10,000 people -barred from the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel by fire marshal's decree- calling the Hogs, gridlocking traffic by the sheer weight of their Arkieness.
It was a moment to be proud of the state and its people. Until, Brummett pointed out, Roger Clinton took the stage, "strutting like a paunchy Mick Jagger" and sang "Mustang Sally" in a style the Washington Post later compared to Bill Murray's lounge-lizard schtick on Saturday Night Live. Later, Brantley reported, The Other Clinton was seen dancing with sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer. We said it was the worst of times, didn't we?
"Oh, what a feeling," Brummett wrote. "This is the week for the celebration of a lifetime for Democrats who have been locked out of the White House for a dozen years, for all but four of the last 24."
It was a glee that couldn't last.
Just three issues later, on February 18, 1993, the Arkansas Times rolled presses on what, without the benefit of hindsight, seems to be not much of a story at all: a single page report on attempts by new Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to repay a seven-year-old debt left by failed savings and loan Madison Guaranty; $260,000 that Tucker apparently invested in a tanked trailer park venture called Castle Grande. "Turn right off 145th street, south of Little Rock, onto Castle Grande Road, and you won't get far," wrote Times reporter Richard Martin. "The asphalt halts abruptly in a swampy thicket. Once advertised as a mobile home tract, developed by the now-defunct Madison Guaranty, Castle Grande these days looks like nothing so much as the proverbial Florida swampland."
Oh, if we had only known then how deep the muck of Castle Grande went. Like Alice's unassuming rabbit hole, it turned out to be deep indeed. In the story, Martin connected Tucker's name to that of Jim McDougal, the former chairman of Madison Guaranty, who - with Bill and Hillary Clinton as relatively small-fry investors - had once started a north-Arkansas real estate development called Whitewater
A convicted governor, a $70 million-plus dollar investigation and the wrath of Kenneth Starr later, the image of Arkansas and Arkansans has been irreparably changed in the national imagination, transformed for some from the victory-giddy crowds that called the Hogs in D.C., into a state full of shady backroom dealers. Still, history is history. The coming Starr would sweep up much of the enthusiasm and good will of that cold D.C. night in January 1993, haunting that scene somehow, the same way Clinton's name will surely be haunted by an asterisk in history books for as long as there is such a thing as the United States.
Still, admit it: Even if you can't love Bill Clinton as much as you did the week of his inauguration, you still love the way you felt.