Columns » Bob McCord

Clinton's real legacy: the library


This dawned on me last week when a tour of the library began to start, and Skip Rutherford, president of the Clinton Presidential Foundation, pointed to Interstate 30 a few blocks to the west and said, "Do you know that 41,000 cars drive on it every day?" Many drivers will have a hard time passing by this beautiful, avant-garde 21st century building sitting high on the bank of the Arkansas River. The estimate is that the Clinton Library will attract 300,000 visitors and 1,500 researchers in its first year, which starts with its opening Nov. 18. The average number of visitors to the 11 presidential libraries is 150,000 a year. That doesn't include the researchers who come to read the papers of the presidents. Even though John F. Kennedy was assassinated 51 years ago, last year 1,627 researchers came to his library in a distant, hard-to-find section of Boston. Like Kennedy, Bill Clinton had experiences in the White House that were good and some that were bad but all were very interesting. Any serious student or writer of American government would surely want to examine the papers of the fourth youngest president and the first Democrat to have been elected to two terms in 60 years. Lyndon Johnson's library in Austin, Texas, draws the most visitors (209,910 last year), largely because it is on the campus of the University of Texas, which has 50,000 students. The smallest turnout last year was 66,639 visitors to the Herbert Hoover library in West Branch, Iowa, a remote town with fewer than 5,000 persons. Clinton wisely appointed a group of people to visit every one of the libraries before the site and the design of his library were decided, and their report was: The site should be in a large city containing other things that travelers might want to see. Visitors will want to see the Heifer International headquarters that will be next door to the library, and then there's the Old State House, Historic Arkansas Museum, Central High School, the Arts Center, etc. Two of the 11 presidential libraries are in towns under 5,000. Little Rock-North Little Rock will be the fourth largest site following Austin, Boston and Atlanta. Also it's important to situate it so visitors can find it easily. (My taxi ride to the Kennedy library cost big bucks.) A regular library nearby is important to researchers and students. The Main Library is an easy walk from the Clinton library. A college in the town is also an asset. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock will have classrooms on the library's grounds in the restored Rock Island depot. Hotels, entertainment and restaurants should be nearby. There are many motels and hotels in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock that will have shuttles to the library. Little Rock's River Market is within walking distance of the library and stays busy late into the night with food, drink and entertainment. Soon an elaborate movie theater will be open nearby. You will drive east on Markham that becomes President Clinton Avenue and takes you right to the library's Celebration Circle outside the library's front door. Just looking out of the library's double-paned glass walls is very interesting. Eventually 750 trees will be planted and bicycle trails, a children's playground and outdoor theater will be built. In front is the river and eventually North Little Rock's riverfront attractions, including a submarine museum. Straight ahead is the south end of the old Rock Island bridge that one day will be a walkway to shops and will take walkers and bike riders back and forth across the river to North Little Rock. You can wander out on balconies on every floor or sit out on a patio outside of the cafeteria on the first floor. The building costs $165 million in contributions, not taxes. It is 850 feet long and 150 feet high, 151,000 square feet. It has four stories and an underground basement that contains 80 to 90 million documents, the largest collection of America's presidential papers. The small top floor contains the Clintons' suite and the Secret Service offices. The other floors contain: Reproductions of Clinton's Oval Office and his Cabinet Room ... Orientation theater showing a film that tells visitors what's in the library ... A Great Hall for dinners, meetings, press conferences, etc. ... Rooms for exhibitions from the presidency and from Arkansas that will change every six months (the first one will be "Delta Heritage") ... Admission will be $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens, $3 for children 6 to 17, and free to school groups and children under 6. Right inside the front door will be the limousine Clinton rode in Washington. And on the wall will be the names of the 1,500 persons who built the library, 90 percent of them Arkansans. Like Clinton or not, we'll like his library.

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