Columns » John Brummett

Elusive building, like the man


I agree with Hillary Clinton when she says her husband’s new presidential library in Little Rock reflects him perfectly. But I see it and him differently from the way she sees them. She says the structure represents Bill in that it is open, expansive and full of light. She’s correct as far as that goes. But the library mirrors him in a more substantive way: What you make of it depends on your angle. From the Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River the structure looks for all the world like a pretentious house trailer. By that I mean the traditional single-wide, not the double-wide that the national writers kept talking about last week. They do not know their manufactured housing. But when you’re on the site and gazing north along the glistening western side of this massive and powerfully detailed steel-and-glass protrusion, which is cantilevered and mildly missile-like, you behold a dramatic and compelling work of modern architecture. As New York sophisticates have tried to explain, the structure is metaphorical and futuristic. It symbolizes Clinton’s theme of a bridge to the 21st Century. It’s an incomplete bridge, suspended, spanning nothing. We can only prepare for and reach out to the future, not tell it. You look across the river into the peacefully radiant yellow and orange trees of an undeveloped section of North Little Rock and wish the area could be left alone. Then you turn west and observe an instant contrast: Little Rock as you’ve never seen it, from this long-neglected and racially resegregated eastern side of the interstate highway, through the speeding and heavy freeway traffic into three new towers of the River Market and the old skyscrapers beyond. Your city gets reborn to you. Inside you see, as Hillary observes, accessibility and brightness. You play with the interactive touch-screen computers. You are moved by exhibits on race relations, Irish peace-seeking and international humanity. You are impressed by the graph denoting steadily rising economic performance in the Clinton years. You enjoy the photographs and personal items revealing the ingratiating pedestrianness of this uncommonly common man. But then you go to the alcove presenting the exhibit about Monica Lewinsky and impeachment to peruse a description of events that, while true enough, stops frustratingly short of candor or accountability. You want one more paragraph, something like this: “So, yes, the investigation and impeachment of the president stemmed from the partisan abuses by the Republicans and their politics of personal destruction as nurtured by a new and less responsible media. But in the end, the president, by misbehavior and dishonesty, brought problems on himself, betrayed the country and damaged any hope of lasting influence for his third-way politics.” It comes down to where you are when you look at the building and the man. From a distance there’s tackiness. Up close there’s such glorious impressiveness that your breath almost gets taken away. Inside, at the core, there’s much to see and admire, then, inevitably, slipperiness. I may never come to a firm conclusion about the building, just as I’ve never come to one about its subject. All I can say with certainty is that Bill Clinton is a distinctive and elusive man who has forever changed the landscape of his home state by favoring it with a structure just as distinctive and elusive.

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