LITTLE ROCK -- At mid-morning last Thursday, with the dedication ceremonies of the Clinton Library just an hour or two away, a middle-aged couple sans credentials somehow managed to get through the several checkpoints designed to screen out visitors and approached the media pass-gate at the library site, which sat high up on a hill alongside the Arkansas River, a glassed-in structure which looks like an airport terminal on stilts.
"Hi," said the husband to the group of raincoated twentysomething security assistants. "We're from DeKalb, Illinois, and we just wanted to take a look." Right. The deadlines for both ticketing and credentialing were long gone, and here were two folks -- vacationers, as it were -- just happening by for a drop-in. Just like old times. It's not happening, they were told. Not only was every semi-healthy former president scheduled to be on hand for the occasion, but so was the newly reelected George W. Bush himself.
"So what!?" the wife said with unfeigned amazement. She went on to explain that she and her husband had been in Chicago some time back for a papal visit by John Paul II. "I mean, we saw the pope. This is ridiculous!"
Well, the couple from DeKalb haven't been paying close enough attention. We live in dangerous times. A couple of decades ago, the aforesaid pope himself was the target of a would-be assassin's bullets. And in the age of al-Qaeda -- especially in the wake of 9/11 -- all public celebrations are potential variations on "The Masque of the Red Death," the Edgar Allan Poe story set in the Italian Renaissance about a doomed revelry in the middle of a plague.
There was revelry in Little Rock last week too. And, to lighten up a bit, nothing untoward happened. On Wednesday night, veteran Democratic activist Evelyn Still of Memphis huddled with other visitors behind rope-lines in the lobby of Little Rock's version of The Peabody, whooping and hollering with the others whenever a certifiable celebrity entered or left the plush hostelry.
"So far, I've seen Bono and Nancy Sinatra and Tricia Nixon, and I've heard that Meg Ryan and Brad Pitt came by!" said Still, camera and autograph pad at the ready.
Just then came another high-decibel whoop, as a group including Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean entered -- the ghost of Christmas past and the ghost of last Christmas, politically speaking. That was followed by an even bigger yell as -- who was it? Oh yeah, Geraldo! Fox News broadcaster Rivera, with a lady on his arm, both of them formally attired and beaming at the attention, had just arrived -- headed, presumably, to one of the several glittering social affairs that took place in town all week, excluding the unticketed denizens of the rope-line, of course.
"Oh my God!" said a woman, as a youngish man, clad in simple sport shirt, entered. She was alone in her shock of recognition, as this turned out to be Dave Casinelli of North Little Rock, a former pitcher for the New York Yankees. Casinelli's status was decidedly second-tier in a week in which, for example, one could be having dinner at the Double Tree Hotel and listening to William Cohen, a former senator and secretary of defense under Clinton, discourse with a woman companion two tables over.
Audible snatches of the conversation might have been table scraps from The New York Post's Page Six gossip fare: From Cohen: "Hillary said that?" "Oh, Vernon [Walters, a Clinton confidante] dropped by." The woman (speaking of TV's John McLaughlin): "I call him Mack!" (To distinguish him from other Johns, seemed to be the idea.)
Not everything said by a celebrity was quite that superficial. Comedian/pundit/author/broadcaster Al Franken offered this commentary on the recent difficulties of his nemesis, Fox broadcaster Bill O'Reilly, whose network evidently paid millions in an undisclosed settlement that headed off a potential sexual-harassment suit.
"Oh, he took a fall, all right," said Franken the author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, in which O'Reilly figures large with no small satisfaction.
What Franken was doing at just that juncture was inquiring at the affair's main media desk about missing credentials that should have been, but weren't, forwarded to himself and a colleague. That somebody as celebrated in Democratic circles as Franken had this problem was a commentary of sorts on the tightness of security.
Franken finally got his ducats, of course, as did such other stragglers as two print reporters from Memphis who, by dint of much struggle and special pleading, finally earned the right to stand, largely unshielded, in a cold rain for several hours on Thursday as various bands played and orators orated, as Bono and The Edge sang, and as other warm-up events (no pun intended, or applicable) took place.
Discomfort or no, however, it was worth being there on an occasion when George W. and all those other former chief executives Clinton, the senior Bush, Jimmy Carter found it both convenient and timely to make nice with each other and to pretend, at least for a moment, that there was both comity and continuity in the affairs of the American state.
"A bad hair day," jested Arkansas senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln early on, as, sheltered by an umbrella, she headed for rendezvous with a TV reporter. Yes, but a good day for democracy all the potential chills, literal and metaphorical, notwithstanding.
• State senator Jim Kyle of Memphis is new Democratic leader of the Tennessee Senate, having won a party caucus vote in Nashville last week. He supplants Chattanooga's Ward Crutchfield, the longtime caucus head.
The ascendancy in the party hierarchy of Kyle, a confidante of Governor Phil Bredesen, is yet another measure of the governor's influence in that body. Bredesen's popularity remains high, despite his current stand-off with Tennessee Justice Center's Gordon Bonnyman over whether and how to continue TennCare.
Bredesen continues to get mentions in the national media as a presidential prospect for 2008. "If Bredesen doesn't make Democrats swoon, something has gone terribly wrong," says the current New Republic, which rates the Tennessee governor as "the best potential presidential candidate among the Democrats' second tier of stars."
• Eighth District U.S. representative Marsha Blackburn was among the 'aye' voters on last week's unrecorded tally of the House of Representatives Republican caucus, in which the GOP lawmakers amended their own rules to prevent the holder of a party leadership post from being removed in the event of an indictment for a felony. The vote was on behalf of Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, one of the architects of GOP domination in the House and the impresario of a reapportionment move which is credited with adding five new Republican seats to the party's majority. DeLay is under legal scrutiny by a Texas grand jury, which has already indicted three of his political associates for improper use of corporate funds to pay for political activities.
Blackburn, who is making a pre-Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan, said through a spokesman in Washington that she believed expulsion from party office or committee chairmanships should not be a remedy except in case of conviction. She also has written the House Rules Committee, asking that the House Ethics Committee, which has admonished DeLay in the past, "tighten" its procedures for issuing such admonishments.
Third District U.S. representative Zach Wamp of Chattanooga was one of several GOP congressmen who broke with the party majority on the rules changes. "It sends all the wrong signals for us to change the current rules," said Wamp, who called in vain for a recorded secret ballot on the issue. •