Blowing in the Rain 

Soaking up the pomp and circumstance at the Clinton Library dedication.

At first it was like being back in junior high. The headgear-and-humiliation version, not the perky-little-cheerleader one.

The week before the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, all anyone in Little Rock is talking about is what famous person would be at which party at what trendy and/or high-priced locale, none of which I had a snowball's chance of being invited to.

Three days to go and the gossiping kicks into high gear, and it's all about Brad and Jennifer and Tom Hanks and Bono, and because my office is right in the middle of the downtown strip of hotels and bars and restaurants closest to the Clinton library itself, there is no escape. Someone puts a "Honk if you're Bono" sign in an office window across the parking lot.

(My favorite story of the week: Oprah and Tom Cruise shared a cab Monday from the Little Rock airport to their downtown hotel. Shared. A cab. As if people that A-list have nothing better to do than bum around Little Rock for three days before the ceremony. I couldn't really figure out why they'd come at all. Sure, all of us who live here wanted a piece of the action, but mainly because of all the celebrities we heard were coming. These people run into each other at the freaking grocery store.)

Still, try as I might to remain above the fray, I finally buckle and start to pass along whatever I hear, just to taste those tiny droplets of inclusion. Otherwise, all I've got is the most pathetic six-degrees story imaginable: The owner of a River Market club where one of the most exclusive parties was booked is a guy I went to high school with. I have no reason to believe he's aware of my existence, but I was once matched up with him by one of those computerized Valentine's Day compatibility questionnaires. I decide against trying to cash in on our history together.

Tuesday night the parties begin, and I head home grumpy at 6 p.m. Stupid famous people.

But Wednesday morning dawns almost balmy, and the morning humidity brings with it a change of attitude. Like any unhip junior high kid, I have exactly two designated cool outfits in my closet, and I put one on.

At 11 a.m., I walk across the street in my jaunty high-heeled boots to a luncheon whose guests of honor are Arkansas' six living current and former first ladies, including, of course, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Given Arkansas's recent gubernatorial history, it's not unreasonable to expect fisticuffs. One Democratic first lady is there because her husband succeeded Clinton after he left for the White House, and the current Republican first lady, the wife of a Baptist minister and a weight-loss spokesman, is there because her husband's predecessor had to resign to face felony charges.

But they smile, they make nice, they do exactly nothing remotely interesting. I spend most of the event trying to remember the name of a redheaded actress with unnaturally skinny legs sitting at one of the tables. Later I'll wonder whether it's possible to stuff your pantyhose like you'd stuff a bra -- you know, a pair of opaque tights, a few strategically placed wads of Kleenex and, voila, instant calf muscles.

Then I remember: It's Marilu Henner. I don't know it at the time, but my personal celeb-spotting has pretty much just peaked. Sure, I see Jesse Jackson -- twice -- but if Clinton Week celebrity-watching were Monopoly, Jesse Jackson would be Baltic Avenue. Everyone has a Jesse Jackson piece by the end of the week. (Boardwalk? Maybe Oprah -- who, it turns out, never actually showed.)

After work there's a reception for the press. Peter Jennings does not show. But I do end up talking to a reporter from a German daily who's based in Washington, D.C. I mention all the empty seats I'd noticed in the makeshift media filing center, and he gives me some insight: A couple of months ago when all those Washington-based journalists had to make their hotel reservations, there was still the possibility that this would be the first time a defeated President Bush would be on the same stage as President-elect Kerry. Take that out of the picture, toss in half-a-dozen resigning cabinet members, and suddenly the Little Rock story is nowhere.

This, oddly, makes me feel better.

So does the beginning of the first party that's open to everyone. There's a free concert on the river downtown, the weather's perfect, and police have closed the street through the three-block entertainment district. By 7 p.m., it's full of people, none of them famous, but the people-watching is fantastic. I go home happy.

Then Thursday morning rolls in like a kick in the crotch: all cold, rain, and police barricades. Forty minutes into my 10-minute drive to work, I ditch my car and walk the last half-mile across the river into downtown.

They've told us no umbrellas inside the library grounds. What damage an umbrella can do that a fist or a couple of fingers to the eyes can't, I don't understand, but the Secret Service doesn't take questions.

They're also big on arriving early, so by 9:30 a.m., I'm standing in the sunken wedge of ground they've cordoned off for print reporters. There are thousands and thousands of white folding chairs in rows stretching several football fields back from the library. Behind them is an immense set of bleachers, and another set runs along the right side of the folding chairs. The press area is to the left, where the ground starts sloping toward the river, and it's impossible to see anything without standing on a chair.

The first thing we all notice when we see the folks in front of us is that they've got umbrellas. There are thousands of them, apparently, being handed out in the VIP tent. They toss us a few cheap disposable ponchos, but there are not enough to go around, and the rain falls so hard at times that after a while it doesn't make much difference anyway.

(At one point Al Franken walks by, but I'm caught so off guard all I can think to say is "Hey! There's Al Franken!" My comment is not clever enough to merit any acknowledgement whatsoever.)

By the time the dedication ceremony starts at 11 a.m., there are more than 25,000 people here, and still several thousand empty seats. People are making jokes about Woodstock -- only there isn't any acid and it's way too cold to get naked. The only people who are dry are the TV reporters, tucked up under tents set up on big risers that are off-limits to print folks.

There is consolation in irony, though: Whoever was in charge of deciding the night before whether to set up a tent over the stage -- which would have kept the rain off the current and former presidents but would have ruined the best camera angles -- bet wrong. I wish Jimmy Carter no ill, but I can't say I mind watching George W. suck it up in the service of praising the right wing's greatest nemesis.

The ceremony starts with an invocation from the Rev. Floyd Flake, who asks us all to bow our heads and then reads Clinton's résumé to God. It's a fine, fine moment, knowing how it pains President Bush to say amen.

The next hour is kind of a blur -- too much rain, too many people left to talk. Clinton, not surprisingly, has asked six "regular" people to testify about how his policies changed their lives. Two would have done just fine.

About the time it's all supposed to be over, Carter begins to speak. He is, as always, gracious, thoughtful, and eloquent, and because I'm only 33, I wonder again what was so awful that the American people voted this man out of office.

Then it's the elder George Bush's turn, and he kills, seriously kills. He's self-deprecating. He gets his barbs in. Says nice things without trying to pretend we're all one big happy family. He uses the word "indefatigable," which prompts my husband -- watching on TV -- to wonder out loud what the odds are that Bush the younger will use a word with so many syllables.

"He was the Sam Walton of national retail politics," Bush says of Clinton. "He made it look so easy. And oh, how I hated him for that.

" Maybe it's because with Bill Clinton, ideas mattered. Greatly. Whoever said the American presidency is merely a way station to the blessed condition of being an ex-president didn't count on Bill Clinton. He was an activist president in the best way."

And then, our current commander-in-chief. Maybe it's because he can't say anything nice himself, but most of his remarks are quotes from what other people have written about Clinton. Good lines, some of them, but it's a cop-out.

Mercifully, his speech is also short. And as soon as Bush sits down, Bono and the Edge get up. My inner 13-year-old swoons. Call me a loser and a doofus, but if Bono sang that the Earth was flat, I'd believe him. Otherwise I'd have been sitting with the sane journalists back in the press center watching this sodden mess on CNN.

The performance is beyond worth it. Even the presidents and first ladies stand up and turn to watch. This is U2 old-style, and they have the sense to forgo a sneak peek at the new album in favor of more relevant material: the Beatles' "Rain" ("When the rain comes they run and hide their heads/We got four presidents out of bed"), a streamlined version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in honor of Clinton's work for peace in Northern Ireland, and "The Hands That Built America," the song they wrote for the movie Gangs of New York. Finally, it almost feels like a party.

Once the money half of U2 walks off the stage, all that's left is for the Man himself to wrap it up and send us home. Miserable as we are, he keeps us there another 20 minutes, and it's sad to say the only thing I remember him saying was some laughable lie asking if he was the only person in the country who thought both George W. Bush and John Kerry were good men who just see the world differently?

So what about the library itself? It was wonderfully accessible on Friday, the first day it was open to the public. Up close it loses the mobile-home feel. It's an imposing structure, built so you pretty much walk underneath it as you enter.

The heart of the museum starts on the second floor where the glass-and-steel structure cantilevers out toward the river. The whole "bridge to the 21st century" idea is pushing it a little, but it's vast, it's expansive, and every feature of the building seems to take you upward and outward.

The library has no shortage of exhibits to remind visitors how good they had it in the 1990s. Peace in Northern Ireland, progress toward peace, at least, in the Middle East, not to mention all that economic prosperity and lower crime rates.

The impeachment gets the gloss-over in an exhibit called "The Fight for Power" that traces the rise of the politics of personal destruction back to its birth in the 1994 Republican Contract with America. It's a level of context that appears so rarely that even the mainstream media has judged it excuse-making on Clinton's part.

A touch-screen computer offers a microcosmic view of Clinton's presidency: It lets you look up his schedule for any day in his administration. On September 11, 1999, for instance, on a trip to New Zealand, Clinton squeezed in a short meeting with Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie-Boys and his wife, Lady Mary Hardie-Boys. Hand to God.

All the fun stuff is on the top public floor: gifts both stunning and wacky from dignitaries and artists, holiday decorations, menus from state dinners. (Nelson Mandela got stuck eating halibut prepared with carrot-juice broth and some kind of salad with "New York wild ripened cheese." Um.)

And of course there's that famed full-size replica of the Oval Office. Just like the real thing, you can't go more than a step inside, just enough to look around and take a non-flash photo. It's kind of well, a let-down. Yes, it's bigger than some apartments I've lived in, but it just doesn't feel large enough to contain the American presidency.

With that, there's not much left to do. The whole city seems to feel that way by Friday afternoon, when I leave the library. All the famous folks are gone, the police barricades are down, the thousands of folding chairs are stacked neatly on the library's front lawn.

Clinton's still here. He's spotted walking around downtown, but by now it just doesn't feel like a big deal. •

Jennifer Barnett Reed is an associate editor at the Arkansas Times in Little Rock.


Who'll Stop the Rain?

Wesley Clark speaks about issues, the 2004 presidential election -- and 2008.

By Jackson Baker

In the wake of the November 2nd Democratic defeats -- across the board in presidential, congressional, and state elections -- party cadres across the nation, as well as independent voters unenamored of President Bush and the Republican agenda, have already begun to look down the road to 2008 for a knight on horseback to bring about a restoration of political power. Several would-be candidates are known or suspected to be saddling up -- among them, former Vermont governor Howard Dean; John Edwards, this year's Democratic vice-presidential candidate; and New York senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady.

Yet another -- who, like Dean and Edwards, has already tried out the course -- is former NATO Commander Wesley Clark, an Arkansan and a perceived centrist like Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president and the eminence whose newly opened library Clark and the others gathered to pay homage to on a rainy day in Little Rock last week. Within a week after Bush's reelection, Clark, writing in The Washington Post, had weighed in on what he saw as the fallacy of the ongoing war in Iraq, including the then current all-out assault against Fallujah insurgents. The much-noticed article, which drew parallels to the Vietnam War, made it clear that Clark intends to be reckoned with on issues of national import.

The Flyer encountered the general last Thursday night at a party given for him in Little Rock by volunteers from his 2004 presidential race. Totally at his ease among this group of supporters, the general got off several quips -- demonstrating, for example, the Germanic way of pronouncing his wife Gertrude's name ("Gair-troot!") and the down-home way of saying the name of a supporter named Chaim ("I am, I am!"). The conversation that began there was continued by telephone on Friday as the general, who oversees both a company, Wesley K. Clark & Associates, and a political action committee, WESPAC, flew from point to point by commercial jetliner.

You impressed a lot of people during the primary season, everybody, it seemed, except the national media, which never got your best efforts on the front burner. Would you say that's true?
I think it is true. There were times I got no coverage at all. Why, I don't know. But I really enjoyed the ride. I really believe in public service, and I was honored to have the support of so many people who spoke out and encouraged me to get into the race. I intend to keep speaking out.

What specifically impelled you to get into the race?
I believed the nation was being misled by the administration, especially in its actions with regard to U.S. security, both at home and abroad, and I felt I had relevant skills and experience to bring to bear on that. Before 9/11, President Bush did not do enough to keep us safe. I think the record is clear now that if we had had strong leadership in the White House, 9/11 might have been prevented.

Given that former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke and other insiders communicated evidence to that effect during the campaign year, why do you think it fell on deaf ears?
I think that this falls into the area of political communication and how effective the respective political parties are in putting out a message. I think the message was not communicated strongly enough, or soon enough, to be able to penetrate or deeply enough to shake the impression that the president was a strong leader who would be the best person to keep the country safe.

How much of that was the fault of the Democratic nominee, John Kerry?
I wouldn't lay any of this in particular on any one person. The reason I got into the race was because it was going to be very difficult for the Democratic Party, given its previous experience and the fact that most of them voted for the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq -- except for a few voices, like Senator Bob Graham, who actually did call for the impeachment of Bush for failure to prevent 9/11. It was hard for the party to come around to that view, because a few months before in the mid-term elections, basically the Democrats had gone along with the president, letting him have his say on foreign policy. So I wouldn't attribute this to any single person's failure or lack of effort. I think it's just an example of how political discourse works.

Graham said what he did long before Richard Clarke's book came out. He knew it from the inside. He knew the war was going to be a distraction. He voted against the [war powers] resolution, as I would have. And he called for the impeachment of the president. He was on the [Senate]Intelligence Committee. He knew that a strong chief executive could have called his cabinet together and used his power and likely could have prevented 9/11. The information was all somewhere in the system. It just wasn't assimilated and acted upon.

Did you agree with the senator that Bush deserved impeachment?
Well, I think that issue is moot. The president was reelected and given a second term by the American people. But we've got other challenges in front of us today. The situation in Iran is growing more difficult by the day. They seem to be determined to get nuclear weapons, but this administration's credibility is in question. We've got a Central Intelligence Agency that has been newly politicized, apparently.

What about the pending changes in the State Department?
Colin Powell hasn't left yet, but there is trepidation in the State Department as to what his departure means. Apparently, it means the triumph of a very ideological and not very pragmatic approach to protecting our country. It's a vehicle that hasn't proved effective in Iraq so far; it hasn't brought peace in the Middle East, so far; and it hasn't captured Osama bin Laden so far. So instead of getting a change of direction, we're going to get more of the same. Only more intensely.

How perilous is our predicament, as you see it?
It's hard to know whether we're winning in Iraq or not. I'm very proud of our troops and leaders over there. I think our generals, our colonels, majors, captains, and all our troops are doing a great job fighting. But there are other dimensions in combat that will be required to win in Iraq. And it's not clear that we're succeeding in those dimensions of effort.

For example, we don't have any diplomacy working with the Syrians and Iranians. So they must believe that if we prevail in Iraq it constitutes a more immediate threat to them. So they'll be working against us. And thus far we haven't been effective in reaching out to the Sunni imams to strengthen the political legitimacy of the interim government or the forthcoming elections. Most of these failures or oversights put greater and greater pressure on our men and women in uniform.

What do you think were the actual reasons for going into Iraq?
The stated reasons were, basically, four: 1) Likely support of terrorists. It wasn't established that they had any connection to the events of 9/11. 2) That there was about to be an imminent threat to the United States from the Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction." That turned out to be incorrect. 3) That the Iraqis would simply rise up with joy at liberation -- that we had a duty to liberate them. That hasn't proved to be the case yet. And 4) that, by taking action in Iraq, we would spark a wave of democratic reform in the region, and that hasn't occurred either. I don't know if the president believed all that. I don't want to say what really motivated Bush. Who knows?

Does the administration's announced policy of increasing troop commitments while cutting more taxes make sense?
No, it doesn't. And you might notice that Congress approved raising the debt limit of the United States. Our debt is now approximately 70 percent of our annual gross domestic product. We've added more than $2 trillion in debt since George W. Bush took over. That's an enormous increase in debt. It has to be paid by our children and grandchildren. And most of it, if not all of it, is held abroad.

What are the short- and long-term dangers in Iraq?
The problem in Iraq is two-fold. First, it's financial, and, secondly, it's a strain upon our forces. In terms of finances, much of that is not in the budget. Another supplemental appropriation is being planned. But you have to believe the war is costing more than $5 billion a month. Probably much more than that.

What are some other issues that concern you?
First of all, we need to go back to the big picture of where our country is. We've been the wealthiest country and the most prosperous country in the world for a hundred years -- in part because we were the largest integrated market in the world. That meant people invested, we accumulated capital, we could provide jobs. But if China and India come to develop and move into the modern economic system, both of them are larger than the United States. This could be a new situation for the United States, in which China is the largest integrated market.

It's going to make it much tougher for us to sustain the extraordinary high living standard for all Americans. And how to deal with the impact of China is going to become a consuming question for the United States. That means we've got to work to improve our infrastructure; we've got to strengthen our educational system; we've got to invest more in research and development and technology; we've got to become more energy-independent. All these were issues that needed to be dealt with in this campaign. And all of them are of interest to me.

A lot of people think the "morals" issues, especially that of gay marriage, beat the Democrats this year? Do you?
I don't know. I think security was a major issue. There were people who on some very small percentage leaned toward Bush on that issue. During my campaign, incidentally, I talked directly about issues of faith and family values. Democrats do have faith and strong family values. On gay marriage, I think the American people have spoken. I've always said it's a matter for the states. And 11 states now have passed initiatives against gay marriage. I think it's pretty clear that it's an idea whose time has not arrived. It may never arrive. I'm a strong believer in traditional marriage, but I'm also sensitive to people whose sexual orientation is otherwise. And I think they should have rights, whether you call that marriage or not. People in 11 states have just spoken loudly.

My position is this: There's no escaping from these issues of sexual orientation through politics. They affect families and they affect people across the political spectrum. They're just issues that are there. It's part of living. And I think that if your family is directly engaged in these issues, if your child is gay, then you still love them. You don't want them to be discriminated against. And that's why I support civil unions.

What's your position on the proposed constitutional amendment to confine marriage to heterosexuals?
I wouldn't think there would be any need for such an amendment.

What about that other hot-button issue: abortion?
Nobody that I've ever talked to is in favor of abortion. The question is: What's the best way to reduce the number of abortions? Under Bill Clinton's presidency, in his last four years, the number of abortions was reduced 22 percent by a variety of programs, including counseling and other things. Under George Bush's presidency, despite all the talk about it, the number of abortions has gone up, because he's cut the programs. People need counseling, they need support. Those programs are what Bill Clinton put in, and they worked.

How would you deal with the sensitive issues involving Israel and Palestine?
I'd appoint a special ambassador, an emissary from the United States to stay in the region and work them until they get an agreement, something like what we've always had, somebody there to represent the president. It could be the secretary of state or somebody else. But they have to speak for the president of the United States. And they have to stay with the problem. That's the way I see it.

Back to the State Department, how well will the new secretary, Condoleezza Rice, do?
I think she's a relatively well-known figure, and people know what her strengths and proclivities are. But I think it really comes back to the question of where's the president headed. What does he feel we need to be doing, and how will he get it done?

Any last words on President Clinton? And how would your thoughts about a presidential bid in 2008 be affected if Hillary decided to run?
On the first question, I think it's clear that Bill Clinton moved the country forward into the 21st century. He set the foundations for the longest sustained economic boom in American history. He created 22 million new jobs, saw real progress in areas like getting people off welfare, made inroads against crime, got tough on criminals, brought peace to the Balkans, and helped establish for Americans respect and affection in the world.

As for the second part of the question, it's premature to speculate on that.


"You Cannot Win Simply by Killing"

Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Real Battle," a recent op-ed piece by retired General Wesley Clark, published in The Washington Post. Coinciding with the Marine assault on Fallujah, Clark's article draws ominous parallels between the events in Iraq and those occurring in Vietnam a generation ago.

"This insurgency has continued to grow, despite U.S. military effectiveness on the ground. While Saddam Hussein's security forces may have always had a plan to resist the occupation, it was the failure of U.S. policymakers to gain political legitimacy that enabled the insurgency to grow. And while the failure may have begun with the inability to impose order after Saddam's ouster, it was the broader lack of a political coterie and the tools of political development -- such as the Vietnam program of Civil Operations-Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) -- which seems to have enabled the insurgency to take root amid the U.S. presence. These are the sorts of mistakes the United States must avoid in the future, otherwise the battle of Fallujah may end up being nothing more than the 'taking down' of an insurgent stronghold -- a battlefield success on the road to strategic failure.

"Troops are in Fallujah only because of a political failure: Large numbers of Sunnis either wouldn't, or couldn't, participate in the political process and the coming elections. Greater security in Fallujah may move citizens (whenever they return) to take part in the voting; it's too early to say. But it's certain that you can't bomb people into the polling booths.

"We should be under no illusions: This is not so much a war as it is an effort to birth a nation. It is past time for the administration to undertake diplomatic efforts in the region and political efforts inside Iraq that are worthy of the risks and burdens borne by our men and women in uniform. No one knows better than they do: You cannot win in Iraq simply by killing the opponent. Much as we honor our troops and pray for their well-being, if diplomacy fails, their sacrifices and even their successes in Fallujah won't be enough." •

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