LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Some Arkansas Democrats are still waiting for a “thank you” from Bill Clinton. An “I’m sorry” would work, too, and now would be the perfect time.
A new four-hour documentary about the former president premieres this month on PBS as part of its American Experience series. The documentary delves into, as Britain’s Observer put it,
Clinton’s “struggle with his unruly libido.”
For many party activists in Clinton’s home state, the subject of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky evokes bitterness even after 14 years. Privately, some grumble even now about how Clinton betrayed them, too.
In 1998, when Clinton was adamantly denying that he’d had sexual relations with Lewinsky, many Democrats in Arkansas vigorously defended him, putting their personal reputations on the line.
“He always said he didn’t do it,” one of them told me. “We would say to reporters and naysayers, ‘That’s good enough for me. Let’s move on.’”
From young guns to old-timers who had volunteered on every Clinton campaign, everybody defended the man from Hope.
The state had never had a president, and Arkansans loved the attention, even if not all of it was positive.
Suddenly, just being from Arkansas meant access to the White House if you knew Clinton — and who didn’t?
So maybe they had reason to believe, as Hillary Clinton did, that the Lewinsky investigation was motivated by “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Activists went into overdrive, ensuring that there were large displays of public support for Clinton here. Rallies were held. “Stop the Impeachment” buttons were made.
Advertisements in Arkansas papers asked people to support the president and tell Congress to get back to the people’s business. Supporters could clip and sign a letter of support. The walls of the Democratic Party of Arkansas were plastered with these squares.
This effort wasn’t coordinated with the Democratic National Committee, which according to those involved in 1998 offered little help. Instead, Democrats in the state created the grass-roots movement because they loved the president and wanted to protect their own.
“Ordinary Arkansans put their own credibility on the line at coffee shops, at work, with their friends, because we believed him,” another Democratic Party player who is now a local politician told me. “Clinton involved thousands of people in Arkansas, including a lot of women in Democratic groups, in his lie.”
So why haven’t they gone public with these feelings after all these years? Because they say that to go on record about their bitterness and hurt feelings would mean burning bridges, even now. Access to Clinton would be denied, and help to campaigns and causes would no longer be forthcoming. The winding road to Bill Clinton is still paved with complicated hoops and hurdles, carrots and sticks.
In the PBS documentary, pollster Dick Morris says he received a heads-up from Clinton that the Lewinsky affair evidence was about to go public. But no such warning came to party activists here
And with Clinton’s admission came a deflation for many true believers. The starry-eyed admiration, which had survived a lot since 1991, when Clinton announced his run for presidency on the steps of the Old State House in Little Rock, vanished altogether.
Another disappointment came when Bill and Hillary Clinton decided to move to New York to establish her residency there ahead of a Senate run.
There have certainly been compensations: Little Rock now has the $165 million William J. Clinton Presidential Center and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, which lands internationally known speakers and actors — most recently Geena Davis.
“No bitterness here,” says one longtime Clinton friend. “We are all dogs. No one should ever have to publicly defend their dogitude or be expected to do so truthfully.”
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.