LITTLE ROCK, Nov. 18
Nothing is going right for the Democrats. Even the heavens dumped steady rain on their parade here Thursday during the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center.
But after several days of celebration and sunny weather leading up to the event, many folks were still in a festive mood, even as they trudged through mud puddles and shivered in the stiffening winds. Drenched but determined, tens of thousands of people gathered in grandstands on the west side of the new library to honor the former president. Some called the hogs. (Woo! Pig! Sooey!) They chanted "Kerry! Kerry! Kerry!" when the face of the failed Democratic presidential contender was projected on huge overhead screens. And they sang along with rock-and-roller Bono as he and his guitarist, the Edge, performed a weather-be-damned version of the Beatles' "Rain."
Speakers of the day included President Bush, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton himself.
But this seemed anticlimactic after several days of high-kicking celebration that included celebrity sightings, fireworks and a performance by Aretha Franklin. "He's a pop-culture president," explained Kristi Moody, 34, a Little Rock lawyer.
On TV and in the streets, there was much talk of the $165 million center -- which includes the library that looks like half a bridge to the future, an archives building, a renovated train depot that will serve as a school, and nearly 30 acres of parkland -- providing an economic boost to this formerly run-down neighborhood on the banks of the Arkansas River.
But if the carnival atmosphere of this past week is any indication, the center might really do wonders for this city's hedonistic development. It sits at the end of President Clinton Avenue, a five-block strip of brew houses and barbecue joints with such names as Flying Fish, the Underground Pub, Boscos and Sticky Fingerz.
The area around the library "has a festive atmosphere. There is a lot of excitement in the air," said James L. "Skip" Rutherford, president of the Clinton Presidential Foundation, which raised the money to build the center.
"It seems to be a beer-drinking kind of place," Little Rock musician Starr Mitchell, 57, said in an understated Arkansas manner as crews of boisterous boys and garrulous girls moved up and down the sidewalks the way they do on Beale Street in Memphis and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
"This is a little Mardi Gras," said Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times.
Presidential son Ron Reagan, in town for the hoopla, noted that the dedication of his father's library in 1991 was nothing like this. "This," he said, waving a hand toward the crowded streets, "is crazy."
With humor and humility, Arkansas embraces craziness. Some snapshots from the five days of festivities:
In the Clinton Museum Store, a jar of soft, squeezable miniature gold saxophones sat on a shelf. Written on each squeeze toy: "Clinton, a cure for the blues." The store contained all kinds of gimcracks and gewgaws, including Clinton action figures, Clinton hard hats, walking canes with donkey heads, and a kitty-shaped scarf that resembled a stretched-out Socks the White House cat. There were no blue Gap dresses for sale. But there was one campaign button displayed in a small exhibit up front that read: "Free Susan McDougal, Fire Starr."
Across the street, a group of entrepreneurs set up booths under a sign that read Clinton Corner. Scie Ward, 47, was selling Hillary 2008 bumper stickers almost as fast as she could put them on the table.
Jim Dawson of Vilonia was a frequent fixture near President Clinton Avenue. The 73-year-old grizzle-faced Clinton detractor stood in a waist-high cardboard fortress he had fashioned from an empty appliance container. "I found this box in a dumpster," Dawson said proudly. On the sides he had written, "I did not -- that woman," and suggestions that Hillary should dump Bill. He stood with a placard on a stick that read "Evil Trash," referring to Clinton. Dangling by a wire from the sign was a single red kneepad. Dawson videotaped people who spoke to him.
Live music flowed from open doors along President Clinton Avenue all day and into the night. A couple of dashiki-clad men banged congas and spun Nigerian folk tales now and then. Jesse Jackson showed up at a luncheon honoring Hillary Clinton and other wives of Arkansas governors. Al Franken broadcast his radio show from here. At a party thrown by the movie stars Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, who are Little Rock habitues, former presidential candidate Wesley Clark hugged two young women and posed for photos. Late in the evening, starry-eyed waitress Jill McIlroy stood near the front door and exclaimed: "It's Geraldo!"
At the dedication ceremony Thursday, pharmaceutical saleswoman Cathy Jordan balanced on a chair, put a hand on the shoulder of her husband, Alex, and spotted a stream of celebrities, including Robin Williams, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Barbra Streisand, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, emerging from the dry VIP tent.
All day long folks walked along the riverside and bought knickknacks such as chocolates shaped like razorback hogs at the open-air market a few blocks from the library. There were also Brent & Sam's cookies for sale, made by Brent Bumpers, son of former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers.
On the eve of the dedication, a couple ate barbecue at a picnic table and chatted with a bicycle cop as crowds of hardy partiers milled about. When the policeman got up to leave, the couple said goodbye. "Hang in there," the cop said, "like a hair on a biscuit."