LITTLE ROCK — Bill Clinton, his presidential legacy and his outsize political persona — barbecue and saxophones included — is everywhere here this weekend in the Arkansas capital, the bosom of the Clinton political brand and home to his presidential library.
So is the crackle of possibility, as the tightly knit Clinton political machine awaits Hillary Rodham Clinton’s all-but-declared 2016 presidential campaign.
That shadow campaign, however, was a taboo subject Friday at the start of a four-day celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the Clinton Presidential Center.
“The thing I’m proudest of is that we did what I set out to do” in the policy and political realms, the former president said.
“We had a good time doing this, as you can probably tell. We made our fair share of mistakes. We beat our heads against our fair share of walls. It didn’t always work out, but at the end on foreign and domestic policy, economic and social, you could honestly say that people were better off when we quit,” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s official participation is limited to a symposium scheduled Saturday with daughter Chelsea on the empowerment of women and girls, and as co-master of ceremonies with her husband. But the motto of the library anniversary — “The work continues” — hints at both Bill Clinton’s ambitious post-presidential agenda and the likelihood that another member of the family will seek the office.
Out-of-town participants flew in to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport and drove down President Clinton Avenue, not far from the state Capitol where both Clintons came to political prominence. A hotel in the spiffed-up section of downtown Little Rock that houses the library campus has a restaurant called Camp David.
The gathering is a sort of destination wedding for Clintonistas past and possibly future, complete with a huge concert featuring something for every demographic, from Nick Jonas to Kool and the Gang. The long weekend also features a day of volunteer service and a discussion of how the Clinton library has improved Little Rock’s economic bottom line.
“The best thing for Bill Clinton’s political career was that he spent most of it here,” said longtime Clinton White House adviser and speechwriter Bruce Reed, referring to Clinton’s centrist sensibilities and capacity for compromise as a Democrat in a conservative state.
Hillary Clinton was not on hand Friday as former Clinton Cabinet members, senior advisers and a long list of loyalists and retainers met to chew over the earned income tax credit, the 1993 budget impasse and the government shutdown.
Some of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends and advisers were there, however, including Capricia Marshall and Cheryl Mills. Both women served in the Clinton White House and at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and both are expected to be part of a 2016 campaign should she mount one. She has said she will decide early next year whether to run a second time.
Many participants in Friday’s session were reluctant to talk about the political confluence of the Bill Clinton White House and a potential Hillary Clinton campaign, and they turned questions about Hillary Clinton back to the subject and events of the anniversary weekend.
“I’ll get in trouble,” one adviser said before dashing down the hall.
Molly McGowan of Little Rock said Hillary Clinton would “be a perfect choice, a natural fit” for president. “It’s in the back of everyone’s mind, but this is, as it should be, about President Clinton and his legacy,” she said.
Among the mostly laudatory retrospectives were joking asides about Bill Clinton’s wordy
speeches, occasionally explosive temper and unruly management style. There were some partisan swipes as well: Different participants referred to former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) as a “partisan hack” and a “baby.” The name Monica Lewinsky did not come up, nor was there any analysis of the impeachment drama that followed revelations of Clinton’s White House dalliance with the intern.
Participants included former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, former labor secretary Alexis Herman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander.
“What made it so easy to work for Bill Clinton was that he had a clear philosophy of how he wanted to govern,” Reed told the audience.
“It was a magical time,” said veteran Clinton economic aide Gene Sperling, who also worked for the Obama White House. “You’re suddenly working for the guys who were doing everything right.”
Bill Clinton later joked about meeting Sperling’s “really beautiful” girlfriend — “She was like super fit, man” — and told the workaholic aide that his priorities were misaligned. (The audience greeted the remarks with nervous laughter.) Clinton got a louder laugh when he noted later that his former vice president, Al Gore, “was funnier than he got credit for.”
Also Friday, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center released a trove of more than 130 oral history interviews with Clinton administration participants in collaboration with the Clinton Presidential Center.
The histories collected over roughly a decade of scholarship detail “the eight consequential years of one president, Bill Clinton,” said Miller Center director Gerald Baliles.
Although some locals snicker that the boxy building looks like a double-wide trailer plunked down on the banks of the Arkansas River, the Clinton Center has drawn more than 3 million visitors and claims an economic footprint of $3.3 billion for downtown Little Rock.
The library center is a mix of memory-lane photographs of the grinning, fair-haired Bill Clinton, a scholarly collection of papers and memorabilia from engraved state dinner menus to a bizarre carved wooden saxophone stool given to him by a foreign admirer.
A mock Oval Office is outfitted as Clinton’s office was and includes many of the actual artifacts from his desk and shelves. A full-size armored presidential limousine is a favorite exhibit. Word came this week that marked-up scripts from the Clinton-inspired television show “The West Wing” are being donated to the library.