Charming Billy: Ambition, and the Advantage of Being Loved

October 1st, 2012

A Visit to The Clinton Presidential Library

Before Bill Clinton, I didn’t even know how to pronounce Arkansas. I thought it was pronounced Ar-KAN-zuss, and was adjunct to Kansas. Like North and South Dakota, or the Carolinas. Kansas and Ar-Kansas.

— from Planting Dandelions

William Jefferson Clinton pops up through significant moments of our family history like our very own personal Forrest Gump. His candidacy for president in the early nineties formed my first impression of Arkansas, and later saved me from having to explain to all my Canadian friends and relatives where my internet boyfriend, Patrick, was from (there was a whole lot of other explaining to do, but at least the geography portion of the quiz could be gotten through quickly).

Clinton was in the White House when I landed in Little Rock in the spring of 1996, and we were among the partiers who greeted him in front of the Old State House on election night that fall. We settled into our first home here during the years when the Presidential motorcade was a familiar traffic event. The newspaper I saved from the day our first child was born is emblazoned with the headline, IMPEACHED.

Little Rock is essentially a small town, and Clinton is a gregarious guy. No one who lived here from the gubernatorial years through his presidency could possibly be separated from him socially by more than a degree. Though I’ve never seen him in person since that glimpse of him on the Old State House steps, I know plenty of people who know him casually, and a few who know him well. Back in my barmaid days, I took a gig cleaning house for a bachelor friend whose inaugural ball portrait by Annie Lebowitz hung on his living room wall. Our house was around the corner from the lounge where Gennifer Flowers sometimes sang. Clinton’s mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham, lived up the street. Everybody in Little Rock knows somebody who knows Bill.

So it’s kind of crazy that it’s taken me eight years to go look at his library, right?

A prophet in his own land…

In my defense, I did attempt to go to the official opening in November 2004, but I had an infant, a toddler and a pre-schooler in tow, and it was pouring rain. I gave up on meeting Bono and Oprah, and ducked into a restaurant to watched them on TV instead. Since then, I’ve been all over the grounds and in the reception areas for various events, but had never actually gone through the exhibits, until this past Saturday.

It’s kind of a walk-through scrapbook– timelines and memorabilia. There’s a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, which gave me tingles, not because it felt like being at the White House, but because it felt like being on the set of SNL, and I have a serious crush on Darrell Hammond’s impersonation of President C.

Okay, I confess I’ve always been sweet on the original, too. I have a thing for scallawags.

If you’re not a fan, I doubt most of the permanent exhibit would hold much appeal, apart from the White House historical objects and reproductions. The biographical and political displays are definitely a case of history being written by the victor. But the library does bring in a broad range of speakers and special exhibits, and the architecture and landscape is stunning from where ever you stand on the political spectrum.

We didn’t bring cardboard to go grass-sledding this time, but my guys improvised.

Two things really jumped out at me as I browsed past the biographical exhibit. One, was how ambitious and idealistic Bill and Hillary Clinton were from childhood. Their school papers and achievements testify that they grew up with a huge sense of possibility. I don’t know how much of that was due to the times, and how much to temperament. It made me wonder if children today are growing up in an environment that is more or less conducive to that kind of grand ambition. I worry that it’s less so–that their ideals will be stunted by the cynicism of our culture.

The other thing that struck me was how abundantly loved and supported they were by their mothers. I’ve never cared for refrigerator magnet quotes about how nothing will matter in a hundred years except for how you raised your children. Nonsense. Tell that to Marie Curie or countless other women who made enduring contributions to humanity beyond motherhood. Still, it’s remarkable to consider the influence Dorothy Rodham and Virginia Kelley, both of whom raised their families in pre-feminist times, have had on world history.

So many factors shape great achievers. Examine the lives of the Clintons, and other people who have risen to great power, and you will see numerous advantages–of health, history, race, society, geography, economics, ability. Things that are often beyond a parent’s control, no matter how big our dreams are for our children.

Whether my sons become great men of history, or great dads, or even just great guys, isn’t all up to me. But it’s good to know there is at least one advantage I can give them: a foundation of rock solid love.

I’ve got the presidential seal
I’m up on the presidential podium
My mama loves me, she loves me
She gets down on her knees and hugs me
And she loves me like a rock.

–Paul Simon

8 Responses to “Charming Billy: Ambition, and the Advantage of Being Loved”

  1. marilee pittman says:

    This is such a great post. I know your sons are destined for greatness. Not a shred of doubt.

  2. Lesley says:

    I love how your posts so often have a broad perspective on kids and the world.

  3. kazari says:

    I am so positive about this era my son will grow up in – it seems like the perfect time to dream big and different, even if nobody ever knows your name.
    The next thing in my feedreader after your post was this:
    How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators
    from brain pickings.

    90 exciting creators, all of whom are doing amazing work, most of whom I’ve never heard of.
    The gift of the internet to me is all of the nooks and crannies.

    • Share that link! I’m inclined to side with your expansiveness, most days, in most areas. I worry that that the political sphere has become so polluted, the dreamers are choked out.

  4. I think I would enjoy the library, I enjoyed reading this post! I saw Bill speak when he was running for Pres and it has always been a good memory. Taking my girl to see Pres. Obama on Thurs, can’t wait to see how she takes it all in.

  5. Marie says:

    Funny how Little Rock has such a small town dynamic. It reminds me I have a few degrees in there, too. My youngest uncle went to elementary school with Hillary in Park Ridge, IL, and attended the same church too. They were even in a Christmas pageant together, which I find hysterical. Of course, their politics have diverged quite a bit since then… The library sounds really cool. Very interesting to contemplate what shaped both Bill and Hillary.

  6. Kristen says:

    I met Clinton when he was running for office and was lucky enough to attend his inauguration. Great post – I’d love to visit the library someday.

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