The first president Clinton, as he soon is almost certain to be known, was born in a small city at the bottom-left of Arkansas called Hope, pop. 10,000. Seventy years later, downtown Hope is a rather forlorn square kilometre with too many empty storefronts. It is a place where you can buy a pair of used Capri pants at the thrift store for 50 cents (underwear is a dime), and where the Melon Patch Restaurant offers scrambled eggs for breakfast, brisket of beef for lunch, and nothing else.
A very active freight railway rumbles from the Texas and Oklahoma petro-fields over and through the centre of Hope, past the white two-storey house, now a national historic site, where little Billy Blythe—as he was known until his mother, who had been widowed while pregnant, married a man named Clinton—lived until he was four years old.
On Saturday mornings in Hope, there is a crafts market in a parking lot beside the railroad tracks. Last week, one of the tents belonged to the Republican Party of Hempstead County, and in the tent was a retired civil engineer, the pastor of the First Christian Church of Hope, a Rotarian, a scoutmaster, a chairman of the county health commission and a volunteer with a charity that helps bring clean-water systems to developing countries—all of this being the curriculum vitae of one man named Les Patterson who was wearing a cap that said GAP: God answers prayer.
Patterson, whose father was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany the year before Clinton was born, was saying how his family had farmed long-grain rice in Arkansas for generations before the Internal Revenue Service stepped in and “they auctioned off our farm on the courthouse steps to pay the death tax.” That was when he decided that the government in Washington was stacked against ordinary people. Then came Donald Trump.
“Once I heard what he stood for,” Patterson said, “I was sold. I saw how the media liberals were against him, and I know that the media are not Christians. He understands the problems we face in America—the immigrants, the open borders.”
Patterson acknowledged that, like his father and his grandfather, he used to vote Democratic. (The Democrats carried Arkansas in 23 presidential elections in a row from the 1870s through 1964.) But now the “Solid South” was solidly Republican, and it was a virtual certainty that Trump will carry Arkansas and its six electoral votes on Nov. 8.
“Did you love Bill Clinton?” The native son carried Arkansas twice, the only Democrat other than Jimmy Carter of Georgia to do so since 1964.
“I never did vote for the dope from Hope,” he replied.
“What about his wife, the second president Clinton?” Patterson was needled.
“If I did some of things she’s done, I’d be put in jail for sure,” he said. “She’s just lyin’ and lyin’ all the time. And when Bill was governor, she did not change her last name. That bothered a lot of people in Arkansas.”
Nearby was a woman named Karen Mitchell Smith who was running for the elected position of Hempstead county clerk. Like 70 per cent of her fellow Arkansans, Smith admitted that she did not have $1,000 dollars in savings to her name. “But if I had to raise $1,000 for an emergency, I could go to people I know, I could go to my church, and I could get the money,” she said.
The candidate said that she was not going to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton for many reasons, the most important of which was her gender. “Being a woman, I don’t want a woman to be president,” the woman said. “We have feelings. We get emotional. What if something upsets her—do you want the president up there in Washington crying?”
“What about the clerk of Hempstead County?” she was asked. “What if she starts crying?”
“That’s not the same,” she replied.
Smith’s daughter Kimberly approached.
“She’s only 21 and she hates the Clintons too,” Smith said proudly, in the first president Clinton’s home town. “She’s hated them since she was six years old!”
The Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center is a stunning building surrounded by well-tended gardens, just west of downtown Little Rock, the capital of the Natural State. Other than the name on the door, there is no obvious connection to the former first lady of the state and the nation, a woman from the comfortable suburbs of Chicago and the elite universities of New England who lived here for 18 years of her 69. No statues, no portraits, no plaque. The building was named in Clinton’s honour, long after she left for brighter lights and wealthier donors.
A man named Des Agginie, the son of a Ghanaian father and a Guyanese mother and the husband of a white Arkansan, was at the check-out desk.
“Will you vote for the woman whose name is on this building?” he was asked.
“I don’t really have a choice,” Agginie said.
“She is entrenched in the political system,” he went on, “but I think it is time to show the world that you do not have to be a man to be the president of the United States—to show the world that America is at least somewhat tolerant.”
“Are you embarrassed that Arkansas will vote for Donald Trump instead of its sort-of native daughter?”
“I am not embarrassed,” said the librarian. “It is true that she is not an Arkansan in many people’s minds. Maybe I am not either. I have been here 34 years, and I have never been to a Razorback game. I like soccer. I don’t fish. I have two kids and I’m in grad school. I don’t have time to watch sports.”
“Is Arkansas a racist or a tolerant place?” a visitor wondered.
“Maybe both,” said Agginie. “Racism is all over the world. Racism is in my own family, tribalism is in my own family, and my family are black folks. People always can find a reason to hate someone.”
The manager of the Central Arkansas Library System and head of the Hillary branch is Don Ernst, an old friend of the Clintons who served as governor Bill’s staff liaison for education, 30-odd years ago. Unlike virtually everyone else in the United States, he remembered “many barbecues at the governor’s mansion when Hillary was gracious and fun. And I’d be less than candid if I didn’t have times when I was intimidated by her intelligence.”
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Unlike Agginie, Ernst admitted that he was “disappointed and hurt that my fellow Arkansans will vote against their best interests. Donald Trump wants to cut taxes, and we’ve got so many hungry kids.”
Ernst labelled Arkansas “ground zero for anti-intellectualism.” He remembered Hillary Rodham working with intensity and purpose for 18 months to improve the state’s standards for elementary education. But all that people noticed, he said, “was that when they got married, she didn’t take his name. Then when she finally did, they said she was pandering.”
In 2016, with Arkansas not even remotely in play, neither Clinton nor Trump has campaigned in Little Rock or Hope. It is one of the most bizarre figments of the American electoral system that only a handful of “battleground” states—Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina—receive attention once the primaries conclude. Trump (narrowly over Ted Cruz) and Clinton (by a landslide over Bernie Sanders) won the Arkansas primaries in March.
Since then, zero.
“Do you think the Republicans will impeach Hillary Clinton the day after her inauguration?” family friend Ernst was asked.
“Have at it,” he replied. “Have at it.”
A black-owned barbecue shack called Sim’s has been in business in Little Rock since 1937. On the walls at the current location are photos of some local boxers, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and, of course, Bill Clinton, who used to like to grab some Sim’s to go, before he went vegan.
“What about Hillary?” a diner asked Marcus Smith, who works in the kitchen.
“Been here 15 years and never seen her,” he replied.
“When I look at Hillary Clinton, I see a woman of power,” said Monique Smith (no relation to Marcus), who was working the cash register. “I wouldn’t say that I look up to her. Michelle Obama—there’s a woman with style and grace. Having a woman president would be nice from the historical aspect. But this campaign has turned me against all of them.”
A man named Mike Singleton emerged from the pungent kitchen and said that, when he lived in the nearby spa city of Hot Springs, “I worked with a lot of white people who were against Obamacare. That was the demographic it was designed for, and they still hated it. They couldn’t give me one reason why, except that his name was on it.”
“We’re at the bottom of a lot of things for a reason,” shrugged Monique Smith.
“When Hillary first started out in Arkansas, her heart was in the right place, working with children, working to make education better,” Singleton said. “But you get hardened. You get numb. You become part of the machine. There is a certain way that you start to behave, a way to play the game.”
“I don’t see her as Arkansas,” said Monique Smith. “Bill is Arkansas. Hillary is definitely New York. How can you really care when you come from money?”
In the Hall of Industry at the Arkansas State Fair, which is a nirvana of thrill rides, deep-fried pickles and country music, a woman named Debrah Lynn Wilson-Standiford was handing out paraphernalia in support of the Libertarian Party, the ever-hopeful, yet electorally hopeless, third choice for voters repelled by both Clinton and Trump. Wilson-Standiford, a graphic artist by trade, ran for Congress in 2014 as an Arkansan Libertarian and garnered about four per cent of the vote.
“Welcome to Hillary country,” she said, unseriously. “Not that we’ve ever been crazy for Hillary around here.”
Like tens, even hundreds, of millions of other Americans, Wilson-Standiford watched the three debates. On the visage of Clinton she detected “that expression she gets when someone else is talking that says, ‘How can I manipulate you?’
“It is very unpleasant—if you have nothing to offer her, then she’s not interested. If there is an important person with a lot of money, then she’s a lot more studious.”
The Libertarians offered their own presidential candidate—Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. But Johnson has zero chance of being elected. This leaves Clinton and Trump. “Honest to goodness, I am petrified of either one,” the graphic artist sighed. “I guess Hillary will be better, if only because she is not a thin-skinned narcissist. But I never thought I would say that she was the less dangerous choice. When he was governor and she was first lady, I would have simply said that she was strong to the point of unpleasantness.”
“The Book of Matthew enjoins us against judging others,” Wilson-Standiford was reminded; after all, this is the Bible Belt.
“I’m an atheist now, so it don’t matter,” she smiled.
The first president Clinton used to play the saxophone in the Hot Springs High School Trojan Marching Band, which was tooting across the football field now, on a frosty Friday night in October, in the little city of White Hall.
The varsity Trojans weren’t having the best of seasons, with only two victories in their first six games, and they were outmatched against the White Hall Bulldogs. By halftime, the score was White Hall 34, Bill Clinton’s alma mater 9, which put the wives, kids and parents of the Hot Springs coaching staff in a testy, yet voluble mood.
The coaches’ kin were sitting under blankets in the top-most row of the steel grandstand when a wanderer clambered up and started asking about Hillary Clinton.
“I think she’s a hard worker for women and children and the middle class,” offered Eva Shott, the wife of one of the Trojans’ assistant coaches.
“Why is she so hated?” she was asked.
“Because she’s a woman,” said Shott.
“Because she’s a liar,” snapped Angela Vereen, the Hot Springs head coach’s spouse.
“Times are bad, and they’re going to get worse,” said Linda Messec, coach Vereen’s mother. “She’s going to sit back and not do anything. Sure, she’s got experience—experience at making bad decisions.”
“I don’t consider these to be bad times at all,” countered Shott. “There are jobs. Are they high-paying jobs? Maybe not.”
“Are you embarrassed that Arkansas will vote for Trump?” the lone Hillary backer in the upper row was asked.
“I’m not embarrassed,” Shott replied. “That’s the great thing about our country. Conversation, discussion—that’s how we learn.”
Hot Springs went down the field and forfeited a certain touchdown when their wide receiver was hauled down by the White Hall safety before the ball was even thrown; a blatant case of pass interference against the home team that the officials blithely ignored.
“It’s rigged,” smirked the coach’s wife. “But if we win, we’ll accept it.”
When Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas—and later, when he ran for, and won, the White House—a man named Floyd “Buddy” Villines was the mayor, and later the powerful county judge, of Little Rock. Judge Villines has known the Clintons since their little daughter, Chelsea, and his little daughter, Meredith, went to Montessori school together. Later, when Chelsea and Meredith were on the same softball team, Hillary Rodham Clinton never missed a game.
So Buddy Villines came to the Comfort Inn at the Bill and Hillary Clinton Little Rock National Airport to sip lemonade and try to explain why—in a state whose children she laboured for so long to nourish and educate —so many of those children have grown up to despise her.
“The lies that they say about her—the way they say that you can’t trust her—she knew that would happen going in,” he said. “With her poise and her aplomb, she deals with it. But for those of us who are her friends, it looks like hell.
“I stood for election 14 times. When you’re in that situation, you prepare for it, and you deal with it. She’s lived a public life for 30 years, and for 30 years people have been attacking her. They attack anyone who sees things that need to change and does it. People resent someone who’s smarter than they are. They see it as uppity—and some people don’t like to see it in a woman.
“She’s viewed here as someone who could really get things done,” said Villines. “I’d trust her with my life.”
Villines talked about the private Hillary Clinton—the calls she would make to friends who were ailing, the birthdays she always remembered, “the things that you do not for political benefit, but because you are a decent human being.”
At the William J. Clinton Presidential Center on the east side of town there were photographs of Hillary playing Ping-Pong, serving home-baked cookies to her husband and daughter, holding an elderly lady’s hand and roaring with laughter. That was the Hillary that Buddy Villines and Don Ernst knew, and that the rest of the nation couldn’t see.
“I used to talk to kids and tell them that there was a boy who grew up in small-town Arkansas who grew up to be president and you can, too,” said the county judge. “I couldn’t tell that to a black child, but now I can. I couldn’t tell that to a girl, but now I can.”
Above the main entrance to Little Rock Central High School there are four statues of effigies in robes that represent Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation. It was at Central High that, in 1957, nine young African-Americans, shielded by the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, stolidly walked a gauntlet of hatred to take their rightful place in the halls of full citizenship.
The statues have been in place for 90 years; they saw it all unfold. Ambition and Preparation are male. Personality and Opportunity are female.
A woman named Joyce Elliott is the member of the Arkansas State Senate whose district includes Little Rock Central High. She also is a long-time friend of the Clintons who struggles to understand the meaning of this long and disturbing campaign. “In him,” Sen. Elliott said, “I saw this charismatic need to serve people. Here was a person who was well-positioned to make big money with a big-city law firm and move up in society, yet it was not something that he aspired to, and he came home from Yale to Arkansas.
“In her, you knew what her feelings were but she was always very intense and focused on helping children. She was a Northern woman in the South who didn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve. You didn’t see the warmth.
“We don’t make warmth a part of the qualifications of a man,” said Joyce Elliott. “And somehow for her, preparation has become a negative.”
“Have you noticed that the statue of Ambition on the high school is a man?” the state senator was asked.
“Of course it would be,” she replied.