Little Rock prepares for life after Clinton


January 11, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, ARK — LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- This city's time in the sun is fading fast. The man who brought it unusual fame and fortune --

President-elect Bill Clinton -- is about to leave for a capital more familiar with both.

Not since Plains, Ga., became the unlikely focus of national attention when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 has a city like Little Rock been on such a roller coaster ride.

"We have seen a government formed right here. Yes, sir, right here in Little Rock," said a taxi driver, born and bred here and still amazed at what has been happening before his very eyes.

He and his neighbors watch a president-elect jog through their streets each day in the post-dawn chill. His motorcade with lights flashing and police outriders in escort, has become part of the ebb and flow of normal traffic. The Secret Service agents, all with hidden communications and heavy handguns, are almost as familiar as friendly neighbors.

People have gotten used to the remarkable.

Who would have thought that television's network news stars could become so familiar on Main Street that nary a head is turned these days? But there they go about their daily business, unremarked.

Last week the Disney Channel came to town to hold the worl premier of its newest made-for-TV film, "The Ernest Green Story," which depicts the bitter 1957 desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.

Ernest Green, now a successful businessman in Washington was there, alongside his old friend, Bill Clinton. Together they walked up the school's stone steps that held so much fear for Mr. Green 35 years ago, when Little Rock knew national shame, not pride.

A few days later, four former U.S. secretaries of state -- William P. Rogers, Edmund S. Muskie, George P. Shultz and Alexander M. Haig -- held their annual reunion in the Joseph Taylor Robinson Cultural Center, named after a former governor and U.S. senator who was about as famous as they got in Little Rock until Bill Clinton came along.

Last month, the cream of the country's economic crop assembled in the same place to brainstorm about what ails the national economy and what should be done about it. Nobel Prize laureates mixed with corporate executives, and the nation tuned in to the televised broadcasts from Little Rock.

Whoever created the Arkansas capital's motto, "Little Rock -- Full of Surprises," could hardly have foreseen how accurate the description would come to be.

As the local Arkansas Democrat-Gazette observed this week: "What once seemed so exciting has become commonplace."

But there is now, in the waning days of the transition, a feeling that the show is just about over. That the glory days will be few and far between in the future, limited to brief home visits by the First Family, which doesn't even own a house here and has been camped out, grace-and-favor style, in the governor's mansion even though Bill Clinton ceased to be governor before Christmas.

Already, Little Rock has had its first withdrawal symptoms.

The Clinton family spent the best part of the post-Christmas week atan intellectual retreat in Hilton Head, S.C., and the entourage either went with them or went home. Little Rock was on its own again.

As the Democrat-Gazette lamented: "It was, to put it frankly, boring . . . without him."

The paper had seen the future, and didn't much care for what it saw.

"I will miss him," said Hallie Simmins, spokeswoman for the Little Rock convention and business bureau. "There's nothing really remarkable about our city in the sense we do not have a Bourbon Street like New Orleans, or cable cars like San Francisco, and we are not big like New York or Los Angeles, but it's a town you would have liked to have grown up in."

Nowhere will Mr. Clinton be more missed than in Juanita's Mexican Cafe and Bar on Main Street, his favorite eatery. He was there again last week, popping in unannounced for lunch. He favors the $7 enchiladas or the $10 fajitas.

"I'm really going to miss your food," the president-elect told toldowner Mark Abernathy as he left for perhaps the last time before his inauguration.

Mr. Abernathy promised he would send a care package now and then to Washington.

"He has been here for so long that he is more than just the governor," Mr. Abernathy said. "He is a friend to a lot of people who live here. In normal circumstances when a president would walk into a restaurant he would cause a great stir. Here he is, the president, but he is still Bill Clinton to most everyone."

"Perhaps he will come back here for a little bit of peace and quiet," he added. "We are going to miss him."

But at the Chamber of Commerce, director Paul Harvel is far from despondent.

"As far as the ending being here, we really don't have anything ending," he said. "Because of the attention we have gotten in Little Rock, we are able to sell our city some."

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