There's more than Hope in president-elect's home state


January 17, 1993|By Dee Brown | Dee Brown,Contributing Writer

Shortly before publication of "The Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane visited Arkansas while free-lancing for a Philadelphia newspaper. "As soon as the train reaches the great pine belt of Arkansas," he said, "one becomes aware of the intoxication of the resinous air. It is heavy, fragrant with the odor from the vast pine tracts and its subtle influence contains a prophecy of the spirit of the little city afar in the hills."

This winey-piney aroma is ever present around Hope, Hot Springs and Little Rock. Those who grow up breathing pine air sorely miss it when they are away for long, especially in springtime when the sap is rising. The pine, naturally, is the official state tree. White House groundskeepers should not be surprised if the new president orders a few loblollies planted around the Rose Garden.

The Hope, Hot Springs and Little Rock pine country is only one part of Bill Clinton's home state. During almost 20 years of political campaigning, Mr. Clinton canvassed each of the 75 counties numerous times to shake hands with most of the state's 2.4 million inhabitants. If there is a Guinness record for most handshakes, he surely is the holder. Clinton Country, therefore, includes all of Arkansas from Missouri southward to Texas and Louisiana, and from the Mississippi River westward to Oklahoma.

Arkansas consists of four regions as distinct in some ways as four small European countries, but Bill Clinton has made himself native in all of them. The northwest is the Ozarks, with Fayetteville as cultural center. There, at the University of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton taught law for a time and then launched his first political campaign in 1974 against an entrenched congressman. He campaigned through the Ozark counties, losing, but learning how it was done.

Mr. Clinton was born on the Coastal Plain, a triangle of green across the southern part of the state, running from Texarkana almost to Little Rock and then southeast to the edge of the Delta on the Louisiana border.

Some Arkansans call this region the Timberlands because of its vast stands of pine that grow rapidly under warm rains and hot suns. But this is also a country of oil wells, tomato fields, catfish farms and deer-hunters' stands. Mr. Clinton inherited the Coastal Plains' attitude that life can be hard, but the land and the Good Lord provide ways to beat it if you try.

A third region encompasses the Ouachita Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. A line running between Texarkana and Fort Smith forms an artificial western border (the mountains extend into Oklahoma). The Arkansas River on the north and Interstate 30 on the east are the other boundaries. Within the Ouachitas is Hot Springs, an anomalous city with a large share of bizarre characters and tolerant traditions. Hot Springs is also influenced by straight-laced fundamentalists, so that the city sometimes has the characteristics of a split personality. In his youth, Bill Clinton, Baptist and lady-killer, acquired the divided spirit of Hot Springs and the Ouachitas.

Eastern Arkansas is the Delta, a flat and rolling agricultural land of soybeans, rice and cotton. During the last generation, rapid improvements in agricultural machinery drove white and black farm workers off the land and north to Illinois and Michigan in search of employment. Occasional license plates from those states on cars parked around Delta farmhouses indicate that family ties still prevail.

There is no typical Arkansan. If there were one, he or she would be a mixture of races, and would probably answer to names such as Buddy or Sissy or Sonny or Bill. Arkansas was settled by people escaping from something or somewhere. They are cordial to strangers, yet suspicious, and may express sotto voce some doubts about the newcomer's reliability and validity. To most of them, Bill Clinton is another Arkansas boy who has done well in life, and some of the 47 percent who did not vote for him openly admire what he has accomplished. Yet they hope and pray that all the hullabaloo he has created will not damage or alter the sweet ambience in which they've chosen to spend their lives.

This expectation may be wishful thinking. Mr. Clinton's victory is cause for tourism officials to celebrate. So for those who wish to experience Clinton country, the most dramatic highway entry to Arkansas is from the booming country music town of Branson, Mo., south to Harrison and then down state Highway 7 over one of the continent's 10 most scenic routes. In autumn the constantly changing hills and ridges display almost every shade of color, and in springtime one of the games of travelers is trying to name all of the 88 varieties of green that cover the mountainsides.

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