Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2002 / 15 Shevat, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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From Little Rock: KEEP IT LIGHT: PREVIEW OF THE CLINTON LIBRARY -- LITTLE ROCK | Here's what I do while waiting for the genial Skip Rutherford, Mr. Clinton Library himself, to give a few of us inky wretches a preview of the exhibits that will be on display at the library once it's built. It seems he's running late, which seems only appropriate for the president of the Clinton Presidential Foundation.

So I go on up to the third floor of the old warehouse where the presidential artifacts are on display. The elevator door to the third floor opens and I find myself in Bill Clinton's own Graceland. The first thing that comes to mind is Blenheim Palace. Yes, improbably enough: Winston Churchill's birthplace. Why? Opposites must attract, or at least bring the other to mind.

Maybe it's because both places are wired for sound. At Blenheim, Churchill's underground war room has been re-created and, as you walk through, you hear a replay of his wartime speeches.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. ... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, "This was their finest hour.''

It was. June of 1940, to be specific. France had fallen, only England was left, and Churchill roared defiance. G-d, what a lion. What a people, what a sceptered isle, standing against the full-freighted fury of the conqueror. Alone.

End of reverie. The voice coming from a video over in a corner of the third floor is familiar, too: the wet-blanket tones of Hillary Clinton. She's exchanging scripted lines with David Letterman. Well, what did I expect? It was a different time. A different time even from this post-Sept. 11 America, which once again has been shocked into moral clarity, and the necessity of purpose.

The Clinton Years have just passed, yet already they seem as distant, as tinny, as the Jazz Age. What trademark speech of Bill Clinton's would you choose to playing over these exhibits?

I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. ... I wanted to be legal without being particularly helpful. ... I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal ... . Better stick to Hillary on the Letterman show. Keep it light.

When Skip Rutherford arrives, he points to the most requested presidential photograph of all time. Can you guess what it is? Richard Nixon posing with Elvis Presley. Of course. It may be the perfect example of American light-and-dark iconography.

To spot the photograph of a now ever-young JFK reaching out to shake the hand of an even younger and already positioning himself Bill Clinton at Boys State ... is to feel the brevity of life, and the emptiness of ambition. A cold wind drifts through the sunny room past the attractive young security guard in the corner. I think it is mortality.

Yes, by all means, keep it light, and this presidential library will be a hit. Tourists don't want to be depressed. Think Blues Brothers. Spotlight the presidential saxophones, shades and guitars. Display all the bric-a-brac that heads of state exchange, and lots of fotos of Socks and Buddy ... that's the ticket.

Keep it as light as Johnny Carson's spoof of Bill Clinton's endless introduction of Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention of 1988. It's even funnier now.

A suggestion: It might help a younger generation to appreciate Johnny's routine if it were introduced by just a few clips of the loquacious young governor of Arkansas going on and on at the convention -- when he was supposed to be just warming up the crowd for the presidential nominee. The heckling (''We Want Mike!''), the immense cheer when he finally said "In Conclusion,'' and Bill Cinton's own winning good humor later when he went on the Carson show to redeem himself ... it's all worth seeing again through the lens of the past. A good time was had by all.

It's only when you spot one of those oh-so-serious, capital-S statesmanlike quotes from The President posted here and there around the room that the pervasive falsity of it all comes back, and you want to avert your eyes. Yes, keep it light.

On display today is a sober report from an obscure Nixon aide named William J. Rehnquist recommending that RN appoint a Little Rock lawyer to the Supreme Court: Herschel Friday. He wasn't chosen, but William J. Rehnquist would make it to the court, and preside over the impeachment trial of William J. Clinton. History is full of little twists.

What I'd like to see is the file on another non-appointment of an Arkansan to the Supreme Court: Chief Judge Richard Arnold of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now there was Bill Clinton's chance to shape law and history, to elevate learning and logic. Naturally he declined. Twice. I've forgotten which nice, forgettable mediocrities he chose instead. Why? Politics, timing, general inertia?

My theory: The guy just has an aversion to quality, to moral clarity, to anything smacking of simple, bright principle. Principle might have been risky. It might have cost him some votes. That's why I bet my friend Skip early on that Bill Clinton would pass over Richard Arnold. Which meant the best legal mind of the time, our own Learned Hand, would never make it to the high court. Not on Bill Clinton's watch.

Skip mentions that he's visited various other presidential libraries to get ideas about what to do and not do here in Little Rock. The place that might provide the best guide isn't marked on the map of presidential libraries: Marion, Ohio. The site of the Warren G. Harding's house and museum.

The spirit of the '20s had a lot in common with the '90s. Both were bubbles of euphoria before reality came crashing in. Harding wasn't a bad guy, Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said, he was just a slob.

People will want to visit the Clinton Library the way Americans in the desperate '30s and wartime '40s looked back with a smile to the fabulous '20s with its flappers and flivvers. A New Era had dawned in economics, and the only way the stock market could go was up. It was a lot like the New Paradigm of the '90s. We didn't need a foreign policy, just a trade policy. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. Don't we always?

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