LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Michael Sanders is 50 years old, retired from the Navy, and working toward a college degree. His t-shirt and tight afro are the same shade of gray. He was scrolling the internet on a desktop computer at Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library when I asked him to play a word association game: When I say “Hillary Clinton,” what word that pops into your head?
“Smart,” Sanders replied.
I nodded, silently welcoming more.
“Game changer,” Sanders said, rattling off another half-dozen positive adjectives before I stopped him to note the one word that never seems to come up in these conversations: Arkansan. “You’re right,” Sanders smiled, “People don’t really think of her as being from here. Not anymore.”
A generation after she left Arkansas, Arkansas seems to have left Clinton. No knock against the state’s former first lady: Time marches on and so has she.
It’s been 42 years since the Illinois native and Yale Law School graduate moved to the state to be with her ambitious boyfriend—and 23 years since Bill and Hillary Clinton left Arkansas for the White House. In between, her advocacy led to new state school standards, a nationally recognized early childhood education program, and Arkansas’ first neonatal intensive care unit.
“When I go to or drive by Children’s Hospital, I say ‘thank you, Hillary,’” said family friend Skip Rutherford.
But for most families, it’s just an ICU unit. The school standards and pre-school program are distant memories, if remembered at all.
There are a few Hillary Clinton namesakes in Little Rock, including the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport and the public library where I found Sanders. Even there, the inclusion of “Rodham” on library signage is a reminder of one of the sillier controversies of her career: Governor Bill Clinton’s advisers blamed her use of her maiden name for his 1980 re-election defeat.
In a rare bow to sexism, Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped “Rodham.”
That story hints at a reason beyond the passage of time for Clinton’s fading footprint: She never quite fit in. She was a Yankee in the South, a strong-willed woman in a paternalistic society.
Ron Lanoue is a Jew from Rhode Island who moved to Arkansas in 1972 and remembers being told, “You can stay here as long as you like, but you’ll never be considered a native of Arkansas.” He later became state chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and a supporter of both Clintons. “People like her and me,” he said with an emphatic pause, “outsiders.”
Over two cups of coffee at a bakery near the governor’s mansion, I played my word association game with Lanoue.
“Brilliant,” he replied.
Again, no mention of Arkansas. Lanoue laments how few residents of the state appreciate Hillary Clinton’s legacy, especially those under 40, who weren’t old enough to vote in Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial elections. “The level of historical amnesia,” he said, “is unsettling.”
In the two decades since the Clintons left, much has changed about Arkansas. For starters: Little Rock’s riverfront has been revitalized by the construction of a presidential library, and the state’s politics shifted from deep blue to racially red.
Over steaks and tamales at Doe’s Eat Place, the restaurant favored by the national reporters who in 1992 set upon Little Rock like locusts, Rutherford declared that he would not live to see another Democratic governor. The Clinton family friend, who now runs the Clinton School of Public Service, told a table of local journalists and graduate students that Arkansas “has left the SEC of politics for the Big 12.”
“In large part this is due to demographics. Arkansas’ growth is in the northern [part] of the state with a large portion of it coming from the virtually all-white suburbs of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago,” he explained later via email. “Arkansas’ demographics and political alignment are more like Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma and less like the Southern states of Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.”
The state that elected 30-year-old Bill Clinton attorney general in 1976, latest in a long procession of Democrats, now has a conservative Republican in that office. Her name is Leslie Rutledge. She told me that while Bill Clinton returns to the state frequently, Hillary Clinton rarely does—and because of that, she has lost touch with the state outside a loyal core of friends and allies.
“Secretary Clinton just never embraced Arkansas,” Rutledge said, “and therefore I think that’s why Arkansas is not embracing her.”
At the bakery where I met Lanoue, Brandon Cross was playing monopoly with his young son—their Saturday ritual. I asked, “What word comes to mind when I say Hillary Clinton?”
“Scandals,” he replied.
Not Arkansas? “I forget sometimes she’s from here,” he chuckled.
One table over, a young nurse named Jennifer Walker said she’s proud of Clinton’s ties to the state, “and I’m proud of her for moving on.” She called Clinton smart and strong and determined and resilient.
“I think she knows who she is and that was her problem 30 years ago here: She knew who she was and didn’t apologize for it,” Walker said. “I think that upset the establishment types. You know, the old boys.”
Walker raised an eyebrow. “Feels like it’s happening again, this time on the national stage.