“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.