When President Clinton stepped off the plane Friday for a weekend visit to his home state, leaving behind in Washington hostile court rulings and testimony by his sworn protectors, he made a pronouncement that nobody doubted a bit: “I am delighted to be back home.”
On a sizzling tarmac at Little Rock Air Force Base, about 4,000 people turned out to cheer him. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees. A handful of people were so overcome by heat they were driven away in ambulances.
Hundreds more gave him a standing ovation Saturday morning at the Embassy Suites Hotel. He seemed to pick up his full-blown Arkansan accent again--"You’ve been awful good to me, and you made me feel awfully good,” he told supporters--as he golfed and ate and fund-raised his way through the state where he sharpened his political instincts in 12 years as governor.
Left behind was the Supreme Court’s stinging decision last week to allow testimony by Secret Service agents in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s perjury inquiry. Left also was the inevitable Beltway chatter about whether Starr’s case is now coming to a close and whether the president would be vindicated or vilified.
As Washington speculated, Clinton escaped. Air Force One has always been Clinton’s safety valve, allowing him to venture into a country where his popularity is soaring. No escape route is more welcoming than Arkansas, where Clinton seems to know half the people in every crowd by their first names and where Starr has an office but not much of a following.
To be sure, there are vociferous Clinton critics in Arkansas who believe the president has embarrassed the state through many presidential controversies with Little Rock roots--from the Whitewater land deal controversy to the Paula Corbin Jones sex harassment case to allegations of Democratic campaign fund-raising improprieties. But friends outnumber foes by far, luring him back regularly.
Of Clinton’s three trips to Arkansas last year, two were to give eulogies at funerals--for his great uncle Henry Oren “Buddy” Grisham and for one of his earliest political mentors, Hillary Ward Jones. But this visit was strictly R&R--recreational; as well as political.
After shaking hundreds of hands at the airport, Clinton slipped into a striped polo shirt, blue pants and white broad-brimmed hat and played 18 holes at the Maumelle Country Club. He planned to fit in more rounds before leaving this afternoon for some fund--raising stops in New Orleans.
He spent the weekend at the Little Rock home of Dorothy Rodham, his mother-in-law.
“Those of us who know him see the difference when he comes back,” said longtime Clinton backer Maurice Mitchell, who hosted a fund-raiser at his Little Rock home Saturday night that the president attended. “He looks tired back there in Washington. Here he just lights up.”
The home visit could not have come at a better time.
Last week’s climactic showdown with Starr was hardly the last battle in the increasingly bitter struggle between the two sides. In the coming days, new disputes may loom over the admissibility of information Starr seeks about the comings and goings of Clinton’s lawyers at the White House. At the same time, some of the president’s allies are advising him to continue to use every legal means possible to impede the independent counsel.
“I think the White House would like nothing better than for this to be over,” said a former White House official, voicing the deep suspicions in Clinton’s circle toward Starr.
Another source said Starr’s office has requested records of the times and dates of White House visits by the president’s lawyers. In theory, such information could be used to help puncture the wall of secrecy that the White House wishes to preserve around conversations between Clinton and his attorneys.
On the surface, White House officials have clung to their established line that the work of the administration is on track, despite the distractions from the independent counsel’s investigation.
In a speech to the Arkansas Democratic Party Committee, not far from the Little Rock headquarters of Starr’s Whitewater investigation, Clinton never once uttered the name of the man locked onto him.
“I have tried to put progress over partisanship,” he said. “All of you know me. You know I work with anybody who wants to work with me. And you get it, what’s going on. . . .”
Clinton told his Democratic allies that the Republicans often talk about reducing the size of government, but that his administration had delivered. “When they had control of it, it was bigger than it is now, but not as good,” Clinton said to enthusiastic applause.
He stood on stage with an array of Democratic candidates for statewide offices, some of whom have taken some knocks in their campaigns for their ties to Clinton. But they are sticking with him.
“In this room you are safe from those who engage in flame fanning, character whapping, lie spamming, truth jamming,” said Bill Bristow, the Democratic candidate for governor.
There was the same sentiment out in the audience, where some people had been on the receiving end of Starr subpoenas.
“I call him the persecutor instead of the prosecutor,” Sarge Lozano, who has worked on every Clinton campaign since 1982, said of Starr. “He’s been on it long enough.”
Clinton smiled at the devotion, surely reflecting on the great divide between the White House, a place he lives and works until his term is up, and his home.
Times staff writers Jonathan Peterson and Robert L. Jackson in Washington contributed to this story.