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Sunburned From Media Glare

By John A. Cloud

LITTLE ROCK, ARK.--Arkansasans and non-Arkansasans have at least one thing in common these days: None of us know how to deal with the election of an Arkansasan to the presidency.

Oh, it's not Governor Bill himself. Everyone pretty much knows how to deal with him--the Buchananite culture warriors hate him (as well as most of the rest of us), the Kempian supply-siders fear him, the Jacksonian lefties think he's a sell-out and the Perotians just want him to "fix it" or "get to it." ("It" seems like the deficit, although one can never be sure.)

But Clinton is at base an Arkansasan, and few people--either here in Little Rock or anywhere else--know how to handle it.

Take the national press, for example. Strewn about the city's finer hotels (both of them), the hundreds of reporters here are trying to find out what this state--and Clinton's current hometown of Little Rock--are all about.

The more conscientious among them are doing so because they think if they can learn the quirks and explore the oddities of this small Southern state, they'll be able to unravel Clinton's quirks and oddities. The same reporters who explained President Bush as a product of New England aloofness and Texas conservatism are now constructing a Bill Clinton out of their few weeks in his home state.

"Arkansas is a chronically poor state with a violent past," Michael Kelly of The New York Times wrote last week. That's perfect for the image of a poor man from a violent home.

"To an outsider, it's a miniature version of Washington, where political connections, as much as money, are the coin of the realm," writes Marian Burros, also of The Times. Here's Clinton as Slick Willie, the smooth pol with a rolodex large enough to make any Institute of Politics hack salivate.

The worst part of these descriptions of Little Rock is that they distort the realities of the city. How about this from Kelly:

"The crime is nowhere near as terrible as it is in Washington. The poor parts of the town are grim, but nothing like their counterparts in New York. The people who live here have a cheerful amiability. The relationships between the moneyed and unmoneyed, and between black and white, seem notably relaxed."

Here's the likeable Clinton whose grandfather allowed Blacks to shop in his grocery store.

At least Kelly mentioned Blacks. Most descriptions of this city--where African-Americans make up 33 percent of the population--offer an all-white version of, say, D.C.'s Capitol Hill area.

But there's a harsher reality. Little Rock, having conquered the outward racism of 1957, when Gov. Orval Faubus tried to keep nine Black students from beginning the integration of Central High School (now 65 percent Black), is a city of inwardness and hidden feelings.

School desegregation in Pulaski County has been tied up in a mammoth court battle that began years ago. The western part of the city, known as Pleasant Valley, has always been a white enclave for new money, and old (white) money is cloistered in the Heights.

Private schools (read: white, often fundamentalist Christian schools) have increased their enrollments by nearly 12 percent just in the last year.

As for crime, Arkansas has the 13th highest murder rate in the nation. This year Little Rock has broken its record for the number of homicides in a single year--with nearly a month left to go.

Arkansas still has people like Kara Alexander. Her unemployed husband Edgar robbed a bank in October to get money for food. He will enter prison on January 4, and Kara will go on welfare. She is illiterate and doesn't know how to drive. She lived most of her life in the northern hill country, where poverty means, as she put it, "liv[ing] off the land."

For Kara, political connections are not as important as money. For Kara, who will struggle with her daughter Sara, 4, on $20 in food stamps for the rest of the month, the relations between the moneyed and the unmoneyed are not so "relaxed."

On the outside, Arkansas may seem friendly and tolerant. But the color line is starkly drawn. At my high school, for example, Blacks and whites parked in different parking lots and ate lunch at different places. Even the churches in Pleasant Valley are all white.

This is not to say that any of this makes Arkansas or Little Rock so different from the rest of the nation. Nor am I saying that Little Rock is a city of undiluted racism. And, finally, I am not arguing that Bill Clinton has been a bad governor who lied about the successes of his state. Indeed, a cursory look at the pre-Clinton years reveals that Arkansasans are better off now, on the whole.

But it is true that Arkansas is more complicated than the national press has revealed. And Little Rock is no Camelot-like micro-Washington.

Still, if national political reporters are drawing the wrong conclusions about this state, Arkansasans themselves can't figure out how to deal with one of their own as a president, either.

Clinton himself is easy for us. Getting coffee at local McDonald's restaurants, working his way through down-town crowds of inner-city residents--these are the tools of retail politics that got him elected governor five times.

But all we seem to have gained from his election so far is the hope that now, people won't think we're all hillbillies. Or, as Marion Burros of The Times put it, "a bunch of racist hillbillies running around in bare feet, eating barbecue and fried catfish."

Of course, fear that this is Arkansas's image isn't so unfounded. During the campaign, George Bush didn't even know where the state is. (He placed it between Oklahoma and his "native" Texas.) One columnist from The Washington Times even wondered "whether [Bill and Hillary] use corncobs or Charmin on their Baptist bottoms."

The truth, of course, is that Arkansas is all of these things: inner-city crime, hill country poverty, a progressive and inclusive executive branch, a regressive, tired legislature. It is Bill Clinton, the Yale Law School graduate, and Kara Alexander, the illiterate mother. It is the smart young reformers who dominate politics and the book stores where Rush Limbaugh is the biggest seller.

It is these contradictions that Clinton will take with him, and it's these contradictions that help define not just this state, but the New South as a whole.

John A. Cloud '93 is the editorial chair of The Crimson, and a resident of Little Rock.

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