Sunburned From Media Glare

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.