Clinton opens 27-acre presidential center; presidents, celebrities, plain folk on hand for dedication

Friday, November 19th 2004, 8:26 am
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ To Bill Clinton, his newly opened presidential library represents what he tried to do in the White House and what he still hopes to do _ build bridges. The main structure itself, a span of sorts, even carries that theme, jutting out over the Arkansas River.

America's first baby boomer president opened the 27-acre William J. Clinton Presidential Center complex Thursday, with a crowd of roughly 28,000 huddling the cold, driving rain. President Bush was on hand as was his father and former President Jimmy Carter. President Gerald Ford, who is 91, could not attend.

Hollywood was represented by the likes of comedian Robin Williams and actor Kevin Spacey.

Before Clinton spoke, rock stars Bono and The Edge of the band U2 performed three songs. The festivities started with a poetry reading by Rita Dove, whom Clinton made the first black woman U.S. poet laureate.

Clinton, with the $165 million glass-and-steel museum as a backdrop, talked pointedly about the architectural allusion to his desire during his eight years in the Oval office to build a ``bridge to the 21st century.''

``What it is to me is a symbol of not only what I tried to do but what I want to do with the rest of my life, building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow, building bridges across racial and religious and ethnic and income and political divides,'' said Clinton, 58, accompanied by his wife and daughter.

``I want young people to want to see not only what I did with my life but to see what they could do with their lives,'' he said, ``because this is mostly the story of what we the people can do when we work together.''

President Bush called the complex ``a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future, and today we thank him for loving and serving America.''

The complex contains more than 80 million items from the former president's life, including photos, e-mails, excerpts from famous speeches and gifts from world leaders. The library celebrates eight years of peace and prosperity and dismisses his impeachment as a Republican vendetta.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said the new library ``is like my husband: it's open, it's expansive, its welcoming, it's filled with life, and the exhibits tell the story of someone who loves his fellow man, who cares deeply about all of our children, who recognizes our common humanity.''

Clinton pointed out that he and his vice president, Al Gore, reduced poverty and made college accessible to more people while bringing down the national debt and reforming the military.

President Bush admired Clinton's talent as a man of the people, telling the story of a voter who praised Clinton's ability to look you in the eye, shake your hand, hold your baby and pet your dog, ``all at the same time.''

The president's father said he was vexed by Clinton's political skill when he lost his re-election bid to the Arkansas governor in 1992.

``It has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Believe me _ I learned that the hard way,'' the elder Bush said to uproarious laughter. ``He made it look too easy, and oh, how I hated him for that.''

Clinton, much thinner as a result of heart-bypass surgery in early September, chuckled several times at the stories and often slapped his thigh.

The presidents and first ladies held their own umbrellas and tipped dry their own rain-slicked chairs. By the end of the two-hour ceremony, Clinton's usually poofy hair was matted down.

``If my beloved mother were here, she would remind me that rain is liquid sunshine, and I shouldn't complain about this because the ground probably needs it and somebody is benefiting from it,'' said Clinton, who was raised by a hardworking widow, the late Virginia Kelley.

Chelsea Clinton, the Clintons' only child, wrapped up the dedication by presenting National Archivist John Carlin with the keys to the library.

Clinton chose the center site in 1997, and construction has transformed a rusty abandoned warehouse district into a sprawling complex that has fueled $1 billion in development in downtown Little Rock.

A presidential timeline at the library explores Clinton's highlights and headaches _ economic prosperity and peace efforts in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East along with his partisan fights with Congress, Whitewater and his impeachment and acquittal over lies told in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The Lewinsky matter and Whitewater are covered briefly in an alcove dedicated to the ``politics of persecution'' that also mentions Newt Gingrich's ``Contract With America.'' Library organizers said Clinton wanted the scandals mentioned in the context of a vicious political battle.

A highlight of the museum is the only full-scale replica of the Oval Office in a presidential library, the last major exhibit on the two-story tour.

After the ceremony, John Miles of Hot Springs grabbed a barbecue sandwich in the nearby River Market and said the lousy weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of him and his wife.

``We stayed there all the time in the rain and enjoyed every minute of it,'' Miles said. ``We're proud that somebody can go from Hope to the White House. We're proud of what he did when he got there. For us he's the fulfillment of the American dream.''