Forty-one years ago, 14 people gathered in a small room on California Boulevard in Fayetteville, Ark., for the wedding of an aspiring local politician and his law-school sweetheart from up north. The bride was wearing a $53 dress bought at a local mall, the groom the same suit in which he’d been seen in TV commercials when he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress. He only owned one other suit.
The bride wanted a small, private ceremony and got it. The groom favored a big reception for his many friends, but there was no room for it in the house or its tiny yard. Ann Henry, a law professor at the University of Arkansas and a Democratic Party activist, volunteered her 2-acre property for it. “Could I have ever imagined I’d be hosting a wedding for a U.S. president, a senator, a governor and a secretary of state, and perhaps another president ¬ — and they were the same two people?” Henry says now.
The street on which Bill Clinton bought the $22,000 house in 1975 to persuade Hillary Rodham finally to marry him is now named after him, and so is an avenue in Little Rock. The airport in the state capital bears both spouses’ names. A glittering Clinton Center, which houses the presidential library, is teeming with visitors. And yet Arkansas will be voting overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, not for Hillary Clinton, on Nov. 8.
As an outsider, this struck me as profoundly strange. It would be unthinkable for, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lose her longtime constituency in West Pomerania. I set out to find out why.
The Clintons still have close friends in Arkansas, so I started with them. Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, responded in part by ticking off Clinton projects that were still going strong: Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the neonatal-intensive-care unit at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, a project to help poor parents with preschool youngsters and the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, and more.
That these initiatives are still alive and expanding is a testament to Hillary Clinton’s doggedness and ability to build working structures rather than Potemkin villages, he said. And yet these achievements haven’t endeared her to most Arkansans.
“If you go to a Wal-Mart and ask ordinary Arkansans, they won’t name a single one of these,” says Rex Nelson, senior vice president at Simmons Bank in Little Rock who worked for many years as policy and communications director for former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential contender in 2012 and 2016. I tried asking random people I met in Arkansas about Hillary Clinton’s legacy; indeed, they drew a blank. Only her educational reform efforts sounded vaguely familiar to some.
Clinton’s achievements in Arkansas are, admittedly, 25 to 30 years old, which means almost half the state’s voting-age population isn’t old enough to remember what she did when she lived here. That might not have been a problem had the local Democratic Party been around to remind them. It wasn’t. Until the mid-1990s, Arkansas was thoroughly Democratic. Now, it’s largely Republican, for all the well-documented demographic, economic and social reasons.
Interestingly, Arkansas was the last of the Southern states to turn red, which made me wonder why Hillary Clinton didn’t have more support. Democrats and Republicans alike told me this was largely personality-based: Democratic politicians such as former Sen. David Pryor and Bill Clinton held the fort as their party’s defenses crumbled elsewhere.
“Democratic politicians in this state developed a technique that worked for them,” says Bradley Gitz, William J. Clinton Professor of International Politics at Lyon College in Batesville. “They voted as the increasingly liberal party expected in Washington, then they came back here and packaged themselves as moderates or conservatives.”
That was a tough balancing act to pull off, requiring politicians uncommonly talented on a “retail” level. As Nelson told me, “It’s a small state, and our politics are personality dominated.”
Bill Clinton’s genius at personalized politics is still a force in Arkansas. “He’s just about the only Democrat who would stand a chance” if he ran today, says Gitz.
This fall, Hillary Clinton hasn’t campaigned in the state that was her home for 18 years — on the one hand, a pragmatic decision, on the other, a reflection of a troubled relationship. Unlike her husband, who, Rutherford says, comes home almost every month, Hillary has rarely appeared, and there are reasons for that.
Rutherford argues that Hillary Clinton’s expected weakness has nothing to do with her legacy or her personality. “She cannot carry Arkansas any more than Ronald Reagan could carry California today,” he says. “American politics have changed.”
It’s probably more complicated than that, though. “Bill was one of us, born and raised,” says Nelson. “But Arkansas never really embraced Hillary.”
In Hillary’s progressivism, Gitz says, Arkansans saw contempt. Throughout her time in the state, she failed to overcome this perception because she lacked her husband’s political gifts. “Bill is perhaps a nine-plus on a 10-point scale as a retail politician,” Nelson says. “She’s a two or a three.”
Hillary wasn’t standoffish, her friends say. She traveled throughout the state’s 65 counties to do her homework for the education reform — but where her husband talked, she mostly listened. “She’s not a chit-chatter,” Henry says.
Her failure to connect was — and perhaps remains — a far bigger problem than any of the Clinton scandals. “Bill was at the center of these scandals and he remained well-liked,” Nelson points out. Hillary was not so lucky.
Earlier this month, a conservative talk radio station, “96.5 FM The Answer,” organized a public showing of the second presidential debate in a Little Rock movie theater. I was there; the audience hissed and booed when Hillary started to speak and clapped when Donald Trump attacked her.
It was interesting to me that the Republicans who have taken over the running of Arkansas from Clinton Democrats are not conservative firebrands. Members of the state Republican elite, such as popular Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton are waiting out the Trump tempest, trying to make as few enemies as possible, taking no extreme positions. No revolution is going to toss out these cautious politicians.
Political waves come and go, but Arkansas remains essentially the same, a relatively poor, predominantly white state with a cozy political tradition — a place where centrists with personality can go a long way. Hillary Clinton may be wise to steer clear of it now — it’s a hostile state with only six electoral votes — but in that wisdom, there’s a long-term admission of defeat in a game her husband could play better than anybody else.
The house where the Clintons were married is now a museum. A TV in one of the rooms plays an endless loop of Clinton’s old ads from his unsuccessful first run for Congress. One of them features a country song with lyrics about “a new man” named Bill Clinton who is “a lot like you and a lot like me.”
“If you’re paying too much for beans and greens, forgotten what pork and beefsteak means, there’s a fellow here you ought to be listening to,” the singer drawls.
The museum’s director, Angie Albright, half-consciously sings along with the chorus when I ask her to play it for me. Could Hillary do an ad like this? “Never,” Albright replies without hesitation. “It’s not her at all.”
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.