Current Issue

Reflecting on America

Presidential libraries always make me cry. And each time it happens, I find myself rather surprised.

It happened again last summer when I drove from Denver to Little Rock, Ark., to visit Clinton’s library. En route I listened to Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, a nine-hour set of tapes on the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. As I drove east through Colorado, Kansas and south into Oklahoma, I was transported back a century earlier to Buffalo, N.Y., where Roosevelt was inaugurated upon the death of President McKinley. Like Clinton, Roosevelt had a way about him that made people like him. Roosevelt was the first president to serve out his terms in the 20th century, and Clinton was the last president of the century. Different political parties and different talents, but they were intensely similar in their personal charm. Both were charismatic figures.

I arrived at the Clinton library on a late Wednesday afternoon in June and joined a throng of people coming and going. Every day, said the man who sold me my ticket, several thousand come — a number that far exceeds the expectations. I looked around — young children, blacks and whites, the overdressed and the underclass — we were all there. We appeared to be a global village making our way around the architectural wonder.

The first stop was the second floor to see the orientation movie about Bill Clinton — the boy, the youth, the college student, the young politician, the president. Out of that giant screen stepped a larger-than-life Bill Clinton, a man from Hope. Dancing out of archival film footage was a young Bill — with his mother, with his younger brother, with his friends, playing the saxophone. But the moment that got me: Clinton recalling talking to his friends about their post-law school plans — where they would go, what they would do. About himself he said, “Me? I always knew I would come home.”

I think this must have been the moment that made me cry. Because he did go home to Arkansas, and he ran for office. It is the quintessential American story — a young man who starts out poor and limited in experience but manages to attain the highest political office in the land.

I am exactly three days older than Bill Clinton; we share Leo birthdays. His frame of reference is also my own, and we both have tiny entries in the same 1967 volume of Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities.

Thinking of Jimmy Carter, who also had a small Southern town going for him, I walked out of the theatre and toward a mock-up of the table where Clinton’s cabinet met. But my mind was back in Plains, Ga., in Carter’s old high school, where in another summer I had sat in the Plains School Auditorium listening to a tape about Carter’s school days — about how the school principal greeted the students every day at a morning assembly and reminded them all that the world was much larger than Plains and that if they studied hard, one of them might grow up to be president of the United States.

That moment had made me cry, too.

“Was it worth the drive?” asked the pleasant lady who had greeted me several hours earlier. Of course it was, I responded, and headed to my car.

For me, visiting a presidential library provides an opportunity to revisit all the other presidential libraries I have seen. To think, again, about America, about what makes this country so endearing — and enduring.

DU English Associate Professor Margaret Whitt, PhD ’86, is an expert in Southern, African-American and civil rights literature. Each summer, she visits the literary and historic sites she teaches about.

Comments are closed.