Nebraska to Clinton: It's about time!

There are at least two things you can do respectably only in Nebraska: eat a runza and visit a monument that sits directly over an Interstate.

Tomorrow, President Clinton will do both.

It's been 10 years since a commander in chief visited the 37th state, which is hard to imagine in an era of fierce competition for people's votes.

But not if you're from Nebraska - where no one recounts the ballots when a Republican wins, and people have grown used to the idea that America just doesn't understand what their state has to offer.

"They think we don't have teeth - that we're not civilized out here. And we are," says Amanda Becker, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where the president will give an address.

Nebraska is small - only about 1.6 million people - but the question remains: How did it manage to become America's doormat? Nebraskans - this reporter included - who spend much of their time convincing people that the state has modern amenities (like cars), includes professions other than farming, and can, in fact, be located on a map.

It's a mystery to - this reporter included - who spend much of their time convincing people that the state has modern amenities (like cars), includes professions other than farming, and can, in fact, be located on a map.

Despite its name, which means "flat river," according to the Omaha tribe, it is not entirely topographically challenged. "The biggest misconception is that Nebraska is flat," says Barbara Clark, who works at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, referring to the actual trees growing in the state.

Few people realize it, but their lives wouldn't be the same without Nebraska. There'd be no Kool-aid, no Reuben sandwiches. And ATMs? Forget about it. Without us, there'd be no Henry Fonda or Malcolm X. Even Johnny Carson spent his formative years here, which is appropriate, since this is the state that invented the TV dinner.

With all these achievements - and a Top Ten college football team - it's a little inexplicable how it ended up last on the president's to-do list, after a weekend with Japan's finance minister and a trip to North Dakota.

"In the end, it's just happenstance, more than anything else," says Jake Siewert, the president's press secretary, who has been forced to make official pronouncements on the state in the past week for bemused reporters and miffed expats. It wasn't meant to be a slight, he says, there were just never any natural disasters, governors' meetings, or campaign events that brought him here - which are apparently the only reasons he would come.

Not that his absence has bothered everyone. Some Republicans have proudly declared the home of Cliffs Notes a "Clinton-free" zone, and wish it would remain that way. But others, like Wilma Hendrickson, are a bit more civilized about it.

"He's not my favorite person," says the head cashier at the monument, echoing the sentiments of many folks around here who have a problem with the president's morals. Some 7 in 10 Nebraskans surveyed in an exit poll during the Nov. 7 election said they viewed Mr. Clinton unfavorably as a person.

But Ms. Hendrickson adds that you have to respect the office of the presidency and is glad the monument will be on the itinerary.

One of the duties of any president is to visit monuments, and this one is a doozy. The $59 million structure, which opened in June, spans busy Interstate 80 like an unexpected bridge. Inside are exhibits commemorating the Great Platte River Road, where the Mormon, Oregon, and California Trails all converged. Between 1841-66, almost 350,000 people traveled along it heading West. Later, the Pony Express, stage coaches, and eventually the transcontinential trains and highways all followed this same path.

"There's no place on earth where all these things happened except here," says former Gov. Frank Morrison, who is the driving force behind the project.

Before Clinton experiences the simulated thunderstorm and footage of stampeding buffalo herds, he'll be giving a speech down the road at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Kearney used to be gravel roads and cornfields. But now it boasts a population approaching 30,000 and a community of education, medical, and retail professionals - and has welcomed six presidents before Clinton, including Harry Truman and John Kennedy - none of whom presumably made it their last official act. Even more important, it also has several Runza Restaurants, which will make the press secretary's job easier, as he hunts up the special combination of ground beef, onions, and cabbage wrapped in bread dough for the president to try. This delicacy, invented in the state, is such a taste sensation it can now be found as far away as Iowa.

Though the area could use a few more Asian restaurants, it is not lacking in hospitality. Tom Osborne, a popular former University of Nebraska football coach, attributes that friendliness to people being descended from homesteaders, who had to depend on each other for survival.

"I've been all over the country, and you won't find kinder people," says Mr. Osborne, a Republican who was recently elected to the House of Representatives. During his football days, though, he says he sometimes recruited players who needed him to explain the state wasn't located near California.

Despite all this niceness, there's been some unexpected tension between Kearney and its larger siblings to the east.

Last week, the student newspaper at the University of Nebraska's main campus in Lincoln wrote an editorial suggesting that Clinton should come to the bigger cities to see what they have to offer. (He has since added a visit to Omaha.) It wrote, "It'd be nice if he could see more of the state than Kearney - a town that, when emblazoned on the television sets of millions of people, will further ingrain the stereotype that Nebraskans are small-town hicks."

Sarah Baker, editor of the Daily Nebraskan, says the paper's intent was never to insult those in Kearney - and it has in fact published another editorial saying so. The point she and her colleagues were trying to make, is that America will never have a complete view of Nebraska if all it ever sees are rural areas.

Can you blame them for thinking so since Nebraska also boasts a place called Carhenge - vintage cars stood on end in a replica of the Druid ruin, and is routinely ridiculed by its neighbors? Iowa recently considered adopting the following slogan: "Iowa: At least it's not Nebraska."

Ms. Baker says they never meant to put down the state's agricultural heritage, but stands by their argument that the world needs to know more. "We aren't saying it because we aren't proud of our state, we are saying it because we are," she says.

Given that heads of state don't come to call very often, you can't blame them for trying. It also points to an argument for presidents visiting Nebraska more often: so the locals don't have to feud over who will get his time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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