A library - and legacy - for Billiophiles

Pomp and controversy attend the opening of Clinton's presidential archives.

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The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park here is, in a word, Clintonesque.

Like the presidency it will portray, like the man himself, Bill Clinton's new presidential library is a mix of substance and flash, dusted with scandal, wrapped in drama, and boasting a roster of celebrities at its opening this week.

At $165 million, the glass and steel structure in an old warehouse district is the most expensive presidential library ever built - costing more than twice the price of George H.W. Bush's depository in College Station, Texas. It's also the largest.

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In other words, it's Clintonesque.

"The Clintons are one of the most exciting political couples in modern times," says Skip Rutherford, president of the Clinton Presidential Foundation. "You have a former president who is still immensely popular and a former first lady who is a senator. That's what makes this library so different from the others."

The country's 12th presidential library opens this week with a star-studded fete rivaling a presidential inaugural. Always a celebrity friend, Mr. Clinton lured U2's Bono and The Edge to perform at Thursday's opening event.

Clinton was scheduled to honor Whoopi Goldberg along with 100 other African-Americans before Aretha Franklin performed Tuesday night. The partying actually began last weekend and continues nightly, with Clintonistas reliving the 1990s and many of them, not so subtly, looking ahead to 2008, when another Clinton might be on a presidential ticket.

Oh, yes, President Bush will be at the ceremony Thursday, too.

While all modern presidents celebrate their libraries' openings with pomp and circumstance, Clinton's revelry is by far the most glamorous of any former president.

The 150,000 square-foot Little Rock museum, archives, public-service graduate school, apartment space for the Clintons, and foundation offices sit in a 30-acre park on the banks of the Arkansas River, in what was once a ratty warehouse district.

The building, certified as environmentally friendly, is designed to resemble a bridge, and so echo Clinton's 1996 campaign theme of a bridge to the 21st century. Architectural historians call it the most modern specimen in the state - though to some Arkansans, it's more evocative of a an 18-wheeler without its cab.

Clinton's choice of an urban area rather than a remote hillside (such as Ronald Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.) or a college campus (Lyndon B. Johnson's at University of Texas, Austin) has proven a boon to Little Rock. Since Mr. Clinton chose the downtown site in 1997, more than $1 billion in economic investment has poured into the area. The goal all along has been to transform the city into a tourist haven with an emphasis on Clintonland.

Just as his presidency was clouded with controversy - Whitewater, Travelgate, impeachment - so Clinton's library has suffered its own share of setbacks.

In 1997, city leaders offered Clinton the warehouse district acreage. He took it. The city was soon embroiled in lawsuits. Property owners challenged the use of eminent domain to claim the land for a presidential library. Another citizen tried, unsuccessfully, to block the use of taxpayer money (revenue bonds) for the project.

In 2001, an 1899 depot was discovered enshrined in an aluminum building on the site. Preservationists fought for the building, but eventually lost the fight in court and the depot was destroyed.

At another point, protesters picketed city hall when the city decided to name the street in front of the library President Clinton Avenue It ultimately compromised: Only half the street was named after him.

Controversies, of course, are hardly unique to the Clinton library. Boston's John F. Kennedy Presidential Library didn't open until 1979 because of location and architectural issues. The Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta faced problems when an access road threatened local historic neighborhoods.

"All presidential libraries face controversy," says Lynn Scott Cochrane, director of libraries at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

But this week, as Arkansas hosts more than 30,000 invited guests, dignitaries, and stars, library critics are quiet and the imbroglios have subsided.

"The sun shines brighter today on Little Rock than it probably has in 10 years," says Mayor Jim Dailey. "What we will see here will have a lasting impact for years to come."

But trouble may brew later this week after the world gets its first look at how the library addresses the touchiest issue of Clinton's presidency - impeachment. Early reports have indicated the period is part of an of an interactive policy alcove called "Fight for Power," which will also mention Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton is no different than other presidents when it comes to defining his legacy in his own way. Most libraries open within 10 years after a president leaves office, and, initially at least, few chief executives address the darker days of their administration.

The purpose of the libraries, says Dr. Cochrane, is "to help people step back and think. Improvements ... and accomplishments are the focus at first. Libraries become more balanced as time goes on."

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