Keeping Hope alive amid scandal

With the heightened possibility of impeachment, President Clinton's hometowns quietly back away from him.

It seems just yesterday economically burdened and politically proud Arkansas towns did everything they could to get the message out: President Clinton was here. He was born here, dined here, built his political career here.

He was a chamber of commerce's dream - throwing worldwide attention on an area of the country that, until now, has been known mostly for razorbacks and ribs.

Now, while the name Lewinsky is spoken only under one's breath, many of these same sleepy towns are quietly backing away from Mr. Clinton, their one-time national trophy who is currently in the midst of an impeachment battle.

For example, officials in Clinton's birthplace of Hope - a quaint town resembling Mayberry, USA, complete with an annual watermelon festival - recently recommended putting distance between the town and its favorite son.

"I just feel like maybe we need to soft-pedal it a little bit," said Dot Naumann, vice chairwoman of Hope's Advertising and Tourism Promotions Commission.

Ms. Naumann's announcement brought cries of protest from businesses still heavily relying on Clinton's homespun hospitality. Many still recall the economic woes of the 1980s and believe Hope's current prosperity is due, in large part, to the president.

"Our downtown is bustling," says Mark Keith, executive director for the Hope Chamber of Commerce. "You can't deny that a large part of the tourists who come here want to see where the president was born. Hope, Ark., will always be on the map because of Bill Clinton and his birthplace."

The president moved to Hot Springs, the nation's only city within a national park, when his mother remarried. Traditionally, its economy relied on tourists visiting the surrounding lakes, mountains, and thermal waters.

Hot Springs is also experiencing an economic and cultural rebirth. As part of this revitalization, a nonprofit organization hopes to raise as much as $10 million to convert Hot Springs High School, where Clinton graduated, into the William Jefferson Clinton Cultural Center.

City leaders, though, hesitate to credit the president for this revitalization.

"Clinton lived here," says Jay Chesshir, Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce interim president. "That's not the reason for what is occurring though. It was happening before he became president. We aren't putting our eggs in one basket."

While few mention Monica Lewinsky, the possibility of impeachment, or other presidential scandals, an undercurrent of disappointment exists in Clinton's cities. Many hoped he would bring more industry and federal dollars to a state often ranked last on lists.

"Arkansas needs more," Mr. Chesshir says. "We need Clinton to do what [President] Carter did for Georgia."

Still, others are glad for any attention - good or bad.

Hallie Simmons, public relations director for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, explains the president either has die-hard supporters or dogged detractors, with few people remaining undecided or indifferent.

Yet no matter the side, "Little Rock has gotten a fair number of people visiting that otherwise would have never come," Ms. Simmons says.

To keep visitors coming, restoration has begun on the Old State House, the backdrop for Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996; groundbreaking on the presidential library is set for 1999; and the Little Rock visitors bureau continues to publish brochures of hot spots in Clinton's political past.

For or against the president, Little Rock appears to enjoy its Washington ties.

"We aren't shying away from him," Simmons says. "It's undeniable. Thanks to Clinton, the city will never be the same."

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