Bushwhacked in Clinton Country

For President Clinton, historic Central High School here has been more than just a potent symbol of racial reconciliation -it has also been a place of homecoming and renewal.

Back before he went to Washington, Mr. Clinton was a frequent visitor as Arkansas governor. Years later, in 1997, he stood before the faade of four Greek goddesses - representing Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation - to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the school's desegregation crisis.

There's even some talk circulating around town that Clinton hopes to connect his future presidential library to the campus as one of the ongoing racial-healing projects he plans once he leaves office.

But last Friday, it wasn't Clinton who was addressing his fellow Arkansans in this brown-brick fortress of a school. Rather, it was Republican presidential nominee-to-be George W. Bush.

The Texas governor's address at Central High and fund-raising tour through Little Rock, Ark., last week shows Mr. Bush's brazenness in challenging Clinton's protg, Vice President Al Gore, on the president's own turf. But it also indicates how much support for the Clintons has waned in Arkansas in recent years.

The reasons are mixed. Certainly, the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 didn't help the native son's popularity in his home state. But Hillary Rodham Clinton's decision to run for Senate in New York was perhaps a greater blow.

Mrs. Clinton hasn't visited Arkansas in nearly two years and recently turned down an invitation to a former first ladies' reunion in Little Rock, sending a letter instead.

When the Clintons bought a house in New York's ritzy Westchester County late last year, it was seen as the final injustice. Many Arkansans felt used and saw the move as a sign that the Clintons were turning their backs on the state that supported them when their names were barely heard beyond the Ozarks.

Moreover, many people here imagined improvements in the state - better roads, help for the desolate Mississippi delta region, and more industry - during Clinton's tenure. That hasn't happened.

Still, based on Bush's trip to Central High, he doesn't seem a lock to sweep the state - which could go either way in the fall.

Bush told a group of administrators, teachers, and 45 invitation-only guests not to count on the federal government to rescue the school, which needs more than $6.8 million in repairs. He emphasized that he will not be a "federal superintendent" for the nation's schools.

After the event, Principal Rudolph Howard countered, "All these catch-phrases are horses that are not going to trot anymore ... one of those pie-in-the-sky kind of things that have existed for years and years."

The rest of Bush's day, however, flowed more smoothly - mostly because he surrounded himself with members of Arkansas' burgeoning Republican Party.

He attended a $1,000-a-plate luncheon at a local hotel, and later, a rally in an airplane hangar. But even in these friendlier circles, Clinton remained a touchy topic.

For one onlooker at Bush's send-off rally, the candidate's insinuation that Arkansas had Clinton fatigue hit too close to home.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed. "There are some points you just shouldn't touch in the president's backyard."

But for Mike, a student waving a red, white, and blue pom-pom, Clinton might as well have been from Alaska. "This is such an exciting day," he declared. "Sure, we have the president, but if you are Republican, he doesn't mean that much to you."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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