HOPE - Now a white maned elder statesman of substantial wealth who trots the globe for the good causes he promotes, Bill Clinton remains a lightning rod in his native state, including the town where he was born.
“I’ve had it happen that a woman comes in for a tour with a couple of kids and tells me her husband is sitting out in the car because he wouldn’t set foot anyplace having to do with that blankety-blank,” says Brady Wright, a National Park Service ranger at the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home. “Or it’s the wife who won’t come in.”
Two years ago, the federal government took over operation of the white frame house with green trim at 117 Hervey St. from the private foundation that had restored the two-story structure as a tourist attraction in 1997. It’s now a National Historic Site, a 115-mile interstate highway drive southwest of Little Rock.
Whether you still love or loathe Clinton (or fit somewhere in between), visiting the home where he lived from his birth in 1945 until age 5 serves as a reminder that the 42nd president was born to modest means - like Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama, unlike John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush.
With newly widowed working mother Virginia Blythe and her parents, Edith and Eldridge Cassidy, caring for him, chubby William Jefferson Blythe IV seems to have had a pleasant early upbringing, despite fractious relations between the two women then in his life. He and his mom moved to another house in Hope after she married Roger Clinton.
The ex-president’s My Life memoirs, published in 2004,evoke the Hervey Street house as “the place I associated with awakening to life - to the smells of country food; to buttermilk churns, ice-cream makers, washboards and clotheslines; to my Dick and Jane readers, my first toys, including a length of chain I prized above them all; to the strange voices talking over our ‘party line’ telephone, to my first friends, and the work my grandparents did.”
Two pieces of displayed furniture, a gold-colored sofa and an oval coffee table with a raised rim, were in the house when little Billy lived there. The rest of the period furnishings, many donated by Hope residents, reflect the life of ordinary Americans just after World War II.
Perched in the living room atop a huge console radio is a trophy Billy won in a local cutest-baby contest, along with a photograph of the toddler, who evidently was a charmer even then. The half-dozen playing cards tacked to the kitchen window are like those placed there by his grandmother to help him learn how to count.
Upstairs, the 8-by-10-foot cubbyhole where the youngster slept is fitted out with a crib, like the one from which Clinton recalls in his memoirs having listened to the trains rattling past and wondering “where they were going and whether I would ever go there.”
At the Hope Visitor Center and Museum in the town’s1912 train station a few blocks from the house, a trove of photographs and memorabilia along with several short videos help refresh tourists’ memories.
Along with all the Clinton artifacts, including a photo of naked infant Billy lying stomach-down on a rug, there’s one display case devoted to another Hope politician: former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
On one of the videos, Clinton asserts that “all I am and all I will ever be comes from here.” He winds up with a line that wore out its welcome through repetition by the end of his winning 1992 campaign but now has a certain nostalgic charm:
“And I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home, 117 Hervey St., Hope, is open free of charge daily from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Tours of the house start every half-hour, with the last visit at 4 p.m. Call (870) 777-4455 or log onto nps.gov/wicl.
The Hope Visitor Center and Museum, in the train station at Main and Division streets, is open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call (870) 722-2580.
Lunch possibilities in Hope include Big Jake’s BBQ, 603 W. Commerce Blvd., and Amigo Juan Mexican Cafe, 1200 N. Hervey St. At Historic Washington State Park, 8 miles northwest of town, Williams Tavern Restaurant serves hearty down-home fare.
Weekend, Pages 38 on 05/09/2013
Print Headline: Clinton home, visitor center worth trip to Hope