The bleachers went up; the stars flew in; the rain came down; the show went on.
The $165 million Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004 with a week of events that culminated Nov. 18, a Thursday, in a 2 ½-hour outdoor ceremony full of pomp and presidents and set in Celebration Circle — which became an inadvertent splash pad.
As this Page 1 of the Nov. 19, 2004, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, an 80% chance of rain became 100% reality during the ceremony. A security order banning umbrellas was revoked, and the center even handed out hundreds; but most attendees shivered under ponchos. Some left early, as the 57-degree light rain at 10 a.m. degenerated into steady rain and 53 degrees before 1 p.m.
Thousands among the 30,000 ticketed guests and 1,300 members of the media stuck it out. Among the day’s best sports were former Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, who made their remarks and lined up in the cold with their equally game wives to wave and wipe away the rain-drips.
Famous faces were everywhere. The Democrat-Gazette had reported that “as limousines parked along downtown streets, stories of celebrity sightings ran rampant, and federal agents in dark suits prowled the streets.” Besides North Little Rock’s Mary Steenburgen and husband Ted Danson, stargazers spotted singers Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand; astronaut John Glenn; actors Morgan Freeman and Robin Williams; pundit Al Franken; TV newsman Sam Donaldson; talk-show host Larry King; baseball greats Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mays’ godson Barry Bonds; more than 100 congressmen and several international leaders.
Volunteers from Philander Smith College unboxed snack bars, water and hand towels, and denizens of the nosebleed bleachers used car keys to cut and flatten the boxes into seat warmers and rain hats.
Four F-16s from the Arkansas Air National Guard flew over in salute; U2 — Bono and The Edge — performed “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”; Clinton spoke about “building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow, building bridges across racial and religious and ethnic and income and political divides”; and his daughter Chelsea Clinton, president of the Clinton Foundation, handed the keys of the center to National Archivist John Carlin.
Covering various angles that week were newspaper staff members Andrew DeMillo, Casey Munck, Jill Zeman, Michael Frazier, Andy Davis, Chris Givens, Jay Grelen, Scott A. Johnson, Kyle Brazzel, Hilary Hilliard, Ron Wolfe, Edward Klump, Michelle Hillen, Monica Leas, Phyllis Brandon and photographers Karen E. Segrave, Staton Breidenthal, Benjamin Krain, Chris Dean, Steve Keesee, Clay Carson, Stephen B. Thornton and Michelle Posey. Not all of them got wet in the course of their assignments.
A gallery of photos from the ceremony is at arkansasonline.com/200/2004bonus.
— Celia Storey
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