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In Rising Tide, John Barry's classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, the author has one of the best descriptions I've ever read of the Mississippi River when it has overflowed its banks.

"There is no sight like the rising Mississippi," Barry writes. "One cannot look at it without awe, or watch it rise and press against the levees without fear. It grows darker, angrier, dirtier; eddies and whirlpools erupt on its surface; it thickens with trees, rooftops, the occasional body of a mule. Its currents roil more, flow swifter, pummel its banks harder. When a section of riverbank caves into the river, acres of land at a time collapse, snapping trees with the great cracking sounds of heavy artillery. On the water the sound carries for miles. Unlike a human enemy, the river has no weakness, makes no mistakes, is perfect; unlike a human enemy, it will find and exploit any weakness. To repel it requires an intense, nearly perfect and sustained effort."

The Mississippi River forms most of the eastern border of Arkansas. This state has as much right as any state to claim the nation's most important river. After all, Arkansas is a part of its 2,340-mile journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Arkansas, in fact, had more land under water and more people displaced than any other state during the 1927 flood.

"The river created what is often referred to as the Delta of eastern Arkansas, which is part of the nation's largest alluvial plain," Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The vast and vital habitat supports a wide variety of flora, fauna and aquatic species. The alluvial plain has remnant wetlands and several large oxbow lakes, including Lake Chicot. The river's impact on human history is evidenced in historic river ports such as Osceola and Helena. ... The alluvial plain in Arkansas has some of the richest and most productive agricultural land in the nation."

Arkansas, however, has never done as much as other states bordering the Mississippi to celebrate the river. Kaki Hockersmith is out to change that. Yes, that Kaki Hockersmith--the Arkansas designer who redesigned the Oval Office, Treaty Room, Family Dining Room, Solarium, Music Room and the family and reception areas at the White House during the Clinton administration. Hockersmith also did work in those years at Camp David on the president's cabin, which is named Aspen, and the dining hall and lodge, which is named Laurel.

Jura Koncius of The Washington Post described Bill Clinton's first inauguration day this way: "In the middle of the swirl was Kaki Hockersmith--the woman who had selected the new Oval Office curtains and who would over the next eight years go on to establish the Clinton look. Bill Clinton had told her he wanted a bold backdrop behind his desk, one that would not only signal change but also make him comfortable as he settled into his new role. ... That day was just the beginning of a presidential decorating marathon as Bill and Hillary Clinton swatched their way through more than 25 rooms--two floors of state public rooms plus the upstairs private quarters of the White House and the woodsy cabins of Camp David."

On the day after the Clintons left the White House in January 2001, Koncius wrote: "It's easy to understand how Hockersmith has slipped in and out of town quietly over the last eight years. She speaks cautiously, offering few personal insights into her close collaboration with the most talked-about couple in the country. She has largely avoided the limelight while she worked with the Clintons. ... After initially receiving a decorating fee from the First Couple, she says most of her work has been pro bono, and, on many trips, she has bunked in with the family at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

In 2010, Hockersmith was appointed to the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts for the Kennedy Center in Washington. In that role, Hockersmith became interested in putting on events in Arkansas that combined the arts and humanities. Out of that interest came a Clinton Presidential Center initiative, "Fusion: Arts + Humanities Arkansas."

The first program in 2017 focused on the contributions of the Quapaw Tribe. The second program last year focused on the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This year's theme is "The Mighty Mississippi: A Mosaic of America's Growth." There's a component for teachers from across the state. They will attend two days of lectures for which they can claim continuing education credits. About 60 teachers will participate this year.

There also will be a public symposium at the Clinton Center beginning at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. The program will include an original jazz score performed by area students, a lecture by filmmaker and photographer Tom Rankin, and a blues performance by Grammy Award-winning musician David Evans. Admission is free, but reservations are required. They can be made by calling the Clinton Center.

On Saturday, a temporary exhibit will debut at the Clinton Center, which will explore the impact of the river on commerce, the growth of agriculture near the river, and the culture that developed in communities along the Mississippi. The exhibit will include first editions of two Mark Twain novels and original Norman Rockwell lithographs based on Twain's work.

"We've received such a great response to this focus on the river that we'll continue it in 2020," Hockersmith says. "Next year we'll tighten the focus by concentrating on the Lower Mississippi River Delta."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 02/06/2019

Print Headline: Celebrating a river


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  • Jfish
    February 6, 2019 at 11:59 a.m.

    Good column Rex, the Mississippi is truly a national treasure and calling it Mighty would be an understatement. I grew up near the river and it seems to me that most people in Arkansas that live along it are pretty apathetic about it and just see it as a muddy river that perpetually flows by their city. I have always wondered why they are not fighting to protect and restore it from the tons of agricultural and municipal sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus that are flushed down it annually, and possibly trying to exploit the recreational opportunities that it could provide.