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Small-town past haunts Clinton in White House: The US President is only now paying the price for the cosy practices learnt in his Arkansas apprenticeship, writes Patrick Cockburn from Little Rock

THE MOST famous son of Little Rock is not Bill Clinton - he was born further south in Hope - but General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Japanese and Korean wars. After he retired the city tried get mementos from the famous general to place in the local museum, but he refused. He preferred people to imagine he came from the gentry of Virginia and had no wish to remind them he was born in the capital of a backwater state like Arkansas.

Arkansans have always had a deep inferiority complex. The local state university once telephoned 1,338 people across the US to ask them if they thought well of Arkansas. When a bus from Little Rock was used as a prop in a Clint Eastwood movie it received a 20-in story with a picture in the local paper. H L Mencken, a famed pundit who never knowingly resisted a cheap shot, once said: 'I didn't make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did it.'

The ridicule ended with the election of Bill Clinton. Arkansans no longer feel they live in America's Third World. Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, no friend of the President, whom he was the first to call Slick Willie, says: 'The deep sense of inferiority is going. Suddenly Clinton was making his acceptance speech at the Old State House down the road. People could see themselves on television, which in this country is a sort of proof that you do exist.'

A Little Rock lawyer who has known Mr Clinton for years says he still finds it astonishing to remember that he is President, but 'I am inwardly delighted'. At times the glamour grows thin. When Vince Foster, the White House counsel who committed suicide last July, was buried in Little Rock many of his friends found they could not get into the church because it was full of vistors from Washington.

After the inauguration it again became possible for locals in Little Rock to find a table at Doe's hamburger and steak restaurant, once filled to overflowing with Clinton campaign staff and journalists. The local press could return to giving full coverage to events of purely Arkansan interest - such as the reburial in a cemetery overlooking Little Rock of David O'Dodd, a 17- year-old Confederate soldier shot for espionage by Union troops in the city during the civil war.

In many respects Little Rock looks like any other American city, its centre desolate because shops have moved to suburban malls. The murder rate - particularly in black areas around the governor's mansion - is high. Mr Clinton's election has made little overt difference to the state, though for the first time the airlines offer non-stop flights to Washington.

Normally the media's brief but obsessive interest in Arkansas would have ended a year ago when Mr Clinton entered the White House. There was no longer any need to examine his 12-year record as governor, because now the man could be seen in action. Americans could return to ignoring the politics of the state as they have largely done since it was carved out of the land bought from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson.

The lack of interest did not last. Before Christmas two Arkansas state troopers, who had once guarded Mr Clinton, denounced his sex life in lurid detail. This was accompanied by gradual erosion of the claims by Bill and Hillary Clinton that they were only distantly involved in the affairs of the bankrupt Little Rock businessman Jim McDougal.

A third reason why the press remains interested in Little Rock is that, 12 months after he entered the White House, Mr Clinton's character remains difficult to pin down. 'They find him a fluid political personality in Washington so they come asking questions about what he was like here,' says one local observer, adding that 'as governor he was also pretty fluid'.

Some Arkansans add that as a politician in their state Mr Clinton was in no position to force through reforms. The state government was poor and his ability to raise taxes limited, making it difficult for him to fund the better education he wanted to provide. Local people give him marks for trying, but most of all they were struck by the intensity of his ambition, his combativeness and, at moments, a curious 'lack of common sense'.

The Clintons are in a delicate position because the political cultures of Arkansas and Washington are very different. In a small city like Little Rock, whose population is under 200,000, everybody in politics and business knows everybody else. Cosy deals are the norm and conflicts of interest ignored. Explaining the high degree of social intimacy, a lawyer said that in Washington Texans form clubs, but Arkansans do not need to because they know each other anyway.

Arkansas, unlike Rhode Island or Louisiana, is not very corrupt. Businessmen say pay-offs to politicians are not common, but mutual backscratching is. In 1989, for instance, Vince Foster wrote a nine-page letter offering the services of the Rose Law Firm, for which he and Hillary Clinton worked, to the government to clear up the mess which followed the collapse - owing dollars 60m ( pounds 40m) - of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Nowhere did he mention that the firm had previously worked for Madison, an omission that might not raise any eyebrows in Little Rock, but is illegal under federal law.

Politics in Arkansas is intensely personal and success does not depend on political machines. As governor, Bill Clinton was famous for getting on with everybody. This may explain why he chose Jim McDougal, a personable ex-alcoholic who liked mixing with politicians, as his business partner. Possibly Mr Clinton took campaign contributions from Madison, but his slowness in closing it down can also be explained by the priority any state politician gives to saving a local institution. Nobody in Arkansas cared if this cost the federal government more money.

The peculiarities of Arkansas helped make Mr Clinton president. When he was growing up it was still a state where somebody who was poor but able could get ahead fast in business or politics. It never had a power elite of plantation owners or industrial robber barons. The tone was democratic. Sam Walton, whose giant discount stores made him the richest man in America, still drove around in an elderly pick-up truck with cages for his bird dogs in the back. Bill Clinton jogged to get his cup of coffee and liver biscuit every morning. Traditions were weaker and standards looser than in other states - and for this Mr Clinton is now paying.

(Photograph omitted)