Small-town boys who nurse big ambitions: David Usborne in Texarkana on the humble origins of presidential hopefuls

IT IS about as likely as two party leaders in Britain growing up in the same row of council houses and decades later fighting each other in the same general election - perhaps more improbable, given the breadth of America.

And this is hardly the terrain to inspire any boy to run for the nation's highest office. The land is flat and scrubby, chickens outnumber people and armadillos wander the highways.

And yet this remote part of the country - known locally as the Four States Region because here Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma meet - has thrown up not just this season's Democrat hopeful, Bill Clinton, but also Ross Perot, the tycoon insurgent running as an independent.

Texarkana, the boyhood home of Mr Perot, sits squarely on the border between north-east Texas and south-east Arkansas. Thirty miles along Route 30 into Arkansas lies Hope, a much humbler place where Mr Clinton was born and lived until he was nearly six. These towns are the quintessence of Middle America: rural, God- fearing, far removed from the big cities and from big-city politics.

One of the oddities of the campaign so far is the popular perception of Mr Clinton as a product of the elite. Hardly so. His father died before he was born and his mother, Virginia, left him with her parents while she went to Louisiana to study nursing. She remarried and with her new husband, Roger Clinton, later took Bill to live in Hot Springs, 50 miles north of Hope.

Recently damaged by fire, the modest house of Mr Clinton's grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, now stands empty beside the railway tracks in Hope. He ran a tiny grocer's shop in the black part of town. Mr Clinton recalls how serving customers in that store ensured an early empathy with the black community, which drives him today to battle racial division.

George Wright, a boyhood friend of Mr Clinton and now an administrator at Hope's hospital, is 'in awe' of his pal's quest for the presidency but not surprised by it. Both still keep in touch. 'In his younger years he was just a big, rather clumsy, likeable kid, wanting to be everybody's friend. I guess that way he was born a politician,' he remarked.

Janie Mohon, 69, used to live opposite Clinton's grandparents and her daughter Donna was the same age as 'little Billy'. She recounts the day she went into the garden to call Donna in for tea only to find Billy, aged 5, trying to kiss her behind a tree. 'My Donna was the first girl Billy kissed,' Mrs Mohon boasts. 'He was such a sweet, rambunctious boy.'

Hope, with a population of 10,290, is mostly agricultural. It is the fifteenth largest city in Arkansas and yet its tallest structure is the spire of the Baptist church on Main Street and the highlight of its calendar is the annual watermelon festival in August. In the post-war years of Mr Clinton's boyhood, when cotton farming was contracting fast, times were especially lean.

If Mr Clinton has underplayed his humble beginnings, Mr Perot has, if anything, rather exaggerated his. Compared with Hope, Texarkana was, and still is, a metropolis. At the junction of four main railroads, it was an important trading centre which, because of its proximity to four states, was also home to disproportionate numbers of hobos and fugitives.

And by Texarkana standards, Mr Perot's family was well-to-do, living in a tidy brick house in a leafy part of town. His father, Gabriel Ross Perot, was a respected local cotton broker, whose motto was: 'Sell it. You can't eat it.' His mother, Lulu May, was leader of the Ladies Garden Club.

Hayes McClerkin, partner in a local law firm, used to sit next to Mr Perot at the city's only private elementary school, the Patty Hill School, renowned for its strictness and emphasis on play acting and public speaking. Still a close friend, he grins doubtfully when asked about the carefully cultivated tales of young Ross taking his paper-round on horseback into the most dangerous parts of town. 'He did have a paper- round. But about the horse, I don't know. It was just as likely he did it from the front seat of his father's car,' he confided.

Almost every detail of Mr Perot's young life explains the person he is today. Formative events included the death of his elder brother, Ross, and his decision to change his name from Ray to Ross to ensure his father's honour could be carried into the next generation. There was Ross's enrolment, when he was 12, to the Boy Scouts, where in 16 months he achieved the highest rank. His scout manual is now on display at the Texarkana Scout Centre, built with Perot money.

'He was always a disciplined kid,' recalls Mr McClerkin. 'We used to go hook us a beer up on the beach at Red River. Ross would come but never drank the beer. It just wasn't in his character to get into that kind of thing.'

Not then, and not now.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little