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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?