The US Presidential Elections: How Clinton gave Arkansas new hope: To understand the man the polls say is heading for the White House, you must visit a half-abandoned corner of America, writes Rupert Cornwell

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THEY had driven half-way across America to be with him, all the way from the hard lands beyond the Mississippi to the winter snows of New England. It was a couple of days before the first primary of the season, and after Gennifer Flowers and the draft row, Governor Bill Clinton, it seemed, did not have a prayer.

That night he was speaking in a school gymnasium in Salem, New Hampshire. A blizzard swirled outside. The candidate arrived exhausted, and as usual, about an hour late. But as he entered the room, a delirious cheer erupted from the tiny unpaid army of supporters from Arkansas.

'We love you, Bill' proclaimed the banners. In the heart of enemy territory, the Governor was among true friends. And at that instant, he was a man recharged and reborn.

Bill Clinton no longer needs help like that. But the moment spoke volumes. To understand the man who, if the polls are right, is headed on cruise control to the White House, you must understand Arkansas first. He may have attended some of the world's finest universities; but if anywhere has fashioned him and gives him strength, it is this impoverished, half-abandoned corner of America, and its 2.5 million souls. For the roots of Clinton the deal-maker, Clinton the populist, Clinton the charmer - in short Clinton the politician, warts and all - the place to go is Arkansas.

It is an unlikely destination. Ever since it joined the Union in 1836, the state has been the butt of jokes. The very pronunciation, AR-KAN-SAW, conjures up tumbledown shacks and gap-toothed hillbillies. H L Mencken, the Dr Johnson of 20th-century America, wrote of 'the miasmic jungles of Arkansas', and of the Ozarks region in its north as the country's 'greatest moron reservoir'.

The uncouth image was sealed early on: one of the first debates in the state's infant legislature, on bounty to be paid for dead wolves, ended with the Speaker killing a dissenting member with a Bowie knife. After being acquitted, he invited the jurymen out on a drinking binge. The Bowie knife was one of the few products manufactured locally: it was known as the 'Arkansas toothpick'.

Since then, the state's politics have been an idiosyncratic mix, of populists, shysters but also of quite un-Southern progressives. The majority leader who steered F D R's New Deal through the Senate was an Arkansan; so was Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to a full term in the Senate. But for the purposes of the outside world, Arkansas was the boondocks. The story of the lost traveller seeking directions summed it up: 'Where's this road go to?' mused the old-timer, weighing his answer. 'I've been living here fer years, and I ain't seen it go no place.'

And Arkansas stayed a backwater - until that infamous September of 1957, when President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce desegregation at Little Rock Central High.

No matter that Orval Faubus, the governor who provoked the showdown, was by Southern standards relatively enlightened; or that the state could boast as urbane and cosmopolitan a son as Senator William Fulbright, for years head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the 'joke' had now become synonym for racial bigotry as well.

But it was to Arkansas, when he left Yale with the world at his feet in 1974, that Bill Clinton returned.

The question is, why? Clinton could have used his brains and charm to make a fortune on Wall Street or in the law practice of his choice, and further a political career. Instead, he went home. Even as governor, he earns a puny dollars 35,000 (pounds 20,500). The Clintons are hardly paupers, with a declared family worth of some dollars 700,000. But no Kennebunkport-like family mansion waits outside Little Rock - only a half-share in a small condominium currently occupied by Hillary Clinton's parents.

But if he's elected, the White House press corps should brace itself for regular summer assignments to Arkansas. The place has a curious pull, all its own. Arkansas may still be irretrievably provincial. Little Rock is the nearest thing to a city in the state; with its gutted downtown of a few nondescript high-rises and half empty parking lots, it could be Anywhere, USA. But look closer and there are subtle differences. Unlike the old South with its landed elites, pioneer settlers were native stock of Arkansas.

There is an extraordinarily friendly and closeknit texture to Arkansas that makes it hard to leave. Right up to his death last May, Sam Walton, the richest man in the United States but the spiritual descendent of those settlers, ran his dollars 30bn discount supermarket empire from humble Bentonville, close to the borders with Missouri and Oklahoma.

But Walton also belonged to the 'network', the small group of individuals who ultimately call the shots in Arkansas: people such as 'Chicken king' Don Tyson, the state's biggest private employer, or the late Witt Stephens, who with his brother Jack founded in Little Rock what would become one of the most powerful investment banks outside Wall Street. Only once in his 82 years did he set foot outside the state.

Outsiders tend to see the 'network' system as a mafia, by-passing the local political process and writing its own rules. In fact, in Arkansas it is the political process. The state's hallmark, someone once said, is its 'ferocious interconnectedness', where everyone seems to know everyone.

It taught the young Bill Clinton a priceless lesson, which moulded his entire career - that politics, ultimately, is people, not so much what you know (and Clinton knows a great deal) as who you know.

He has an astonishing gift for friendships that pay dividends - take Mack McLarty, head of the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company (Arkla), another of the state's economic power centres, who was a primary-school classmate of today's presidential candidate. Another example is Skip Rutherford, second in command at Arkla and a former chairman of the state Democratic party, whose daughter plays in the same summer softball team as Chelsea Clinton. In short, scratch the leathery hide of Arkansas and up pops a core member of the nationwide league of FoBs, or Friends of Bill.

Even early on, such contacts paid off. Indeed, as the whole world now knows, they helped him to avoid the Vietnam draft. Fulbright, leader of the Congressional opposition to the war and an important Clinton mentor, was just one of those who lobbied to make sure this exceptionally gifted young man went to Oxford and Yale, not Saigon.

The venerable senator had himself benefited from such quintessentially Arkansan treatment. A generation before, a businessman explained his support for Fulbright thus: 'Senator, I'm gonna be for you. Because the people of Arkansas have very few luxuries, and you're a luxury for us.'

Something of the same has gone for Clinton - but he never took luxury status for granted. Since he was first elected governor in 1978, it has been calculated, 60 per cent of the population has met Clinton in person. In Arkansas he learnt the retail politics he excels at and adores. No sooner off the campaign jet at Little Rock's municipal airport, than those slow southern cadences return. Every audience becomes 'Y'awl', every listener an honorary FoB. Phrases like 'I'll not waller with the hawgs in this debate' trip forth readily. Friend or foe, in Arkansas they refer to him simply as 'Bill'.

Clinton's talent for compromise and his celebrated gift of the gab were honed in negotiating sessions in the Little Rock State House. There, too, was coined the 'Slick Willie' label - which maddens him to this day - by Paul Greenberg, a local editor who a decade ago noted the Governor's abiding desire to please and his inclination to have things both ways.

Others use cruder language. Bill Becker, head of the AFL-CIO trade union organisation in Arkansas, who vainly opposed Clinton's cosiness with big business, was moved by one perceived betrayal too many to describe him as 'a man who can smile in your face while he pisses down your leg'.

So which is the real Bill Clinton - the alumnus of Georgetown, Yale and Oxford, the instant insider in whatever establishment is closest to hand, or the downhome Southern boy?

The answer, says John Brummett, columnist of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Clinton watcher for 15 years, is all of the above. 'He is whatever you want him to be: he's turned political moderation and flexibility into an art form.'

But, however jaundiced, Brummett the Arkansan still finds forgiveness. 'Clinton has a real bond with the state. You have to live here to understand it. He grew up with our inferiority complex; he wanted to exorcise it.'

In his chosen field of education, it may be argued, he already has. 'All our lives we had to live down what happened at Central High,' says Skip Rutherford, whose copious resume also includes a stint in 1989-90 as chairman of the Arkansas School Board.

At the great pseudo-Gothic building on 16th Street, a couple of miles from the State House, there is not the tiniest plaque to mark the drama that unfolded 35 years ago, when, improbably, Little Rock was an international dateline. Instead, a visitor is met by an unsolicited paean to the greatest achievement of Clinton the Governor, his education reforms and the ground-breaking imposition of mandatory teacher standards. Today almost two-thirds of Central High's students are black, and the same proportion go on to college.

Susie May, transplanted New Yorker and senior English teacher at the school, sounds positively belligerent about it. 'Don't ever call Bill Clinton a fake or 'slick'. He faced threats, he was even called a racist because so many of the teachers who didn't measure up were black. But the reforms changed everything; we have terrific students here.'

The reason for the loyalty quickly emerges. Mrs May also just happens to know the Clinton family well. In short, another Friend of Bill - but not of the kind which got him in such hot water in the early primaries. 'I know women here who've been offered fabulous sums to say they've had an affair with him,' she said. 'It got to the point where people like me had been seen with him and weren't contacted, and we were offended.'

If Mrs May sounds biased, then go to Hope, the small town close to the Texas border where Clinton was born. Here in cameo are the improvements wrought during his years as governor. In absolute terms, they may not be much: by most yardsticks Arkansas still ranks 46th or 47th among the 50 states. But compared to its previous eternal 49th ('Thank God for Mississippi,' the refrain ran) this is progress indeed. Unlike most of the United States, Arkansas is growing. Wages rose faster than all but four states last year. Manufacturing jobs increased 11 per cent between 1980 and 1990, compared with a 6 per cent decline nationally. If anything, Hope is doing even better.

It was not always so. Clinton's first home, a bedraggled yellow painted two-storey where he lived with his grandparents, stands a stone's throw from the Union Pacific railway line which still serves as a racial frontier through the heart of the town. To its south lay white residential Hope, to the north black neighbourhoods once known as 'Niggertown', where Harding Hawkins was born. Today, Hawkins is 44, a couple of years younger than Clinton, and has a small construction business of his own. 'But when I was growing up, this was a downhill place, full of prejudice,' he remembers. 'I had to go to the back door to get anything from a store or restaurant; we had to step aside when whites walked by.'

In 1964 he left in disgust to make a new life elsewhere, vowing never to return. But 20 years later he did, to find a town transformed, 'as different as day from night'.

For Hawkins and his wife Linda, who runs a shop called Thoroughbred Fashions in a recently restored commercial district with tarted-up wrought iron lamposts, today's Hope epitomises the new Arkansas Clinton is trying to build. In its unassertive way, Hope is booming. In five years, 2,000 new jobs have been created, in everything from chemicals to poultry processing and stereo speakers. Few houses are for sale; finding one to rent is impossible. But for Harding Hawkins, too, the biggest change of all is education. 'Before Clinton, our kids weren't ready to face the real world. Now our students are some of the smartest.'

But legend must be honoured; and the mythical Hope persists, of Bubba sitting on his dusty porch with a shotgun on his lap, nursing a mug of moonshine. Take Pod Rogers for example, a garrulous old-timer who holds court at his smart brown-painted house, opposite the junior school where young Bill spent a year before moving to Hot Springs in 1953.

Rogers is another of those eccentrics loved by Arkansas. In his 68 years, he has variously been property dealer, editor of the local newspaper, the Hope Star, and much else. Shotguns and moonshine (at least the drinking variety) are not his line: on his porch you eat watermelon.

Watermelons are Rogers' passion. Hope claims to have the best in the world; sweet, succulent and quite enormous. Before Clinton, the town's one claim to fame was the melon festival it stages every August. Singlehandedly, Pod Rogers revived the event in 1976, carrying the cause from Montreal to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas: 'If I had a dime for every time I mentioned Hope, I'd be a millionaire.' The world record for watermelons now stands at some 270lb, but visitors are invited to dig into mere 2ft-long 40-pounders, 'babies really, but a good eatin' size'.

Rogers is one of the minority of Arkansans who can't stand Clinton. 'He has sweet words, he looks way above the average man, that's why he's in with the women and the blacks. Truth is though, he's taxed this place to death.' And indeed, Republican claims about Clinton's tax record in Arkansas are a hot election issue. But there are compensations. The prospect of one of its own taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, has the cash registers tinkling across the state.

From Hope to Hot Springs to Little Rock, a Clinton industry is blossoming. If people are making 200-mile detours to set foot in Hope, if attendances jumped by 20 per cent at this year's melon festival, the reason is not a shift in national food fads. Brochures list 'Clinton Points of Interest' - the houses in which he lived, Rosehill Cemetery where his grandparents and the father he never knew are buried, the school he so briefly attended.

In Thoroughbred Fashions, Clinton bric-a-brac, from sweatshirts to place mats are the hottest selling items. Commercial rents are rising, in anticipation of a flood of souvenir shops. The city fathers have even contacted Plains, Georgia to learn from what happened there when Jimmy Carter became president.

But even if Clinton loses on 3 November, Hope and Arkansas have surely changed for ever. It is as if Hartlepool FC had made it to Wembley. Irrespective of the outcome, just being there is enough. He has achieved the small miracle of making Arkansans feel better about themselves, even the likes of Paul Greenberg. 'It was as if only now,' he wrote on the night Clinton was crowned at the Democratic convention in New York, 'that we had finally made it back into the American Union.' Now George Bush has declared open season on Arkansas and its miseries under Bill Clinton. But its inhabitants have always been a perverse bunch. Secretly, they're probably enjoying it.

(Photograph omitted)