The boys who would be president: We know where they want to go, but where do Clinton, Perot and Bush come from? Simon Calder went in search of the candidates' hometowns

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The Independent Travel
TEXARKANA is split right down the middle. State Line Avenue cuts clean through town, slicing the post office in half and dividing George Bush's adopted state of Texas from Arkansas, governed by Bill Clinton. The third candidate for president, Ross Perot, was born here.

A postcard capitalises on the territorial divide: it shows a donkey on the right, its owner on the left, and carries the slogan 'I'm in Texas, but my ass is in Arkansas'.

Three weeks ago the local Hospitality Association announced a campaign 'to enhance Texarkana's image as a 'must-see city' '. The term could reasonably apply to Venice, or St Petersburg, or Istanbul, but having spent a couple of days in Texarkana, it seems more of a must-flee city. That is exactly what Ross Perot did, although when he escaped to a mansion in north Dallas, he left behind the Perot Theatre and his election headquarters at 1406 College Drive.

Although the locals face a long wait before another Texarkanan runs for president, they seem reluctant to vote for their hometown billionaire. Perhaps Mr Perot, who was described by Ronald Reagan's speech-writer as 'a hand grenade with a bad haircut', should have chosen a campaign manager with a less risible name than Orson G Swindle. Gordon Brown, a carpet salesman whom I met on the steps of the bifurcated post office, thought he would vote for Mr Bush again. But Frank Johnson, who drives the airport bus, insisted 'this is Clinton country'.

If he is right, then the Governor of Arkansas is assured of victory. Texarkana is geographically odd but in all other respects it is supremely ordinary - a textbook case of the American malaise, the disintegration of the community. Shops, restaurants and offices have slipped along State Line Avenue towards the Robert Maxwell (no relation) Industrial Park and the freeway.

Little stirs in the town centre except for the dust. A now-derelict guesthouse endured a brief existence under the unfortunate name Hotel Grim. The receptionist at my hotel came here from Deptford in south-east London at the start of an unhappy marriage, long since annulled. When I asked why she had stayed, she shrugged sadly and stared out of the window. Life outside comprised a dreary scattering of billboards and pick-up trucks, a lot less inspiring than Deptford.

She certainly wasn't here for the beer. Texarkana may be a perfect place to test the political pulse of the US, but Prohibition persists on both sides of the state line on Sundays. Yet beyond the by-laws and bleak streetscapes, small-town America is beguiling. The people possess a generosity of spirit and an openness that at times seems almost nave, and a sense of contentment lacking in the big cities.

The residents of Main Street USA have the power to change the world, and by Wednesday we will know whose ass is in Washington DC.

Bill's Hope springs eternal

Foreigners are rare in Arkansas. The Hertz representative stared blankly at my driving licence. The expiry date, well into the 21st century, was confusing enough. My postcode, a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers, threw her completely. 'Is this in France?' she wondered aloud.

But how many people do you know who have been to Arkansas, or could even point to it on a map? Bill Clinton's unassuming state is far from the tourist trail. The proprietor of the Town Lodge was baffled that anyone from Britain should want to visit his city, let alone stay in his motel. In a spontaneous and commercially reckless gesture, he upgraded the room and cut the price.

The locals are sensitive about the name. You can break state law by pronouncing 'Arkansas' as it looks: an 1881 law requires you to say 'ARK-n-saw'. The old Indian name is all that remains of the original inhabitants. After the Europeans arrived the territory was squabbled over by the French and Spanish, then bundled in as a bonus with the Louisiana Purchase, when the US bought more land. Arkansas settled into minor- league statehood, with plenty of time for arguments such as how to pronounce the name.

Bill Clinton first lived in Hope, near the border with Louisiana and Texas. His father died in a car accident before he was born in 1946. In 1953, Bill Clinton's mother took her young son to the nearby spa town, Hot Springs. To trace the governor's boyhood, you can pick up any phone in the US and dial 1-800-543-BATH for free. This gets you through to the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, which is already trading on the Clinton connection by publishing a guide to his childhood haunts.

The Park Place Baptist Church is currently 'celebrating 90 years of serving Jesus on Park Avenue', some of which were shared by Bill Clinton. He also enjoyed the splendid outdoor life around the town. Take the Mountain Trail, a five-mile scenic loop. From the top, Clinton's high school on Oak Street, where he learnt the saxophone, is just a dot in the distance. In the foreground is the cleft that contains Bathhouse Row.

All sorts of places, from a suburb of Leeds to a dull corner of Honduras, have been described as 'Little Switzerland', but this part of south-west Arkansas has a better claim than most. Dramatic mountainsides and narrow valleys are wreathed in evergreens and studded with cottages. Encroaching upon this enchanted land are ranks of grandiose sanatoria devoted to the reputed healing powers of the steamy waters that bubble out of dozens of geysers.

In the Twenties it was fashionable to take the waters here. The Indians who lived nearby originally regarded the springs as sacred. But when Americans find something worth exploiting, they don't stint on extravagant hotels. It is as if Leamington had leapt into middle America. The Great Depression, however, emptied the bathhouses of water and people.

The Fordyce Bathhouse is a gorgeous confection. Built in 1915, its exotic plumbing system laces through the three upper floors to the Hubbard Tub (a rheumatism treatment) and the electro-mechano room, full of lethal-looking devices to cure and ease.

The Arlington is grandest of all the Hot Springs hotels. Take tea beneath the twin spires of this shrine to sulphur, with decor from Venice via Hollywood. The hotel's bathhouse is open to the public, so you can submerge in splendour.

The craggy Arkansas hills melt into standard-issue Southern plains as you near Little Rock, a state capital of modest achievement and ambitions. The only time the city made news before its bright young governor announced his presidential candidature was in 1957. Central High School, a daunting yellow-brick castle which looks intended for defensive rather than educative purposes, was, indeed, a civil rights battleground. Until the Fifties, institutionalised racism was rampant in southern schools, with education segregated on racial lines. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1957 that schools had to admit black students, nine black children in Little Rock became the focus of a national test case. Despite provocation from local politicians and violence from white families, the children and the civil rights movement held their nerve. Little Rock drifted back to anonymity.

The city's main street runs east from Bill Clinton's office in the State Capitol, past used-car dealerships and Arkansas' only skyscraper, in the general direction of Washington. No fancy cafes for Little Rock; Lin's Diner on East Capitol Avenue is the ultimate luncheonette, down to the chrome counter and the slow, syrupy drawl of the proprietor. The standard breakfast platter is an acquired taste: biscuit, a scone-like lump of dough; gravy, a thick and pallid soup; and grits, something like small-bore tapioca utterly lacking in flavour.

Like every American city, Little Rock has homeless people begging on the streets, but here they dispense five minutes of animated tourist advice for 25c. It's more entertaining than having your windscreen scrubbed.

Bill Clinton's bid for the most powerful job in the world is being run from the old Arkansas Gazette building on the corner of Louisiana and West Third Street. Opposite is Bennett's Military Supplies, where the survivalist fearing a Democrat victory can stock up on smoke rockets and army-surplus helmets.

The Governor's Mansion is a red-brick villa in the wealthy part of town. A handsome Georgian- looking structure from 1950, it has recently acquired tourism cachet. But it no longer welcomes visitors, as I discovered strolling up the drive. Three pairs of eyes converged from nowhere, their owners wearing improbably bulky jackets.

'Do you still do tours?' I asked timidly. 'We've had to cut back because of security.'

In English, 'cut back' means reduce. 'So can I book one, then?'

'No,' a sterner voice insisted, 'we've had to cut back.' A semantic discussion was clearly not in order, so I made no excuses and left.

Tourists are, however, allowed to visit the Old State House, a gracious neo- Classical landmark where Clinton announced his candidature. When it is not being used for photo- opportunities, it functions as a museum of Arkansas history. The upper floor is given over to a display of former First Ladies' gowns - presumably Hillary Clinton is already wondering which of her frocks to donate. Downstairs is devoted to social commentary. The 1870s was a lively decade in the US: the telephone was invented, the lightbulb perfected and one Susan Anthony was arrested for voting. Nowadays women are enfranchised, even if only slightly more than half use their votes - about the same turn-out as men.

On his journey from Hope to the White House, Bill Clinton has made some mistakes, such as sampling (but not inhaling) marijuana, and naming his daughter Chelsea. But it looks as if voters who can be bothered to go to the polling booths may forgive him such lapses in judgement.

Bush faces the final frontier

Should the President be beaten on Tuesday, he hasn't much of a home to go to. George Bush's legal residence is a single Houston hotel room, a far cry from the 125 rooms of his present abode at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC.

Born and bred in the prime Democrat territory of New England, he found a more sympathetic political order in Texas and made Houston his home, at least nominally. Perhaps he was attracted by the white-hot technology of America's fourth-largest city. It could not have been on grounds of appearance, since Houston is an awkward adolescent of a city - uncertain and clumsy, nudging self-consciously against the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday night you will be able to stay up and watch the victory party and loser's concession of defeat as they happen. The satellite that brings you live coverage is the most tangible product of man's work in space. The final frontier has moved closer with the opening of Space Center Houston, a gleaming new theme park at Nasa's Texas headquarters.

The fun starts in a huge hangar where you can see the flight deck of a shuttle, try on an astronaut's helmet, walk through the Skylab trainer and try your hand, via computer simulation, at landing a space shuttle.

After ditching your craft, you can examine lunar gems through a microscope and watch lettuces grow on lunar soil. Nasa has calculated that a cubic metre of lunar rock contains enough of the right elements to make a cheeseburger with fries and a regular soft drink. Until the technology to harvest fast food from moon dust turns up, you can buy a terrestrial burger and chips for pounds 2.

The second stage of your journey into space involves a tram ride around the Nasa facility itself, reviewing work-in-progress. Mission Control - seen by hundreds of millions during the triumph of Apollo XI and the catastrophe of Challenger - is on show except when manned missions are in progress. In real life it looks impossibly cramped and almost laughably low-tech, which is hardly surprising since it dates from 1965.

The tour continues with the Weightless Environment Training Facility, a gigantic pool where astronauts get used to working at 'zero G'. At the end of the ride a clever two-dimensional anti-gravity play pen allows you to move in any direction without friction, giving an impression of weightlessness. Cynics would say that President Bush's campaign has drifted in a similarly aimless manner.

Hidden in a genteel suburb of Houston, all clapperboard and manicured lawns, lies another extraordinary gem: the Menil Collection is one of the finest private art collections in the world. Housed in a brash new building, exquisite Byzantine relics are displayed 10 paces away from some of the great works of art of the 20th century. Warhol's soup cans, Picasso, Cezanne and Van Gogh are all represented. Dominique de Menil did not want to sully the gallery with anything so sordid as a cash register (admission is free), so money-making activities are confined to the bookshop in a cottage across the road.

The neighbourhood has yet another surprise. In 1964, Mrs de Menil commissioned the American artist Mark Rothko to build a multi-denominational chapel. His house of worship is a plain octagon, subdued in the shade of broad cedars. Inside, each face of the octagon bears a grainy black rectangle, reinforcing the aura of sanctity and rejecting the commercial values of the mega-mall along the road. Reading the lips of the congregation, it was clear no one was saying a prayer for George Bush.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Simon Calder bought a discounted London-New York ticket on Virgin Atlantic from Unijet (0444 458611) for pounds 257. He combined it with a standby airpass from Delta (0800 414767), which cost pounds 275 and allowed unlimited travel for one month to any Delta destination in the US.

Accommodation: Little Rock: Town Lodge, 308 East Capitol Avenue (0101 501 375 6411); dollars 22 single, dollars 25 double. Hot Springs: Arlington Hotel and Spa, Central Avenue and Fountain St (0101 501 623 7771); dollars 40 single, dollars 50 double. Texarkana: King's Row Inn, 4200 State Line Avenue (0101 501 774 3851); dollars 32 single or double. Houston: the most convenient location for Space Center Houston. The city centre is the cluster of motels around Hobby airport, such as the Super 8 Motel (0101 713 442 1830) where a room cost dollars 39.

Attractions: Houston: Space Center Houston, Nasa Road One, 25 miles south-east of the city centre (0101 713 244 2105). Open 9am-7pm daily; admission dollars 8.75 for adults, dollars 5.25 for children.

Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross Street (0101 713 525 9400). Open 11am-7pm Wednesday to Sunday, admission free.

Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon Street (0101 713 524 9839). Open 10am-6pm daily, admission free.

Little Rock: Old State House, 300 West Markham Street (0101 501 324 9685). Open 9am-5pm Monday to Saturday, 1-5pm on Sundays. A donation of dollars 1 is suggested.

Governor's Mansion, 1800 Center Street (0101 501 376 6884).

(Photograph omitted)

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