Though the inauguration the following January in D.C. might have been Arkansas's finest hour, you just can't get deny that drizzling November election night in 1992 for the factor of sheer, kick off your shoes joy.
Bill Clinton had been running for president at least since the day he famously shook President John Kennedy's hand in Washington, D.C. - probably since the womb. Officially, however, his play for the White House began in August 1991, when Clinton told state Sen. Jay Bradford that he was thinking of making a run for the Democratic nomination, which had seen big names falling out like ninepins. "What if I get the nomination?" Clinton famously asked. His fear was understandable. Whoever won the Democratic nod would be facing a juggernaut: daddy Bush, riding high on an 80 percent approval rating in the wake of Desert Storm. Clinton knew he was staring down the barrel of a gun, the potential for a hardcore whupping that could end his political career forever and leave him a Dukakis-grade has-been.
Nonetheless, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1992 - after Gennifer Flowers, after allegations of draft dodging, after his cockeyed admission that he didn't inhale, and after dirty laundry of his infidelity was aired on national TV - Clinton pulled off one of the greatest political tricks of the 20th century, coming quite literally from nowhere to win an electoral landslide over George H.W. Bush.
That night, as results trickled in and it became increasingly likely that Arkansas would see its first native-born president, the city exploded into a raucous party. "Downtown Little Rock," wrote Arkansas Times reporter Richard Martin, "with T-shirt hawkers, mobile pay phones, blaring music, roving packs of foreign journalists, and general good-natured bustle, seemed like a combination of the last day before Christmas, Mardi Gras, and the State Fair." Downtown bars saw the likes of Tom Cruise, Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Hunter S. Thompson, Jackie Onassis, and Richard Dreyfus. Between the Excelsior Hotel and the Old State House, throngs of people waited into the evening for what had looked inevitable since the polls began to close on the East Coast. Across town, at the Republican headquarters, a Bushie dished to a Times reporter his theory that Clinton was more diabolical than even the most venomous of Clinton-haters might have admitted. "The medieval seer Nostradamus predicted the Antichrist would have a blue cap," the man intoned for the reporter, "Clinton has gray hair. That could be translated as blue."
Finally, prognostication aside, ABC news called Ohio for Clinton and pushed him over the electoral edge. In Little Rock, all hell broke lose. By 8 p.m., the electoral count stood at 238 for Clinton and 33 for Bush. At the Arkansas Times, the normal, semi-leisurely week-long production schedule was jettisoned in favor of a balls-to-the-wall blitz, in which Times staffers delicately juggled their need to imbibe with their duty to get a triumphant issue of the paper on the stands the next morning. With a front row seat on the festivities from our downtown offices, success at keeping work and libation separate was mixed. "It was a wild night, I can tell you," said editor Max Brantley. "We got through about five a.m."
A few hours before the bleary Times staff put the paper to bed, but after the Philander Smith choir had belted out "America the Beautiful," the doors of the Old State House swung wide for history, and president-elect Clinton appeared before a standing room only crowd. "My fellow Americans," he said, his always-touchy vocal chords scratchy, "Tonight, the people of America have come together with high hopes and with brave hearts for a new beginning." The roar of the crowd at that, we remember, was deafening; a spiraling cry that went up to heaven, the death-knell for 12 years of trickling down, of uncaring, of just-enough, of taking crumbs from the master's table. It was, as some old politician had once said, morning in America.
We know, we know. Travelgate. Whitewater. Vince Foster. Monica, Paula Jones, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Ken Starr, cigars, blue dresses and mystery stains and Linda Tripp and impeachment. Even though the later avalanche of dirt smothered the promise of that election, the silver joy of that night has survived pretty much untarnished. We still believe in it. We can't believe anything else, mostly because it made us believe in ourselves.
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