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The Clinton Library Changed Little Rock; Will The Bush Center Do The Same For Dallas?

This is an installment in the KERA News series "Inside the Bush Center."

After Thursday, Southern Methodist University will never be the same.  That’s because George W. Bush will dedicate his presidential library and museum built at the edge of the campus. To get an idea of how the Bush Center may affect North Texas in years to come, we visited Little Rock, Ark., where President Bill Clinton’s library opened nine years ago.

Eighth graders gather as a tour guide leads to way to the most popular exhibit at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

“We're about to look at our replica of the Oval Office here,” the guide explains. "Ours is decorated as it was during the Clinton administration."

Visitors of all ages are suckers for the full-scale replica of Clinton’s White House office.  It even meets the cool standard for Kasey Williams and the other teenagers in the group.

 “They have a replica of moon rock that is rock passed down from each generation of presidents.  It looks real,” she says.

Emily Matthews, who was still in diapers when Clinton left office, pronounced the Oval Office “amazing” because of the detail that mirrors the real thing.

The chronological exhibits that depict Clinton’s achievements and disappointments are still a big draw.  His signing of the Family Leave Act; the battle to pass a balanced budget; his impeachment after an intern scandal.  They’re all there, along with the personal items visitors love to check out.

“We have one of the most valuable baseball cards in America. It’s a Mickey Mantle rookie Topps 1952 that was given to him,” says Jordan Johnson of the Clinton Foundation. 

Attendance is going up.jpg
Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
The Clinton Foundation says attendance has increased steadily in recent years and nearly reached 300,000 visitors in 2012.

But Johnson says the exhibits are just part of the reason that nine years after opening, attendance is healthy and increasing. Many of those visitors arrive by school bus. 

“The president wanted every child in Arkansas to come in and not only learn the history but show them what's possible,” he says. “Every school group gets in for free.  We have great programming here that tie in with STEM-type teaching system.... We have educational coordinators here on staff,” he added.

Education is at the heart of what’s happening here. And it goes beyond events during Clinton’s eight years in the White House.

In an auditorium, hundreds of kids take part in the reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

The library also has a temporary exhibit on jazz music that has captivated 12-year old Skylar West.

“I love music,” she says.  “It’s a part of my life.”

Skylar’s sixth-grade teacher, Wendy Dotson, says the center brings history to life for her Little Rock students.

“It’s not just a movie on the screen; it’s the real artifacts that are right there,” Dotson says. “And how cool is that to know that someone from Arkansas was that influential?”

Clinton pets Buddy and Socks.jpg
Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Replicas of the presidential pets Buddy and Socks are on display at the Clinton Museum.

Historians come here to study documents and records.  The University Of Arkansas Clinton School Of Public Service next door hosts lectures with world leaders and sends its students to work on projects around the globe.

The Clinton Foundation's Johnson points out that Heifer International, which works to end world hunger, chose to build its headquarters down the street.

“This center put Arkansas on the international map," he says. "It gave Arkansas the hook it needed to attract visitors beyond our border states."

For this community, the location of the presidential library is just as important as its programs.

President Clinton chose 30 abandoned, inner-city acres along the Arkansas River that were filled with trash and industrial waste.  Now they’re lined with hike-bike trails and parks that have helped revitalize downtown.

Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, credits the Clinton Library with bringing new condominium towers and urban living to this medium-sized city of nearly 200,000.

“Over $1 billion in new investment was done around the time when the library opened,” she says. “Once the library came downtown then there was more interest in downtown.  It was like that first domino that falls when you're doing revitalization.  Something happens something acts as a catalyst and things keep on going from there."

Dallas' Bush Center, located on a college campus, aims to be a different kind of catalyst.  In addition to its library and museum, the center includes the Bush Institute, a think tank that focuses on principles important to the 43rd president.  They include global health, education reform and human freedom.

The institute has been criticized by some for politicizing the academic atmosphere with a conservative agenda. President Bush’s public approval rating was low when he left office and protesters are planning to gather near the dedication. 

But Skip Rutherford who coordinated the construction and opening of the Clinton library says the controversies and criticism tend to disappear with time.

“Every presidential library, school and institute is controversial.  It’s nothing new.  It comes with the territory,” he says. “The issue is what George Bush is doing for Dallas and SMU is really wonderful.  And it’s a good deal because presidential libraries and institutions and schools are about the future not just about the past.”

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.