LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Bill Clinton came home yesterday to vote, claim his second term in the White House and help celebrate a victory that was sweet vindication for the president, his family and friends, and the entire state of Arkansas.
"I would not be anywhere else tonight," Clinton said while addressing a huge throng outside the state Capitol. "Thank you for never giving up!"
After making the audience wait long past Bob Dole's concession speech -- even past the point where the crowd chanted, "We want Bill! We want Bill!" -- Clinton finally gave Arkansans their wish.
To the strains of "Hail to the Chief," the president emerged from the ornate white building onto a grand stage designed by Hollywood producer Harry Thomason. The president held hands with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the couple's 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea.
Moments later, Vice President Al Gore, his wife, Tipper, and their four children came out, too, as the band played "Appalachian Spring." Gore thanked those from his neighboring Tennessee who made the trip and then warmly embraced Mrs. Clinton.
Earlier in the campaign, when the Macarena craze swept the Democratic convention in Chicago, the first lady and Gore had promised do the popular South American dance if Clinton won. If they did, it came later, at the parties that raged all night in Little Rock.
But before their fans -- and the nation -- the tone of both the president and vice president was serious.
'I will do my best'
"I am more grateful than I can say," Clinton said. "You have given me an opportunity and a responsibility. It comes to few people. I will do my best."
"The 'Man from Hope' tonight becomes a man for history," said the vice president, who ticked off the pantheon of Democrats previously elected to two terms. It is a small list -- seven in all -- but an impressive one, beginning with Jefferson and ending with Roosevelt.
Clinton, fresh off a grueling campaign swing, worked the bulk of his campaign themes -- including his best-known line about building a bridge to the 21st century -- into his remarks last night.
He also thanked all those who've helped him along the way, especially his fellow Arkansans.
"I thank the people of my beloved native state," he said. "You stood with me through thick and thin."
Clinton watched the election returns last night from rooms in the Excelsior Hotel named the Bill Clinton suite in honor of the only native son ever elected president.
Shortly after 9 p.m., he wandered to the 18th floor, where his closest staff had its headquarters. A huge roar went up when the networks called the election for Clinton, and the president went around hugging his top aides, press secretary Mike McCurry said.
Earlier in the day, when the president voted, some 300 schoolchildren were waiting outside for him and cheered when he emerged with his family. Mrs. Clinton said she felt "wonderful," and Chelsea grinned and gave her father a high-five as they spilled out onto the street.
Some yelled Chelsea's name instead of the president's, and when Clinton dived in to work the "rope line," so did his daughter, who shook as many hands and spotted as many old friends as her father.
Meanwhile, in downtown Little Rock, thousands of giddy Arkansans began assembling at the historic state Capitol five or six hours before Clinton appeared for his victory speech. It was there, in the last century, that Arkansas' elected leaders voted to secede from the union. And it was there, five years ago, that Arkansas' longtime governor announced he was seeking the presidency of that union.
Before Clinton became president, a survey of America's schoolchildren revealed that Arkansas was the state most likely to be misplaced or omitted in geography classes. Last night, it was the center of the universe -- or at least it seemed that way here.
Markham Street, which fronts the old Capitol and the town's three main hotels, was closed to traffic and flooded by thousands of well-wishers who traveled from all over the state to see the man who put this place on the map.
Much of the crowd was decked out in the bright red colors of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. When state after state was called for the Clinton-Gore ticket by the network newscasters on JumboTrons beamed into the street, people let out cheers as though they were in Times Square and this was New Year's Eve.
But it was more than that to many of them -- much more. A palpable in-your-face subtext coursed through the crowd, which said in so many ways that it feels vindicated and that it wants the Republicans, the national news media and Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr Jr. to leave it alone.
"Arkansas has had a lot of publicity we don't deserve," said Eileen Harvey, a retired court clerk from Berryville, Ark. "And this is Arkansas' finest hour."
Mildred Russell, a 66-year-old retiree, told of being pained by assertions that Whitewater and other scandals that have bedeviled the Clinton administration were inevitable because of where Clinton hails from and that corruption was just "the Arkansas way."
"I was deeply hurt by that because it wasn't true," she said. "So tonight we're going to celebrate."
When the president's plane arrived in Arkansas at 2: 33 a.m. yesterday, several hundred like-minded Arkansans were waiting on the tarmac. They waved signs and sparklers at the president, who bounded down the stairs and plunged into the crowd, talking, shaking hands, giving hugs, and having extended chats with the hometown crowd.
Several times, the president waved goodbye to the crowd but then spotted someone he knew and lingered. After receiving a presidential hug, one middle-aged woman jumped up and down, shrieking, "I'm going to faint! I'm going to faint!"
Clinton made his way over to a band, where country singer Jerry Jeff Walker was singing, "This Land is Your Land." The president sang and clapped along, and even held a saxophone for a tantalizing moment -- but he did not play.
The last stop Clinton made before coming to Arkansas was in Sioux Falls, S.D. There, shortly after midnight Monday -- Election Day, officially -- he spoke wistfully of returning home, and he paid homage to Arkansas in an emotional tribute.
"As a young, 27-year-old man, I asked the people of my rural, hill-country congressional district in Arkansas to send me to Congress," he told a wildly enthusiastic crowd. "They said 'no,' by the way. And everybody thought I was washed up. Then I got to be my state's attorney general and governor, and then in the Reagan landslide of 1980, they said 'no' again."
As the raucous South Dakota crowd laughed along with him, Clinton continued: "By the time I was 34 years old, I had already been defeated twice. I was in Ripley's already: I was the youngest ex-governor in the history of America. But the people of my home state were good to me. We learned a lot together, and we did a lot together."
William Jefferson Clinton
Born: Aug. 19, 1946.
Education: Bachelor's degree from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, 1968-1970. Law degree from Yale Law School in 1973.
Experience: Worked as Texas director for George McGovern's presidential campaign, 1972. Elected Arkansas attorney general in 1976; governor in 1978-1980, 1982-1992; U.S. president, 1993-present.
Family: Married to Hillary Rodham Clinton. One daughter, Chelsea.
Pub Date: 11/06/96