COVER

DOWN HOME IN CLINTON’S DIXIE

BRUCE WALLACE July 20 1992
COVER

DOWN HOME IN CLINTON’S DIXIE

BRUCE WALLACE July 20 1992

DOWN HOME IN CLINTON’S DIXIE

COVER

In southwest Arkansas, there is a stretch of two-lane highway that hugs the railway line on the flatlands between the tiny town of Hope and the larger but equally unremarkable city of Texarkana, 45 km to the west. Older residents called Highway 67 the Broadway of America because it reached out to the great distant cities of Chicago and Dallas. But at home, the road is also a line that splits the state diagonally. To the south and east lie expansive cotton fields with their scarring history of slavery; to the north and west rise the Ozark Mountains, which harbored the quirky, isolated life of the hillbillies. And along Highway 67 in the remote southwest comer of Arkansas, where the cultures of South and West converge, such towns as Hope and Texarkana have been infused with what 74-year-old Hope resident George Frazier calls “a frontier spirit, where people are independent, trusting, resourceful—and not afraid to take a chance.”

Unafraid, indeed. In a strange political season, two sons of that small pocket of the country have ventured out from the back of beyond to run for president of the United States. From Texarkana, which straddles the Texas-Arkansas border, charges self-made billionaire and independent candidate Henry Ross Perot. And from neighboring Hope just up the road comes William Clinton, who became the youngest governor in his state’s history and who this week accepts the Democratic party’s nomination as its candidate in the Nov. 3 presidential election. Forged by a southwestern upbringing far from the now tainted world of Washington politics, both men stand a good chance of defeating George Bush, a president whose roots are embedded in upper-class America—the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family who came of age in the Houston business establishment and who is now the consummate Washington insider.

By comparison, Perot and Clinton present themselves as candidates steeped in the values of Middle America. “The mentality here is a million miles away from Washington,” says

Crystal Carver, a 30-year-old mother, as she watched her children roller-skating in a Texarkana rink. “Sometimes, I think we’re in another country.”

For many Americans, Arkansas is a million miles away. A largely rural state of 2lh million people, it has traditionally been the butt of jokes about its hillbilly image—even if any true mountain men still alive are most likely to be found in nursing homes. “We all know how everyone thinks of us: barefooted, backward, and wearing cutoff jeans like on Hee-Haw,” acknowledged Fayetteville lawyer Todd Bassett as he circulated through a well-heeled crowd at a shrimp boil hosted in a modem hotel by a prospering local legal firm. Even in the South, there is widespread ignorance about Arkansas. “I’ll never forget my mother’s exact words when I told her I was moving to Fayetteville, Ark.,” said law student Sarah Sweetser, 36, recalling a conversation with her mother, who lives in North Carolina. “She said: ‘That’s wonderful, darling. Just exactly where is that?’ ”

There is some truth to Arkansas’ wellworn image. It remains, by most measures, one of the five poorest states in the United States. But Arkansas also has some of America’s richest people and corporations. The recently deceased Sam Walton, who founded the Wal-Mart discount store chain and became one of America’s richest men, built his fortune from headquarters in Bentonville, in the state’s northwest comer.

Northwest Arkansas is also the chicken capital of the world, hatching, growing and processing about one billion of them every year for sale in such faraway markets as

Japan. In the Ozarks, the hillbilly culture has receded into the tourist shops that line the scenic highways, replaced by a mix of religious fundamentalists and back-to-the-land hippies who migrated there in the 1960s. The hills are also home to a scary fringe: reclusive paramilitary groups and white supremacists, led by Rev. Thom Robb, the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Arkansas has a troubled history of race relations. But it also has a record of electing politicians known for their

reformist, progressive zeal. It is that Arkansas of paradoxes that fashioned the politics and character of Bill Clinton, a five-term governor now running for the highest office in America.

“I had a pretty normal Arkansas childhood: we didn’t have much money but I didn’t ever feel disadvantaged,” Bill Clinton tells a group of 14and 15-year-olds who are gathered on the terrace of Henderson State College in Arkadelphia. The teenagers, most of them with financially or emotionally troubled home lives, are part of a Clintonsponsored youth program aimed at encouraging them to stay in school. For years, Arkansas trailed all other states in educational standards, and Clinton made school reform a cornerstone of his administration. “We want you to go on to college,” he tells the group on a hazy late Sunday afternoon. “You people come from families like mine, where no one ever had a college education.”

The son of a nurse, and a father who died in a car accident three months before he was bom, Clinton spent his first seven years in Hope. He was raised mostly by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather delivered ice and ran a small grocery store, but money was always tight and living conditions were basic. The Second World War veterans who returned to Hope in 1946, the year Clinton was bom, came home to a small town where cotton was the struggling cash crop and light industry consisted of a brickyard and a tool-handle factory.

Eventually, Freida Greenan, the daughter of a wealthy Illinois farmer, transformed Hope’s economy.

Greenan was an entrepreneur long before it was a fashionable role for women. “Freida wanted to show her father that a woman could run a business,” says Crit Stuart Jr., 69, a lifelong Hope resident and now the treasurer of Hempstead County, where the town is located. “She started the chicken and cattle business in this area that chased the cotton out.” With the cotton went many of the tenant farm workers— most of them black—who migrated to northern cities to find jobs.

Now, although poultry remains central to Hope’s economy, the town of 10,290 has developed a manufacturing sector that produces such products as high-quality audio speakers. Yet Hope remains best known for its claim that it grows the world’s biggest watermelons, some weighing up to 200 lb. Its town motto is, “A slice of the good life,” and every August Hope holds a watermelon festival that attracts more than 75,000 visitors. Events like that, said Stuart, are what perpetuate Arkansas’ backward image in the rest of the country. “We're always getting kicked in the teeth because we’re from Arkansas,” he said angrily. “People up north are surprised to learn that we can watch the World Series on TV down here.”

It is a complaint repeated around the state. Liquor company executive James Phillips, 37, a native of Forrest City, in eastern Arkansas, laughs knowingly when describing the state’s image. “Arkies are supposed to always be chewing on a weed and wearing overalls and I guess that’s fine because it probably keeps a lot of folks from moving here,” he said. “But I wrote Clinton telling him that if he ran for president, he could show the country that Arkansas has smart people who don’t all talk funny. He could change our image.”

Hope’s Hempstead County has been dry since the end of the Second World War. It is the nearby resort town of Hot Springs, in the foothills of the Ozarks, where people from Hope still go if they want a drink and a big

night out. Hot Springs was where Clinton grew up after his mother married Roger Clinton, whose surname Bill would take at 15. And in the Hot Springs of the late 1950s and early 1960s, liquor flowed, the Oaklawn race track beckoned and illegal gambling and brothels flourished under the averted eyes of local authorities. Ever since the mid19th century, visitors had been attracted to the reputed healing powers of the town’s thermal baths. Some of the tourists were gangsters, including AÍ Capone, who reserved Suite 443 in the graceful Arlington Hotel for his annual visits in the late 1920s. The combination of lawlessness and hot water, said Stuart, led old timers to say that “Hell probably wasn’t very far from Hot Springs.”

Its notoriety is almost as old as the town. An 1878 article in Harper’s magazine said that while Hot Springs had once seen “a good deal of the rough gambling, drinking and shooting life, at present the town is quiet and orderly,” although the writer did warn that the spa’s healing powers provided “an immense field for quackery [that] is worked to its fullest

extent.” The peace did not last. In 1884, Civil War veteran and southern gangster Maj. S. A. Doran arrived to challenge Canadian expatriate Frank Flynn, known locally as “Boss Gambler,” for control of Hot Springs. The Flynn-Doran feud led to a shootout on Bathhouse Row along Central Avenue, the main street. It left three of Flynn’s men dead, and the angry citizenry chased both gangsters out of town.

But criminals rarely left Hot Springs for long. During the 1920s and early 1930s’ Prohibition period, Chicago, New York and Miami mobsters would declare a truce in their turf wars and travel to Hot Springs to relax. Most local politicians were willing to tolerate the action, especially Leo Patrick McLaughlin, the mayor from 1927 until the 1950s. The colorful McLaughlin is perhaps best remembered for his team of horses named “Scotch” and ¿o “Soda,” which he used to drive down Central Avenue. He was finally driven 9 from office by Sidney McMath, a cru1sading local attorney who later became i a state governor. McMath rallied a f group of outraged veterans to cam§ paign against corruption, part of what “ became known statewide as the “Gl Revolt.”

Even so, Hot Springs remained a wide-open town throughout Clinton’s teenage years. “You name it, you could buy it here,” recalled William Harp, 60, who, for 35 years, has sold ads for The Sentinel-Record, Hot Springs’ daily newspaper. “It was a small-scale version of Las Vegas.” During Clinton’s youth, local nightclubs like the Vapors headlined such performers as Phyllis Diller, Xavier Cugat and Mickey Rooney. And a local madame, Maxine Jones, ran the biggest bordello in town. In her confessional memoirs published in 1983, Jones described Hot Springs as infested with corruption, where a share of the profits from “the Mansion,” as her house on Palm Street was known, was diverted to policemen and politicians. A federal justice department report in the early 1960s said that Hot Springs had the largest illegal gambling operations of any state.

Despite his surroundings, Clinton avoided trouble, say those who knew him. He is mentioned for honors throughout his class’s 1964 graduating yearbook, “the Old Gold Book,” from Hot Springs High School. There, among other things, he played saxophone in the all-state band and won the Elk’s Youth Leadership Award. But it was impossible to be unaware of the town’s wild side, especially when a bomb went off in the Vapors in 1964. “Just through talk, every person in town knew what was going on,” said Clay White, who for 23 years was an FBI agent based in Hot Springs and is now the town’s sheriff. “The violations of the law

were more or less accepted,” White said, adding that even Clinton’s uncle Raymond, who owned the local Buick dealership, “ran some slot machines that he had scattered throughout town.”

After Clinton left for Georgetown University in Washington in 1964, where he worked as an intern to Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, federal racketeering laws closed down most of the action in Hot Springs. These days, the Southern Club, once a gambling palace, has become a wax museum. And even the strip clubs on Bathhouse Row are gone, except for the small Entertainers’ Club, with its sagging stage and tom carpets. “I was bom too late,” said stripper Brandi Tedder, 26, sadly. “People in this town just sit around waiting to die.”

Clinton did not wait. In 1963, he had travelled to Washington with a national student organization and met President John F. Kennedy, and the experience galvanized his political senses. “Bill’s ambitions stem from that meeting with JFK,” says Archie Schaffer, a former aide to Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, who now works for Tyson Foods Inc. in Springdale. “From that moment on, he knew he wanted to be president.” Others who know Clinton add that Hot Springs, with its onslaught of out-of-state visitors, offered a vivid awareness that there was life outside Arkansas. Said longtime Clinton friend Frazier: “Hot Springs drew a clientele from across the country, so it always looked at life differently than the rest of the state.”

The billboards along Highway 7 telling motorists “Yur Shor Welcum” in Booger Hollow begin almost as soon as the road starts to climb into the Ozark hills. There is a cemetery at each end of Booger Hollow, whose name derives from local legends which held that ghosts made the stretch of road between the graves a risky passage. The area also has a violent history: after the Civil War, a group of unruly hillbillies used the hollow to ambush a militia unit moving into the hills to impose order.

Now, the only people getting bushwhacked are tourists. Booger Hollow is little more than a roadside gift shop for hillbilly kitsch, everything from Tshirts riddled with fake bullet holes and blood to cookbooks featuring recipes for squirrel pie. “Most of the real

hillbillies are dead now, but they were here when I was growing up,” said 52year-old Glenna Adams, who lives and works in the hollow.

The remoteness of the Ozarks enabled its white hillbillies, mostly descended from Scottish and Irish immigrants who had pushed westward from the Appalachian Mountains, to impose their own brand of law and order in the hills. They earned a meagre living from hunting or from working small farms. And the combination of few jobs and a hostile white population discouraged blacks from settling in the hills. “This is one of the remotest, poorest counties and people here always made it pretty clear to blacks that they had better get out before sundown,” said Alberta (Bertie) Wells, who has lived outside Mount I Judea (pronounced “Judy”) in Newton 1 County since the early 1970s. Wells I said that racism makes it “tough to be o a liberal and live here. This is not ° Clinton country.”

Wells taught English in the local school for three years before giving up in frustration. “The only book in many homes is the Bible,” she said. “And the only books I could get them to even look at were on hunting or basketball. They didn’t want to learn because few of them have any interest in ever leaving the Ozarks.”

But it has been impossible to keep other influences out. Television’s intrusion ended the isolation of the hills and even Hollywood and New York seem to be getting the message that Arkansas has changed. The image of the Clampett family in The Beverly Hillbillies may have been the way 1960s television writers viewed the Ozarks. But Evening Shade, a current network comedy series set in the northern Arkansas town of that name, features the Newton family, whose father is a high-school football coach and whose mother works as a lawyer. The hillbilly folklore is kept alive now mostly for tourists. Further north on Highway 7, an otherwise picturesque route, is the theme park of Dogpatch, whose equivalent of Disney World’s Mickey Mouse and Goofy are the characters from Al Capp’s L’il Abner comic strip. “I’m not embarrassed by our image at all,” said Adams of Booger Hollow. “Especially,” she added with a smile, “if we can make money off it.”

Mention money in northwest Arkansas and most people see chickens. Thousands of them—70 a minute along each production line—whisked upside down through plants where they have their necks cut, their feathers picked, their innards eviscerated and then are frozen into nuggets, legs, patties or any of the other myriad chicken delights. And in Arkansas chicken country, one company is king: Tyson Foods, Inc.,

which had sales of $4.7 billion in 1991 and employs 22,000 people in Arkansas alone.

Tyson has grown mainly by buying out competitors so that it now controls half of the poultry industry in the state. Its size makes it the most visible target for environmentalists, who loudly contend that the industry has polluted groundwater and streams in ^ the state with chicken waste. Activists z have accused Clinton of trading away O environmental protection in return for 5 economic growth, allegations that g have been amplified nationally and 5 damaged his presidential campaign. The companies deny the charges,

arguing that economic growth in the region is responsible for any environmental degradation. And they are furious with Clinton for what they say is the governor’s apologetic tone in answering his critics. Earlier this month, an outraged John Tyson, the company’s vicechairman of operations, met with Clinton in Little Rock to, as he put it, “get Bill to stop bashing the chicken industry, because when people think chicken, they think Tyson.”

The uneasy relationship between one of the state’s biggest employers and the governor is unusual for Clinton, who has carefully cultivated the co-operation of big business. The ties are personal: James Blair, Tyson’s chief counsel, is a key member of the Clinton campaign, and Hillary Clinton sits on the boards of two of the states biggest companies: WalMart and TCBY Enterprises Inc., the yogurt company whose name is visible on top of one of Little Rock’s tallest buildings.

The governor has been criticized for his ties to business. But the northwest corner—once the poorest part of the state—is now its fastest growing region, attracting retirees from other states who are lured by its pretty landscape and low cost of living. “Arkansas was always a place that people flew over to get somewhere else,” said Joyce Hale at a suburban Fayetteville garden party.

“This area is the best-kept secret in the country.”

Indeed, Arkansas’ old-money families tend to take a snobbish view of the northwest’s newfound affluence. A legendary local story recounts an argument at a meeting of the Arkansas Business Council—a business lobby group better known as the Good Suit Club—between Charles Murphy of El Dorado’s Murphy Oil (family assets:

$744 million) and Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton (family assets: $15 billion).

“Sam,” said Murphy as he made his point, “you may be richer than me.

But I’ve been richer longer.”

It is a hot Sunday morning in Little Rock, and the air-conditioning at the Immanuel Baptist Church is straining to keep the congregation cool. Among them is Clinton, attending alone and carrying his own Bible. And from the pulpit, bathed in sunlight filtered through the tall stained-glass windows, Rev. Curtis Coleman fights a cough to deliver the message from the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3: that everyone should soldier on without griping during trying times. In a folksy style (it is unlikely that Nebuchadnezzar ever threatened to turn anyone into a “crispy critter”), he tells the almost all-white crowd: “We are tried as fathers and as husbands.” But, he adds, “God’s real miracle is to take you through tough times rather than getting you out of a bad situation.”

Church deacons pass the collection plates. While soft organ music plays, they move grimly down the aisles passing the deep gold-plated bowls. By contrast, there is nothing choreographed about what is going on four blocks away at the almost all-black Holy Temple Church of God in Christ. The service in the small, stuffy wooden church is an unabashedly joyful celebration. The organist is joined by drums and a trumpet. The congregation shouts out its praise for God. And the aisles are filled with swaying, dancing worshippers.

In Arkansas, as in much of the South, an unofficial segregation persists. Although no one is officially barred, blacks and whites seek out their own churches and nightclubs. Said Lewis Parr as he stood outside the Mount Zion Baptist Church in a poor black Little Rock neighborhood: “There may be less tension now, but the South is still color-wise.” Added musician Karen Hughes: “Mixed couples still get stared at here.”

But many blacks say that the greatest threats to their communities are drugs and poverty. Said Hughes: “We’re just like other American cities now, with drive-by shootings. Drugs are eating away at black communities.” In Pine Bluff, a paper-mill city 55 km south of Little Rock, Janice McIntyre, 49, who remembers the violence that the South experienced during the 1960s’ civil rights crusades, agreed. “Things are better for blacks now as long as you have some skills,” she said. “I’m more afraid of gangs—black or white—than of being attacked because of my race.”

But Parr said that blacks still face enormous obstacles in trying to get ahead economically in such small southern states as Arkansas. “Little Rock is still run by the good old boys club—old families with old money,” he said with some anger. With more sadness, he added: “That’s why you

see areas of great wealth in this city, and others that are still terribly, terribly poor.”

The Fourth of July fireworks were just hours away, but already the thunderstorms over Texarkana had put on a spectacular sound and light show of their own. Afterwards, in a park on the Texas side of the city of 53,000, the Wreyford family gathered for a holiday picnic. In the city where Ross Perot grew up, Billie Wreyford, 62, remembered attending a civics class with the man who would one day mount a remarkable independent run for the presidency. “Ross was more interested in running with the boys back then,” she recalled. “If only I’d known that he was going to make so much money, I’d have shown more interest.”

Perot has not left much of a visible mark on Texarkana, other than to ^ refurbish the old Sanger Theater and rename it after his family. But Texar9 kana certainly left a mark on Perot. In § numerous interviews, he has recalled 5 his childhood experiences in the spirit I of the Norman Rockwell paintings he § admires: a sturdy moral upbringing “ spiced with lessons on the virtues of hard work and close-knit families.

— Like so many American towns and cities, there is little Rockwell imagery left in Texarkana. All through the South, town squares with their Confederate monuments become deserted by evening. Most activity has shifted to the strip malls, motels and fast-food restaurants that line the interstate highways. In Texarkana, a Blockbuster Video store stands where an old drive-in used to be. Complaining about “bad influences,” Wreyford said: “We kept the race track out for a long time, but now it’s here. And we just got the lottery.” Texarkana does remain dry—on the Texas side, at least. Anyone who wants to buy alcohol just has to transcend the border to Arkansas by crossing State Line Avenue, where the eastern half of the street is a jumble of neon signs advertising beer and liquor stores.

Peggy Lee Green, 31, an unemployed lab technician, says that she prefers Clinton to Perot, but insists that America needs a president from the South to get through its current difficulties. “In the North,” she said as smoke from her barbecue wafted past, “man is simply a statistic. But southerners take the time to understand people.” As small-town southerners, she argued, Clinton and Perot “know how to deal with people one-on-one. It’s like they’ve got a degree in psychology.” The faces of small towns have changed, but many Americans still look for answers in those values, however fictionalized. And the message to would-be presidents is clear: do not forget where you come from.

BRUCE WALLACE in Arkansas