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Clinton library is more Whoopi than Monica


By Giles Hewitt

Little Rock, Arkansas - Blink during your tour of the Bill Clinton presidential library and you might miss his impeachment, while only the closest scrutiny will yield any mention of Monica Lewinsky.

The $165-million (R985-million) archive that will be opened at a grand, star-studded ceremony on Thursday is, not surprisingly, brazen about trumpeting the successes of Clinton's two terms in the White House, and coy when it comes to the failures.

"Our job is not to rewrite history," insisted Clinton Foundation President Skip Rutherford during a media tour of the facility. "Our job is to protect and preserve it."

But if the presentation of Clinton's 1992-2000 presidency is not the whitewash some of his most ardent critics claim, it is certainly an exercise in carefully placed emphasis.

As was the case with Clinton's memoir My Life published earlier this year, much public attention has been given to how the library exhibits deal with the salacious details of the scandal that led to the 42nd US president's impeachment.

Much like the book, the whole episode is presented as a personal lapse that was seized on as part of a partisan political crusade against Clinton.

An alcove dedicated to the impeachment is titled The Fight For Power and focuses, using video and still photos, almost exclusively on the struggle between Clinton and Congress after the Republicans took control of both houses in 1994.

The accompanying text has yellow highlights over such phrases as "character assassination", "politics of persecution" and "rumours and accusations", while Lewinsky's name, unhighlighted, appears only twice along with elliptical references to their affair.

"The impeachment battle was not about the constitution or rule of law, but was instead a quest for power that the president's opponents could not win at the ballot box," the text concludes.

Meanwhile, the only dresses on view are pristine, unstained ball gowns in a section devoted to state banquets.

"The president was deeply engaged in how it was to be interpreted, as he was with everything in the library," said chief exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum, who argued that the impeachment section was fair and balanced.

"It was a chance for him to tell the untold story and he insisted on a transparent and illuminating exhibition," Applebaum said. "It's presented as a political event in the overall context of the political atmosphere of the time."

The library building itself is a stylish and dramatic rectangle of cantilevered glass and steel that juts out over the bank of the Arkansas River in Little Rock, where Clinton served as state governor before winning the presidency in 1992.

Exhibits run the gamut of personal and official themes, from the presidential limousine that sits just inside the main entrance to a particularly garish portrait of Socks, the first family's pet cat.

The main exhibit begins and ends with two actual-size mock-ups, one of the White House cabinet room and the other of the Oval Office as it was during Clinton's presidency.

Pictures of his wife Hillary and their daughter Chelsea adorn the Oval Office desk, while the bookshelves reveal an eclectic choice of reading material from Ulysees S Grant's Personal Memories to Herbet Hoover's Fishing For Fun.

In between the replicas, the exhibit is split into two parts, the first covering Clinton's record in office, and the second a more personal look at life in the White House.

The former includes the impeachment alcove, which is rather overshadowed by its more celebratory neighbours carrying thematic titles like Putting People First, Building One America and Confronting Conflicts, Making Peace.

An illustrated timeline running down the centre of the hall covers the key moments of the Clinton presidency year-by-year.

The second floor includes menus from state banquets for the likes of Chinese then-president Jiang Zemin, as well as state gifts in the form of ceremonial daggers, vases and ceramics.

Socks and his canine sidekick Buddy have their own "Pets" section, while a "Music" exhibit includes several of the saxophone-playing president's instruments.

Clinton's close links with the showbiz world are on view in handwritten letters from such Hollywood stars as Whoopi Goldberg, who describes the president as "the cat's pyjamas".

In terms of sheer volume, Clinton's archive represents the largest record of any US presidency, with the library housing 80 million pages of documents, two million photographs, 21 million email messages and 79 000 gifts.


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