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That Place Called Hope

Deep in watermelon country, a president's roots, spun and unspun.

by PAUL GERALD

You've heard him say it so many times that you're undoubtedly sick of it. "I still believe," he says, "in a place called Hope." Maybe you're so sick of it -- and perhaps of him, too -- that when you're driving down Interstate 30 past Little Rock and see signs for Hope, Arkansas, "Birthplace of President Bill Clinton," you hit the accelerator and never look back.

Well, next time through you should stop, especially if it's summer, because the town's got the sweetest-tasting watermelons you'll ever eat -- so good that old Bill, when he was running for governor, used to make regular campaign stops just to get a little taste of Hope.

PHOTO BY PAUL GERALD
This is one of two Hope, Arkansas, homes Bill Clinton lived in as a boy -- not the one you can tour, though. It’s privately owned.
It's nuggets like this that you can pick up if you ever do stop in Hope. You can also get so much spin thrown at you that you might have trouble -- as does the president sometimes -- walking the straight and narrow. A visit to Hope is often more like a visit to Myth, but it's still worth it, watermelon season or not.

Start at the old train station, which is now a visitors' information center. Here you can grab some brochures on nearby Old Washington Historic State Park, a 19th-century pioneer village where they've recreated the Arkansas Confederate capital with antebellum homes, an inn, a tavern, and a blacksmith shop.

Then watch what everybody comes down here to see. You learn in the exhibit that little Billy Blythe was born in Hope to Virginia Cassidy Blythe, whose husband had died a few months before. You see lots of goofy pictures of Billy playing cowboy, and you can admire the tenacity it must have taken his mom to raise him.

Virginia went off to New Orleans to study anesthesiology and left Billy with her parents for a few years. She later married Roger Clinton, who happened to be an abusive drunk and who also died. The poor woman outlived her third husband, too.

Ask and the center will show you a film about Clinton and about how happy everybody in Hope was in those days. This is where the spin starts. After you've heard how Bill played with both white kids and black kids, how he met his darling bride in college, and how he rose to the top of the world while never forgetting his "place called Hope," you might want to drive up to Washington and give the man a hug. Or you might want to vomit. Depends on your level of cynicism, I suppose.

What I did was drive past the house where Clinton lived for a while with his new Pa Roger, whose surname he took, before the family moved to Hot Springs. That happened when Bill was 5, and if you want more on the roots of the president, go to Hot Springs. Down there you'll find his old hamburger hangout and Hot Springs High, where he played sax in the band. And, of course, you'll be in Hot Springs instead of Hope.

But I was in Hope, so I visited the house where the 42nd president was born -- the 1917 four-square at 117 South Hervey. It's got a white picket fence and everything. I was the only one there that day (it wasn't watermelon season), so I got a tour from the head of the Clinton Birthplace Foundation herself, a charming woman named Becky. Becky had had, just a few months before, the somewhat strange honor of giving a tour of the home to none other than the former Billy Blythe himself, so my tour was interspersed with highlights from his.

Clinton's mother, who grew up in the house, gave lots of pointers about what to put where, and Becky said the president was thrilled to see many of the things around: the Tonka truck, the Dick and Jane reader, the ancient Frigidaire. Apparently he stopped at the card table and said his mom always had a game of something going on. At this point Becky, in a surprisingly un-spun maneuver, said that Virginia's addiction to betting was indicative of the whole family's addictions: She gambled, Roger Sr. drank, Roger Jr. snorted coke, and Bill, she said, "Well, he has his own problem."

Becky also pointed out the only bathroom (upstairs), but on my asking said it wasn't for public use. She did say, however, that the president, who likes his Diet Cokes warm (warm, Becky said, because it doesn't make him belch), used the bathroom without asking. Further evidence, I suppose, that when the president has an urge, it is not to be denied.

By the time the home tour was over I actually felt like I had gotten to know the president a little better. For example, he said his habit of sleeping only a few hours per night comes, as he told Becky, from sleeping in a house right by the railroad tracks.

It's not the most exciting of facts, but the house is worth a stop if you happen to be in the area. On the other hand, you could just get a nice melon and do what the Clinton family did: move on past that place called Hope.

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