Some folks have been rolling their eyes at the presumptiveness the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission supposedly displayed March 20 when it unanimously elected to rename the state’s largest airport after Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former president and current U.S. Secretary of State — only two of the most distinguished people ever to call the Natural State home.
Meanwhile, critics guffaw.
They say such a public tribute to a couple who are not only still living, but remain active players on the world stage, is unbecoming. They see these commissioners, and also see a gang of high-school cheerleaders all-too-happy to trip over themselves at the first opportunity to please the Clintons. They can hardly believe grown-ups capable of recalling the trials and tribulations of that past era would be so ready and willing to rename the Little Rock National Airport after a once impeached U.S. president.
Heck, they add, Hillary isn’t even a native Arkansan.
And what about the suggestion that Little Rock has lots of other memorable names deserving of such historic recognition — beginning, perhaps, with the likes of civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates. President Clinton’s famous name, by comparison, is already attached to an illustrious presidential library, a busy Little Rock street, and the impressive Clinton School of Public Service.
Why, they ask, do Bill and Hillary Clinton deserve even more public gratitude?
One can’t help thinking the real problem is that all of us — the public, a handful of vocal critics, and Little Rock’s airport commissioners — are too close to the recent history Bill and Hillary Clinton made (and are still creating) to fully appreciate what it all means.
Decades from today, historians nationwide and Arkansans alike will have a better understanding of where and how to categorize the Clinton’s impact on U.S. history. Perhaps in the eyes of some they will slide a little; for others, maybe they will rise to an even higher ranking.
In the meantime, Bill and Hillary Clinton remain global rock stars who, as fate would have it, once called Arkansas home. Because of their wide-ranging appeal — and because the former president will likely one day be buried adjacent to his glassy shoebox near the Arkansas River – Little Rock leaders want to cement that relationship, that brand, as permanently as they possibly can.
Such reasoning is understandable, if only from an economic development point of view.
The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library is not only an economic driver and major tourist attraction in central Arkansas, it is also a terrific source of lasting pride. Clearly Little Rock wants to build on that. After all, far more than half the states in the Union lack even one presidential library — and yet Arkansas, with all its perceived problems by the outside world, has a beautiful (and recently built) presidential library of its very own.
That is amazing. Statistically speaking, the odds that Arkansas would produce the first two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt were off the charts. And yet that happened. Regardless what you might think of Bill’s politics, the chances of an Arkansan reaching the White House in our lifetimes is extremely unlikely — and that includes the possibility that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee eventually becomes Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Last I checked, Missouri and Texas are the only states Arkansas borders that are also home to at least one modern presidential library. And, in the case of Arkansas, our former president is still out and about creating goodwill for himself and his country as well as his former state. Little Rock is only following the lead of other cities across the nation who long ago changed their own airport’s names to further bind their image to their popular (and presidential) native sons. Likewise, Little Rock officials should be proud of their city’s connection to Bill Clinton, a career public servant, as well as his wife, who could still be a U.S. president someday.
Honestly, does it really make sense to wait until somebody has passed away to rename a public school or city street in their honor? The goal should be to reward an individual deserving of a given honor while they are still among the living.
To those who say former President Clinton has already received too many honors — deep breaths are advised. Arkansas lacks much experience at this whole honoring former presidents business. Maybe someday we’ll look back and recognize the worth in certain limitations. But you know what? Being proud of a neighbor who grew up poor and disadvantaged to become president of the United States isn’t anything for which Arkansans should ever have to apologize.
Travelers landing at the Clinton National Airport years from now will reflect on the numerous positives the two Clinton administrations produced, including sustained economic growth, consecutive balanced budgets, welfare reform, peace in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, and so forth — to say nothing of Hillary Clinton’s vast public service accomplishments.
Last week’s name change is a fitting tribute to both Clintons. The Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission made a thoughtful decision it can be proud of.