On a recent trip to Little Rock, Bill Clinton walked several blocks downtown without being recognized.
It’s a far cry from a few years ago when he and FOBs — friends of Bill — ruled the Arkansas political landscape.
In the Natural State, the near-mythical Clinton machine used to coronate candidates from county judges to federal offices that the ex-president deemed worthy of his mission.
These politicians were often Blue Dog Democrats who favored the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council or good old boys who wanted to visit the White House. Incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln, who is now fighting for her political life, was one of the original and high-profile figures to benefit from Clinton’s DLC influence.
Last week, Clinton said he stands by Lincoln and endorsed her in the May Democratic primary where she will face Bill Halter, a progressive who may have worked in the Clinton administration but has never played Arkansas politics. He owes Lincoln. She voted against his impeachment in 1999.
Clintonites cheered the endorsement. “She’s a surefire winner now,” said one Friend of Bill.
Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., says that the endorsement can only help Lincoln.
“It provides some reassurance regarding her Democratic party credentials,” he said. “She is in the center polarized political spectrum and has managed to disappoint and alienate Democrats. Clinton has given her some strong cover.”
Others say: “So what?”
Clinton hasn’t lived in Arkansas in nearly 20 years. He doesn’t visit as much as he promised he would after moving to New York. He also has never taught a semester at the school that bears his name on the grounds of his presidential library. He frequently said he would when the library was being built.
His get-out-the-vote clout has weakened. Most Arkansans now see him as a global citizen à la Jimmy Carter, dedicated to solving the AIDS crisis and gunning for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Haiti. They don’t see him spending a lot of time shaking hands and visiting country festivals for a native daughter in deep political waters.
Some Democrats laugh at the notion of a Clinton machine ever existing. “It was never as well organized as some people think,” said a Democratic operative who worked in Arkansas politics in the 1990s. “There was a time when Clinton had his people in the state party and that faded when everyone went to Washington. He did very little to create a farm team.”
The myth of a powerful Clinton machine — in the mold of Chicago’s Richard Dailey operation — was perpetuated by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
In a 2007 Newsmax interview, Huckabee said, “Bill and Hillary campaigned for every opponent that I have ever had,” he said. “Believe me, the political machinery that they set up in Arkansas was the machinery against which I had to run every time I faced an opponent.”
If anything, the machine consisted of Bill and Hillary and a loyal, but small, group of insiders who attempted, but often failed, to control state politics. Cynics have said the only reason the couple returned to Arkansas during those Huckabee election years was to maintain a base for Hillary’s presidential run.
Bill Clinton emerged from the 2008 campaign trail scarred. He alienated black Southerners by attacking Barack Obama. Some Arkansans wished Clinton had done more to help the impoverished parts of the state when he was president.
Still, in Arkansas, deep nostalgia exists for Clinton. In an October 2009 Talk Business Quarterly Poll, 50 percent of Arkansans polled thought Clinton would go down in history as an outstanding president and 68 percent believed his library had a positive impact on the state.
“I Miss Bill” bumper stickers are stuck on cars all over the state. Clintonites still spin White House yarns. The Clinton School of Public Service frequently hosts speakers who had roles in the Clinton administration.
“Charismatic people inspire that kind of loyalty and adulation,” said John Gartner, author of “In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography.” “He’s a charismatic figure that has a way of making a one-on-one connection. He inspires immense love and loyalty.”
Gartner said Clinton possesses a keen way of renewing himself whether it’s taking on AIDS in Africa, his work with tsunami victims in 2004 or Haiti as the United Nations envoy to the country. But with so much on his plate including recovering from a heart procedure last month, will Clinton have the power to help Lincoln win in a state that is trending red?
“He will have to spend some time there and stump for Senator Lincoln,” said Dr. Lara Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. “For him to win over the state, he needs to be in the state. President Clinton is still a powerful commanding figure that could affect voter change if he would actually to go work for it.”
The Halter campaign said it could not care less that Clinton has endorsed Lincoln.
“Bill Halter has never been an insider,” said Bud Jackson, spokesman for the Halter campaign. “And he is not afraid to take on insiders.”