I don’t know how many small-town Presidents there are. This spring we visited two small-town Presidents’ museums and libraries. It was fascinating. Bill Clinton was from Hope, Arkansas. Dwight Eisenhower was from Abilene, Kansas. Both Presidents are from very small towns. All the other Presidental Libraries that we visited were about small-town Presidents. Thus the title, small-town Presidents.
Hope Arkansas is a small town a little north of Texarkana, with a population of ten thousand. Abilene Kansas is in the middle of Kansas with a population of about 6500 (2022 estimates). Both are very small towns and both are homes to small town Presidents.
President Clinton’s Presidential Library is in Little Rock Arkansas. President Clinton spent more time in Little Rock as governor than he did in Hope, but he grew up in Hope Arkansas. When you are the Governor or want to be Governor, you go to the capital city and that, in Arkansas is Little Rock.
President Eisenhower grew up in Abilene Kansas and then spent most of the rest of his life in the Army. General Eisenhower lead the entire Allied Forces in World War II leading to victory. His Presidential Library is in Abilene.
Both small-town Presidents dedicated most of their lives to public service. Eisenhower served in the Army and Clinton focused on politics. These three things, small towns, public service, and service as the President of the United States are not the only things that these two Presidents have in common.
When in California we visited both the Reagan and Nixon Presidential Libraries. When in Mississippi we visited the Library of President Grant. If you are counting small-town Presidents, Reagan, Nixon, and Grant all qualify as small-town Presidents. Reagan is from Tampico, Illinois population 772.
Nixon is from Yorba Linda California and Grant is from Point Pleasant, Ohio (unincorporated) population estimated less than 100. With exception of Yorba Linda, consumed by the Los Angles sprawl, all are still small towns. These were all very small towns when these Presidents grew up.
It isn’t a Library, but we also visited Mount Vernon. This was George Washingtons Farm. These stories are in our previous posts. Seal Beach Reagan & California Dreaming Nixon & Washington’s Greatest Gift
While in Little Rock this spring, on a cold day, we visited the Clinton Library. We also walked across the Arkansas River on the railroad bridge converted for pedestrian use. The bridge starts at the library and crosses the Arkansas River.
The Clinton Library is unique for several reasons. First, it is the Clinton Home, while they are in Little Rock. The upper story is an apartment for the Clintons. The joke among the museum staff is that when you see lots of extra serious-looking people wearing suits, then you know the Clintons are in the apartment. The Secret Service can deliver the Clintons to an elevator below the library that whisks them to the apartment without any of the patrons or staff being any wiser.
The Clinton Library is the only place we have gone to in the Covid years where we had to provide proof of the Covid vaccine. No shot card, you don’t go in. This is especially in contrast to the rest of the south where you didn’t really know that there was a pandemic. Most people in the south didn’t participate in social distancing or use masks. As a side note, as we crossed Arkansas, the pandemic threat was pretty much over and most places were not exercising any Covid pandemic precautions.
Until we visited the Clinton Library, we didn’t know about the Eisenhower Library. While talking to one of the staff at the Clinton Library, he mentioned that he wasn’t really that impressed with the Eisenhower Library. He thought of it as rather meager. That was enough for me. If it was along the way, and it was not as impressive, I had to see it. He was wrong. There was nothing about the Eisenhower Library that wasn’t impressive.
Abilene Kansas is a farm town with a rail hub history. It is at the very end of the Chisholm Trail. In Abiline, at the end of the cattle drive, the herd was loaded on the train and sent east. The big money residents in Abiline were associated with cattle and the train depot. Most Abilene residents, including the Eisenhowers, were not wealthy. Like the Eisenhowers, most people in Abilene were there because there were jobs in Abilene. The Eisenhower family had an in-town lot that was also a small family farm.
Like the Eisenhowers, there was no wealth in the Clinton household when he was growing up. His father died before he was born and after that, the household wasn’t stable. Unstable is an understatement, if you don’t know the history, it bears looking up.
I knew that Bill Clinton really liked music. He played the saxophone with great skill during the campaign. One of the most telling statements at the library was that Bill decided that he loved politics even more than music. For a time he gave up music for politics. He loved the race and the performance of politics. Mostly, I think he loved being at the center of attention (doesn’t everyone).
Bill Clinton delighted in referencing that he was from the small town of Hope Arkansas. It is a common theme among small-town Presidents.
Obviously, Eisenhower was the most revered General in the Second World War. Given his status as the winning General, he had the name recognition that propelled him to the Presidency. In Both 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower won the elections in a landslide. The only areas of the country that Eisenhower didn’t carry was in the south.
From Abilene, Dwight started his military career at West Point as a student. One of the things that I learned at the Presidential Library was the fact that Dwight was delighted to say that he came from Abilene. The quote is “the proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene”.
What I didn’t know
What I didn’t know until visiting the Presidential Libraries of Clinton and Eisenhower is how alike Clinton and Eisenhower were. Many socially progressive positions that were championed by Bill Clinton were embraced by Eisenhower.
Eisenhower desegregated the military even though some branches resisted desegregation. At the start of the Eisenhower Presidency, schools were segregated throughout the south (15 states). The Supreme court decision in 1954 stopped segregation and the Eisenhower administration worked with the states to enforce the decision. By the end of the Eisenhower Presidency, school segregation was officially limited to four states and true desegregation lasted well into the 1960s.
Eisenhower recognized the New Deal’s social programs were both popular and effective. He not only continued them but expanded them including Social Security. Under Eisenhower, the overall the United States economy overall grew by 37% during the 1950s. Eisenhower was the last President to create a balanced budget and even a surplus. Jobs, personal automobiles, homeownership, and college education all made major gains under Eisenhower.
Clinton championed every one of the programs mentioned above with the exception of the balanced budget. Both presidents reduced military funding. Eisenhower did so based on need. Clinton reduced military funding based on the reduced threat from the ex-Soviet Union. Clinton campaigned on how to spend the “Peace Dividend”. Which to him meant more spending on social programs. Eisenhower spent his “Peace Dividend” by building the Interstate Highway System and a balanced budget.
Many people complain that increased prosperity was not evenly distributed in the 1950s. I think that this is a glass-half-empty analysis, unfortunately, poverty still true.
The middle of Kansas
If you are passing through Kansas (along I-70) you should plan to stop and spend the day at the Eisenhower Library, especially if you are not old enough to remember the 1950s. It was a really good eye-opener for me. I thought that “social issues” were something that started in the 1960s and I was wrong.
Links to places mentioned in this article.