(In which the author goes by plane, bicycle, train, and rental car from Europe and New York to the American South and Midwest. This is Part III – from Shiloh Church, in Tennessee, to Bentonville, AK, the capital of Walmart. Click here for Part I and for Part II.
Leaving Shiloh in the rental car, I made one more loop around the battlefield, so that I could compare biking to driving. I drove along the Pittsburg Landing-Corinth Road, which from the driver’s seat was a bivouac of monuments (from the bike all I could see were woods and trenches). One spoke of war as propaganda; the other as nature’s tragedy.
One more time I passed Shiloh Church, where Gen. William T. Sherman had steadied the Union retreat, if not saved the day for Lincoln’s republic, and then picked up a county road toward Corinth, Mississippi.
I probably should not have added Corinth to my trip ticket, as the sun was setting through the scattered forests and because I knew that all the museums and the visitors’ center there would be closed. (American history has become a 9 to 5 business.)
That said, I kept the car heading south on state highway 45, which, because I was in the deep South, reminded me of the first paragraph in All the King’s Men, in which Robert Penn Warren writes: “You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab…”
It was a nice allusion, except that I was in Mississippi (not headed to Willie’s Stark’s Baton Rouge), and in fact, the road to Corinth tracks through a few suburban subdivisions before coming out on the town’s main street, an echo of American innocence—if the measurement is the presence of an old-fashioned soda fountain and angled car parking.
* * *
Corinth is the Civil War battle that never was. We should remember the name, as we do Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam. But by the time, in April 1862, Union General Henry Halleck had inserted himself in the command over Ulysses Grant and sufficiently repaired the army after the losses at Shiloh, the Confederates had lost their desire to make a last stand around Corinth and its rail junctions.
Instead, they threw up some trench lines and fought off the Union siege for a while, and then withdrew, leaving western Tennessee, if not the lower Mississippi, to Halleck and Grant, who converted it into a noose (which was closed in July 1863).
I should have taken a room that night at the Generals’ Quarters Bed and Breakfast Inn (the likes of generals P. G. T. Beauregard, William Rosecrans, or Braxton Bragg might well be lingering over a cigar in the parlor). It had a columned portico and, through the windows, candles on the dining room tables.
Instead (a bit like Grant) I came to the conclusion that Corinth was a side show and pressed west toward Memphis, the Mississippi River, and Paul Simon’s “cradle of the Civil War.” (He was better at rhyming than history.)
On the way, I stopped at the Big Hill Pond State Park, where I had pre-paid for a camping site. When I was planning the trip, I had thought I would end my Shiloh visit with a lake swim and set up my encampment (a department store tent and camping cot) under the Tennessee stars.
I had no trouble finding the entrance to the park off highway 57, but when I drove up to the camp sites, it felt more like nuclear winter than high summer.
No rangers were on duty, and the campsite was empty. (I am not counting the mosquitos.) Nor was anyone swimming in Bill Hill Pond (through the trees it looked like the Great Dismal Swamp).
Because I was hungry, I sat at a forlorn picnic table with the mosquitos and ate a sandwich from my cooler, reflecting that the American summer no longer includes camping in state parks or swimming in a pond.
In Trumpland, holiday dreams must now revolve around Las Vegas suites and slot machines. State parks must be for illegal immigrants.
* * *
The road into Memphis in the twilight had little traffic, until it melted into the exchanges around the airport. I was heading into downtown but instead found myself driving up to the terminals, where in the distance I could see the great white (and purple) FedEx fleet, if not all those packages that “absolutely, positively” have to be there overnight.
I know, I should have had GPS in the rental car, but when it comes to travel I remain off the grid—a Unabomber of the road. Except when I am lost in some city downtown, I love the romance of road maps (all that planning and plotting the night before…), and I have yet to meet a GPS disembodied voice that shares my passion for the back roads of American history.
That said, in downtown Memphis at 10 p.m. I would have pushed the button that says, “Find me a hotel nearby, and it need not be up to the standards of the Generals’ Quarters Bed and Breakfast Inn.”
Instead, hunting and pecking, I took local roads in from the airport, driving in the direction of the high-rises that are downtown along the Mississippi River.
Memphis after dark is a nether world of deserted streets and boarded storefronts. (Ma Rainey: “This would be an empty world without the blues…”)
I kept peering in at what looked like 1950s-era motels, only to discover that they are now welfare hotels, if not waiting rooms for nearby prisons or deportation centers.
I ended up in downtown Memphis at what felt like the Last-Chance Hotel. I had tried some of the glitzier hotels near the river, but they were “full up” with a convention in town. All I could find with a free room was a Holiday Inn Express, in a neighborhood that felt like the far edge of the universe.
Even though it was near midnight and I was trying to check into the last room on the Memphis market, I couldn’t help but bargain with Derek, the pleasant night clerk on duty. (Had my wife been with me, she would have run screaming from the lobby.) But Derek obliged my mercantilism by taking $30 off the posted room rate (“I’ll give you the manager’s rate…”) and helping me with the bag trolley.
* * *
I once traveled all over India and never went to the Taj Mahal, just the way I only went to see (against my better judgement) the Terra Cotta warriors on my fourth trip to China. In Memphis, I was determined to skip Graceland.
What explains such heresy? I confess I am not a huge fan of the King, who by the time I was listening to music had seemed like a Nixon stage prop.
From the late 1960s into the last days of disco, to me Elvis exuded the stale air of a has-been, a lost country hound dog when the rest of us were searching for stairways to heaven, if not nights in white satin. And by the time (1977) Elvis OD-ed at Graceland (which revived the franchise), we were line dancing to Donna Summer.
Then all those Elvis impersonators showed up with Ronald Reagan, which is another reason I never wore blue suede shoes or kept an eye out for him at the Paramus Mall.
But waking up in Memphis, on a hot summer morning, even I found it hard to ignore Graceland completely. What if Homeland Security were to question me about my travels?
So after breakfast, on my way to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, I decided to give Graceland what realtors call
From where I was staying it was an easy detour. I would see the outside of the house and save $57.50, which is the price of admission, although that does not cover Elvis’s planes or “front of the line mansion access.”
* * *
As soon as I approached Graceland, I wanted to leave. Heading south on highway 51, I saw a group of buildings that could well have been a Home Depot or Target. Instead, they were Graceland out buildings—part of the King’s domed stadium and theme park, which now rises on his front lawn (Elvis: “Better just a shack where two people care/Than a house that has everything, everything but love…”).
A tout waving at traffic wanted me to turn into one of the King’s parking lots (New York City rates applied), which I did, although immediately I turned around and left in a hurry, as if driving a getaway car for “Baby Face” Nelson.
Without paying $93.75 for the Elvis Entourage VIP Tour, I got a look at one of his private jets, displayed in an adjacent lot. The Lisa Marie (named for his only daughter) has the sad appearance of a Tupolev parked on the tarmac of the Sofia airport.
Yes, part of me might have enjoyed seeing Elvis’s white piano, wet bar, sequin jackets, pool table, racquetball court, and conversation pit. But mostly I associate “late Graceland” with his end-of-days angst, fear, and loathing—when the wheels came off the pink Cadillac.
Nor did I have any interest in seeing the marble bathroom where he popped his last pills or the guest rooms where his retinue of feel-good doctors and remittance men did their best to suck the life out of his bank accounts. (His father, Vernon, spent his time at Graceland watching over the estate on a closed-circuit TV, as if employed by ADT.)
Instead of wallowing at the Heartbreak Hotel and Gift Shop, I circled the block behind Graceland and headed back to downtown Memphis, driving for a while through a neighborhood of similar McMansions (early Elvis impersonators?), not surprised that anyone who lived in something that looks like a savings bank could be “lonesome tonight.”
* * *
The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, is located south of downtown Memphis, in what is now a neighborhood of bike stores, barbecue joints, old theaters, and the once-great central railroad station that Amtrak has let go to seed (it feels like a flophouse, as does its tenant, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation).
King was shot and killed while standing on the Lorraine’s balcony in April 1968, but it took until the 1990s for the site to become the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum preserved the exterior of the motel (not unlike that of a Howard Johnson’s) but added on showrooms that tell the story of desegregation from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896, which codified “separate but equal”) through the King assassination.
Across the street from the Lorraine Motel is the rooming house from which, allegedly, James Earl Ray shot King with a high-powered rifle that he then dumped in a nearby doorway, before fleeing in his white Mustang. He was arrested six weeks later.
The rooming house, with exhibits on the assassination, is now part of the museum, which raises questions whether Ray was the lone assassin, or even the gunman who pulled the trigger.
* * *
Much of the National Civil Rights Museum focuses on integration after Brown v. the Board of Education—the landmark Supreme Court decision, handed down in 1954, the same year I was born. Many exhibits and the pictures on the walls are ones I saw in Life Magazine when I was growing up.
The museum was a scrum of school children. I went around the exhibits with animated eleven-year-old kids, which did not bother me, as I was their age when the issues of civil rights pressed into my mind—through the personality of Dr. King and his marches on Washington and across the South, and through the race riots that consumed such familiar cities as Newark and Detroit.
Growing up on Long Island in a white suburb, however, my only direct encounters with race and the issues of civil rights came during my travels with my father. He would travel for work, and sometimes I would join him.
Mostly on trains we crisscrossed America, stopping at factories and office buildings in places as diverse as Mobile, Cincinnati, Denver, Brownsville, Omaha, and Richmond.
Those trips opened my eyes to southern shanties and urban slums, and that even such lily-white cities as Salt Lake City had back streets of African-American desperation. Segregation might have run out of gas, but the fumes were still present.
* * *
In the museum, I was drawn to the black-and-white photographs of James Lucas, which were on display just past the entrance. Lucas was born in 1944 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where he worked during college as a photographer for the Jackson Daily News.
Without roaming far from Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, Lucas was able to frame the civil rights story. The pictures capture the humanity and modesty of both the subjects and the photographer.
Lucas took pictures of U.S. Senate hearings (there are photographs of senators Robert Kennedy, John Stennis and Jacob Javits and some of their hearings on poverty in the Delta), freedom riders, bus boycotts, sharecroppers, schools being integrated, armed sheriffs, and beaten marchers.
To me the greatness of Lucas’s work is that he never intrudes on his subjects—leaving them to express their own stories of good and evil.
Lucas was killed in a car accident in 1980, although he lived long enough to realize that the divided world of his Mississippi photographs, if not American apartheid, had vanished.
* * *
Strolling through the museum, I came across the famous Muhammad Ali quote, “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” seven words that have focused American attention on both the injustices of segregation and the Vietnam War.
I do not remember hearing the quote when I was growing up. As an adult, the first time I came across it was in Ho Chi Minh City at the War Remnants Museum, which opened for business in 1975—just after the United States departed Vietnam—as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.
I had come to Saigon from the North, stopping along the way at Hanoi, Hue, Danang, and My Lai, all of which beat the drum of American evil (often using the words and deeds of American soldiers and bombers).
The Ali quote fit perfectly into the storyboards about the running dogs of imperialism, part of which includes an exhibit on the alleged war crimes of Lt. Bob Kerrey (later a U.S. senator).
Only when I got home from Vietnam, and wanted to find out more about Ali’s signature quote, did I find out that it was fabricated
In the 1960s, in answering reporters’ questions, Ali did say (according to an article published in Slate Magazine): “I am a member of the Black Muslims, and we don’t go to no wars unless they’re declared by Allah himself. I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Vietcongs.”
Several years later, recalling a chance meeting with some black American soldiers in an airport, Ali said this:
I met two black soldiers a while back in an airport. They said: “Champ, it takes a lot of guts to do what you’re doing.” I told them: “Brothers, you just don’t know. If you knew where you were going now, if you knew your chances of coming out with no arm or no eye, fighting those people in their own land, fighting Asian brothers, you got to shoot them, they never lynched you, never called you nigger, never put dogs on you, never shot your leaders. You’ve got to shoot your ‘enemies’ (they call them) and as soon as you get home you won’t be able to find a job. Going to jail for a few years is nothing compared to that.”
As for saying, “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” Ali only said that in a 1977 studio when he was making The Greatest, a film about his life (in which Ernest Borgnine plays Angelo Dundee).
But then neither Napoleon nor Voltaire was the first to say, “History is a fable generally agreed upon.”
* * *
At the end of the museum tour—past the Montgomery bus of Rosa Parks, a burned-out Greyhound bus that carried freedom riders through the South, and the lunch counter from the Greensboro Woolworth’s—I looked through plexiglas into the motel room where King was staying when he was shot.
It has the feel of a time capsule from the 1960s, with a black-and-white television, bedside black rotary phone, heavy air-conditioner unit, Gideon bible, and cheap paintings of a pine forest.
On April 4, 1969, in front of room 306, King was on the Lorraine balcony and heading to dinner with his small entourage, including Jesse Jackson, when a single bullet struck him in the throat and killed him.
At a subsequent hearing, James Earl Ray, who was arrested in London after he had fled the United States, pleaded guilty to the killing, which is why the facts of the assassination were never heard at trial.
Across the street in the assassination exhibit, the case is made against James Earl Ray—that he had been staying in the rooming house overlooking the Lorraine Motel; that he dropped a gun and a bag of clothing in a nearby doorway, as he fled the cheap hotel after the shooting; that he drove off in his white Mustang that was later abandoned in Atlanta; and that he confessed to the killing in court.
In the 1960s and 70s, especially, American assassins were—almost by law—required to be “lone gunmen,” rebels without a cause, angry white men with a grievance against fame or fortune.
James Earl Ray was outfitted with the clothing that fit Lee Harvey Oswald—someone who was angry at authority—although in Ray’s case he was a racist, not a communist sympathizer.
The same patterns were later used to dress up Sirhan Sirhan (who killed Robert Kennedy) and Arthur Bremer (who shot George Wallace in 1972). All might have been the psychotic Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver) who said: “I got some bad ideas in my head.”
Do I think Ray was the only gunman shooting that night at King? No, I do not. He may have had a part in the larger plot, but as best as I can fathom he should only appear on the national stage in the role of a fall guy. Maybe he pulled a trigger, but others funded the operation.
How did an escaped convict who was only working odd jobs get the money and the wherewithal to buy a new Mustang and, later, a false passport and plane tickets to fly to London and Portugal?
* * *
To this day, the forensic evidence against Ray sounds stretched. For example, there is no way to tell if the shoe prints on the bathtub in the boarding house belonged to Ray; the prosecution maintained they did.
Nor were his fingerprints found on the room furniture (which, in theory, he had moved around to get a better view of the Lorraine Motel balcony). And experts could not agree whether his fingerprints were on the gun found in the doorway or on its scope.
Ray does seem to have purchased a rifle before the shooting, and it could well have been the rifle left in the nearby doorway. But little ballistic evidence ties that rifle to the fatal shot that killed King.
Nor did any witnesses to the shooting positively identify Ray as the gunman. The state’s best witness, who was in a room adjoining the bathroom of the boarding house, turns out to be have been blind drunk on the day of the shooting—although he sobered up enough later to finger Ray.
Other witnesses spoke of “a man” leaving the scene of the crime in a white Mustang, although it turns out—it is 1968 after all—that two white Mustangs were parked that day near the Lorraine Motel.
The FBI investigating the case made a big deal of finding the “grooves” left by the rifle on the window sill in the rooming house bathroom, but read fifty years later that sounds like cop-show evidence, best left to the crime scenes of Hawaii Five-0.
The evidence that links Ray to the shot fired and King’s death remains circumstantial, at best, and it was never tried in court, as Ray pled guilty to avoid the death penalty. Three days later, however, he recanted his confession.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the James Earl Ray story is his escape, which in the six weeks after the assassination took him to Atlanta, Toronto, London, and Lisbon. He was arrested while trying to board a flight for Brussels. It wasn’t a bad run for an escaped convict who had only worked at a few odd jobs—one as a dishwasher—since he broke out of jail a year earlier.
To me it is stretching credulity to imagine that, after breaking out of jail, Ray washed enough dishes to buy a Ford Mustang, a rifle, and air tickets to Toronto, London, Lisbon, and Brussels.
Although Ray had been overseas during the war and a few times to Mexico and Canada, did he have the savvy, while on the lam, to procure a false Canadian passport, which is what he used to get to London and beyond.
* * *
Few of the school kids at the National Civil Rights Museum came across the street to the assassination exhibit, which I mostly had to myself. There was one couple inspecting (again through plexiglas) Ray’s cheap room and the bathroom down the hall, from which the fatal shot may have been fired.
I browsed the cabinets, paying particular attention to the map of Ray’s escape and the money he spent ($5800 in cash) before the assassination.
What also caught my attention were the many federal, state, and civil agencies that were on the trail of Martin Luther King, Jr., wherever he traveled, including the day he died.
Not only did J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tap King’s telephones, but that night a host of local police and other shadowy intelligence figures were all staking out the Lorraine Motel, as if King was a mafia don.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, a federal agent was stationed in the firehouse that overlooks the motel; others might have been closer to the balcony or in a garden behind Ray’s boarding house that was covered with thick bushes. And informers were working inside King’s organization.
Any one of these operatives could well have witnessed the source of the fatal shot, but owing to their illegal presence in King’s life, none of these peeping-tom gumshoes came forward to testify during the investigations.
Just the opposite happened: it was Hoover’s FBI, which had worked so hard to discredit King, that was charged with investigating his murder, and it helped to pin the tail on Ray as a lone gunman, although his cash flow and motive, another than southern racism, were never established.
Jesse Jackson, who was standing next to King when the shot was fired, said: “I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.”
King’s friend James Bevel said: “There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man.”
* * *
After an early lunch at Central Barbecue—a map on the wall outlines the geography of Mississippi blues (Muddy Waters was from Rolling Folk, while B.B. King came from Itta Bena)—I unfolded my bike from the car trunk and rode around Memphis.
Overlooking the Mississippi River, I came upon Confederate Park, where there is a large statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States.
On the flight over to the United States (I live in Europe), I had read James M. McPherson’s Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. It’s an uneven book, more military history than biography, in which Davis comes across as a micro-manager who got involved with everything in the Confederate army—from the appointment of captains in the reserves to food requisitions. His obsession with detail lost the war.
The best description of Davis’s flawed habits of command comes from the editor of the Richmond Examiner. He writes (as is quoted in McPherson) about Davis’s “flagrant mismanagement” and describes how “from the frigid heights of his infallible egotism . . . wrapped in sublime self-complacency,” Davis “alienated the hearts of people by his stubborn follies…”
In McPherson’s account, Davis never figures out a strategy to defeat the North. He alternates (depending on his mercurial moods) between bold offensive strikes (Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg) and digging in behind fortified defensive lines (Richmond, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga).
Nor does Davis, with his senior commanders, ever form the bond of confidence that Lincoln had with Grant. Davis lost Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, and he could never get Robert E. Lee to think about theaters of war outside Virginia. And for all of Lee’s early genius against Gen. George McClellan, he never won another battle after Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men at Chancellorsville.
In effect, Davis is the board chairman who never quite trusts his CEO. The South had many dashing lieutenants but only one general, Davis, making the big calls, and most of those he got wrong.
Now I wonder how long he will keep his command over the Memphis riverfront, as the last great offensive against the Confederate states is mounted against its statuary.
* * *
On the bike I found Beale Street—a tourist blues district—and the minor league baseball stadium of the Triple A Redbirds. But beyond the downtown most of the Memphis neighborhoods through which I rode had aspects of quiet desperation.
The irony of Memphis is that it still looks like the cities in the photographs at the National Civil Rights Museum. It might well be Cleveland or Detroit in the 1960s, where there was a white oasis downtown surrounded by African-American slums.
Many houses reminded me of those in post-Katrina New Orleans, except without an axe hole through the roof. I went past abandoned warehouses and more foreclosed motels that have been turned into shantytowns.
At least when King was alive and leading his marches, there was optimism that “things will get better” and that cities such as Memphis would outgrow their economic apartheid.
Now that he has been canonized—at least in the cabinets of the National Civil Rights Museum, where it serves a higher purpose to state that the battle has been won—who will issue the summons to Memphis?
* * *
To get to Little Rock, Arkansas, I drove on Interstate 40 through a thunderstorm that hit the windshield as if scattering pellets. For a while, I took refuge in a visitors’ center, where they had free coffee (you get what you pay for) and brochures about campgrounds, Hot Springs, the Ozarks, and Little Rock’s Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
When the worst of the storm had passed, I continued the drive west to Little Rock on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. (Maybe John Foster Dulles wanted to call it Massive Retaliation Way?)
The capital is on the west bank of the Arkansas River, but awkward to navigate for anyone arriving for the first time.
I had decided to follow signs either for the Clinton Library or Little Rock Central High School, a flashpoint in the battle over school desegregation, now a national historic site.
I assumed both attractions would be sign-worthy, but only the high school made it to prime-time. Once I was off the interstate, however, I could not find neighborhood directions, which made me think that neither the Clintons nor school integration has much of a local following.
* * *
Although downtown Little Rock has a few streets with Potemkin hotels and lots of buildings that go with the convention center, the rest of the city is suburban and within blocks of the capitol there are dreary rows of rundown wooden houses.
Through the kindness of strangers—I asked in the parking lot of a hospital—I found the visitors’ center for Central High School (which, while it is the object of the museum, is still operating as a school and off limits to tourists).
Although there were a number of rangers on duty that afternoon in the bookstore, the center had few visitors.
I was on my own when I watched a film about Eisenhower’s 1957 decision to mobilize the 101st Airborne to protect the so-called Little Rock Nine, black high school students who had enrolled at Central. (The message should have been clear to then Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus. In World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, the 101st held on to Bastogne.)
* * *
Each of the Little Rock Nine gets profiled in the museum, which sits catty-cornered to the high school, visible across the street in the distance.
None of the students, however, is more eloquent that Melba Pattillo, who later wrote Warriors Don’t Cry about her experience of breaking the color barrier in Little Rock.
In the mid-1950s Little Rock had an all-black high school, Dunbar, although it was separate and unequal to Central.
For example, Dunbar’s library had 5,000 books while Central had 11,000; textbooks at the black high school were hand-me-downs while at Central they were new; and the white school had a gymnasium and stadium, while Dunbar had no such facilities.
Melba and her eight contemporaries decided to enroll at Central, citing the 1954 decision of Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. Their dream, in going to Central, was to get admitted to a better college.
In response, Governor Faubus called out the national guard, which, in effect, barred entry to the black students trying to enter the school. (In theory, the guard was only there to keep the peace.)
The national guard held the thin white line until late September, when Eisenhower deployed the Screaming Eagles to Central High School and federalized the national guard, taking their command away from the governor (although in the 1958-59 school year, Faubus would again close the Little Rock schools rather than let them integrate).
If Eisenhower knew one thing, it was army politics, and in the 1957 confrontation he prevailed. But the experience seared both white and black students, if not the nation.
The South equated the presence of federal troops with military occupation—similar to that during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Blacks were discouraged that it took the 101st Airborne division to guarantee their civil freedoms.
Melba described what went on inside the school: “There were white students who were very much ordinary people, frightened to death, caught up in the same trap that we were, trying to extend a hand. Several of them were beat up because they showed some grace to us.”
Melba was fifteen years old when she first walked into Central High School, wearing the shoes that the museum has saved in a glass cabinet. Under them are her words: “I got up every morning, polished my saddle shoes, and went off to war.”
* * *
When I asked a worker in the parking lot where Central High was in relation to the visitors’ center, he was very friendly, pointed toward it, and encouraged me to walk around the campus. He said that school had finished for the year.
I didn’t follow the advice of my parking lot friend and try to enter the school; even now, Central has a forbidding look. The design is that of a gothic castle, with a crenellated roof and imposing front doors. I give the Little Rock Nine even more credit for having braved such a medieval gauntlet, with or without the army at their side.
Central remains the high school for much of downtown Little Rock. Later I looked up its demographics, which stated that last year the enrollment was 2,489 students, of whom 63% graduated. Minorities, most of whom are African-American, accounted for 70% of the student population. The school had a 1:14 teacher-to-student ratio.
After driving around the football stadium—of Friday Night Lights proportions—I set off for the Clinton Library, unsure where it was located. I did have a map of Little Rock and on it was marked a Clinton Library, not far from Central High School. But that turned out to be a branch of the local public library, named in honor of Hillary, not the Clinton Mausoleum, which I found downtown, in a park along the Arkansas River.
The Clinton Library is about the same size and looks similar to the Delta terminal at LaGuardia Airport. Five stories high, it’s a steel and glass affair, set on pillars, as if architect James Polshek were in the business of designing departure gates.
Apparently on the top floor (not included on the tours) Bill has a private apartment that some say resembles the stage set of that 1960s TV program, Playboy After Dark, in which Hef, in black tie, would mix with his guests, many of whom were seated on sofas of rich Corinthian leather.
* * *
I had given myself ninety minutes to take in the life and times of William Jefferson Clinton, but my detour to the “other” library and meandering drive through Little Rock only left me thirty minutes to pay my respects to his legacy.
A volunteer on duty selling tickets, an elegant older woman, could not have been nicer. She waved me through the admission process and pointed me to the second and third floors, where she suggested I could visit his Oval Office (okay, it is a replica, unless it is something else the Clintons took with them when they left the White House) and see some of the presidential photographs (my favorite shows him getting the keys to the new presidential Cadillac, as if he’s visiting a show room in Alexandria, VA).
Thirty minutes proved all I needed for the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which for agitation propaganda ranks up there with Saigon’s Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes (Clinton here plays the role of Uncle Ho).
The building was designed with the library of Trinity College, Dublin, in mind, although, in the cavernous structure, instead of the Book of Kells, there are memos (in great glass pillars) from the likes of Richard Holbrooke and James Carville on about how to buff up Clinton’s poll numbers in Kosovo or Pennsylvania.
After a spin around the Oval Office, I lingered over the presidential correspondence. The curators have preserved some memorable exchanges, including some with Sheryl Crow (the singer, Lance Armstrong’s ex—his bicycle is elsewhere in the museum), Dom DeLuise (Vegas comedian and primetime chef, although at least he was in Blazing Saddles), Paul Newman (the salad dresser), Mr. Rogers (there goes the neighborhood), the Dalai Lama (of Caddyshack fame…“big hitter, the Lama”), Elton John (who once said although not to Bill: “People should be very free with sex—they should draw the line at goats”), and Willie Morris (My Dog Skip).
Clinton’s answers to their fan mail are light and engaging. He writes to Paul Newman, who crashed his car going 25 m.p.h.: “I know how much you like to drive fast cars, but try to save those tight turns for the race track!”
There is also a mash note from historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to Hillary, congratulating her for a Today Show appearance during the Lewinsky affair (“wonderfully effective… which really began the change in public reaction…”).
The museum has some sober panels about partisan politics, and a few pictures of a smiling Monica. But since the House voted to impeach Bill, I am guessing that some members of the Judiciary Committee missed Hillary on the Today Show.
* * *
So efficient was I in my library touring that I managed—before the guards swept everyone out at 5 p.m.—to visit the gift shop, buy a postcard of presidential dog Buddy (the cat Socks was fobbed off to Betty Currie, like much of the Clinton presidency) and hear from my friend at the front desk that Fayetteville, Arkansas has made a museum of the Clintons’ starter home. They lived there when he was teaching at the law school. “Don’t miss it,” she said kindly. “I think you’ll like it a lot.”
I was tempted to spend more time in Little Rock and maybe have a beer in one of the political hotels. As I was wearing shorts and scandals, I didn’t think I ought to be mixing company with lobbyists. Nor did I want to take the Clinton Scandal Tour, even though Bill stashed Gennifer Flowers in the delightfully named Quapaw Tower.
Instead, I drove west into the setting sun, hoping I could get to Fort Smith, on the Oklahoma border, before dark. I had booked space near there in a campground. Outside, the temperature was close to 100 degrees and I thought, if I arrived early enough, I might be able to swim in a lake fed by the streams of the Ozark forest.
People do swim at Lake Fort Smith State Park, about two hours from Little Rock, but in a swimming pool, not so much in the lake.
The shoreline near my camping pitch was rocky and unappealing. I thought of all the hours I had spent in Europe, booking the details of my travels, when I was sure a trip highlight would be to camp in the Ozarks. But when I finally went down to the water (lined with RVs), I might well have been trying to bathe in a parking lot.
* * *
The next morning by 7 a.m., after showering and packing up my gear, I was on the road to Fayetteville. I had originally planned to go from Fort Smith to Oklahoma City, and there write about Timothy McVeigh and the bombing, which has interested me since I saw a plaque in Branch Davidian Waco, linking the two massacres.
Timothy McVeigh was in Waco during the siege, and he attacked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of the battle.
I was also curious to learn more about the commitment that OKC’s Mayor Mick Cornett has made to bicycles, as a way to encourage the community to fight obesity and become more fit.
Neither interest, however, could get me back on the interstate. I was done with expressways. For the rest of my travels, I would do my best to stick to blue highways.
* * *
I had no idea what to expect in Fayetteville (home to the University of Arkansas), besides the Clintons’ starter home and the papers of Senator J. William Fulbright, who led the opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. Senate.
Driving in the car along the edge of the Boston Mountains, I followed signs to Brentwood, West Fork, and Greenland, already pleased to be eluding I-49 north.
Confederates troops at the Arkansas battle of Pea Ridge had marched along this road. Their defeat in the 1862 encounter largely ended the fighting in Arkansas.
I parked in the main square of Fayetteville, in the midst of a farmers’ market, and found a coffee shop that served breakfast. No longer was I in rural Arkansas but in a college town, listening to students at other tables complain about their courses and professors. I could see why the Clintons had liked Fayetteville. It was bookish and hip.
At the visitors’ center, I was given several maps and the address of the house in the Mount Nord district where William Fulbright grew up. I also learned that he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, although no one in the office knew exactly where. It was suggested that I could hunt among the graves, as the Fulbrights were a prominent family.
Later I did find Evergreen Cemetery but not the Fulbright marker. It makes sense that a fierce opponent of American intervention abroad would—in the era of Iraq and Afghanistan—rest in obscurity.
* * *
Fortified with coffee and the maps, I set off on my bike, even though the heat and the skies suggested thunder or tornados.
Mount Nord is in downtown Fayetteville, but still a neighborhood of stately old homes, many with wrap-around porches.
A woman gardening at the Fulbright house greeted me, but didn’t know anything about the senator growing up in the house. So I dropped my follow-up question, about why, despite his skepticism, Fulbright had voted for the Tonkin Gulf resolution. (A year later he would say: “I personally feel that the committee, the public and me personally were duped, that we were lied to, that the basic situation was not true…”)
In reading about Fulbright I had thought he might have come from rural Arkansas, to serve in the senate for thirty years, from 1945 to 1974.
Instead it was clear from the house that Fulbright came from patrician Fayetteville, where he mother edited the local newspaper after his father, a wealthy businessman, died in 1923, when William was 18. Because of her influence, Fulbright himself was later appointed president of the University of Arkansas, before being elected to the senate.
Had he not enabled racism—he aligned himself with southern senators who in 1956 protested against school integration—he might have been considered for higher office.
Not only did Fulbright oppose the Vietnam War, but he denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy, questioned the assumptions of the Cold War, and criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
President Lyndon Johnson, once a close friend, called him “Half-bright” over Vietnam and ended their friendship when Fulbright criticized Johnson’s war.
Fulbright said of LBJ: “With a man like President Johnson, you either went along or you got off. He didn’t tolerate differences of opinion very easily. After I made that one speech, I sent him as nice a letter as I could saying it was nothing personal, but he never again wished to talk to me. Never again was I consulted.”
In front of the law school on campus, I found a J. William Fulbright statue in bronze. I learned later that when it was dedicated, in 2002, Bill Clinton spoke in admiration of “his mentor.” Without Fulbright there might never have been Clinton.
After college at Georgetown, Clinton worked in Fulbright’s senatorial office as an intern before leaving for a Rhodes scholarship in Oxford—something else he shared with Fulbright, who was there in the 1920s.
When Fulbright died, Clinton said: “People dumped on our state and said we were all a bunch of back-country hayseeds. And we had a guy in the Senate who doubled the I.Q. of any room he entered. It made us feel pretty good, like we might amount to something.”
Fulbright was voted out of office in 1974, when he became too remote from his constituents, one of whom said: “Bill’s a lot smarter than the rest of us in Arkansas. If you don’t believe that, just ask him.”
* * *
I did like the Clinton House Museum in Fayetteville, if only because—after the Great Hall of Clinton in Little Rock—the brick starter home humanizes Bill and Hillary.
I got there in mid-morning, and for an hour I had the place to myself, as if my hosts were out shopping. I sat in the study, looked through the exhibits, made some phone calls, chatted with the volunteers, and watched a video in the study of Bill’s early TV commercials, when he was running for Congress. (He shares a lot of pain with struggling farmers but lost the election.)
The house is too small for a formal tour, although the director guided me through the rooms, showing me the spot where the Clintons were married (in a glass cabinet is Hillary’s dress, hippie chic from the 1970s), the living room fireplace where Bill laid down the tiles, and the kitchen cabinets that Hillary painted fire-engine red (if you lived through the 1970s, you would understand).
The city of Fayetteville operates the museum on a small budget. The Clintons themselves have little interest in the project, although occasionally they stop by and pose for pictures. It’s been a while since Bill painted the garage.
There are few photographs and mostly amateur art on the walls, including a painting that shows Hillary, dressed in a grey pants suit, standing in her Fayetteville kitchen. Her back is to the painter and her hand is resting tentatively on the sink. It has to be the least flattering portrait ever painted of a first lady.
Hillary might well have stepped out of a senate committee and into the kitchen. She’s neither cooking nor doing dishes, but seems lost, as if she’s never been in a kitchen and went in by mistake, perhaps looking for the fax machine.
* * *
From the Clinton starter house, I rode into downtown Fayetteville, where I stopped at Evergreen Cemetery and then at Dickson Street Bookshop, celebrated among American used bookstores.
Because it was hot, and I was sweaty from riding the hills around Fayetteville, I only browsed in a few sections, where I was impressed with the prices and the collection. (A first edition of J. Christopher Herold’s Bonaparte in Egypt was selling for $7.50. Look for his histories, which are of Barbara Tuchman quality, if you don’t know his writing.)
Apparently (although it could be an urban legend) Bill Clinton read 300 books while in Fayetteville, and I could imagine that many came from Dickson Street, which has shelves from floor to ceiling, and books piled everywhere.
At the same time, since the Clinton wedding announcement (on the wall of the house museum) reads like a press release (“Clinton said during the reception that he would be running for office again next fall…”), he might have had other things on his mind.
* * *
While I was browsing in Dickson’s, I overheard a conversation about a nearby art museum that was described as one of the best in the country. When I asked more, I was told it was in Bentonville, about thirty minutes to the north (alas on an interstate), and that it told the story of American history through art.
In my mind, an exposition of American history, told through art, is just what my trip needed. I was struggling to connect the dots of a world, that to me, felt turned upside down.
Two weeks into my travels, I was depressed about all the obesity I was seeing, especially in children, and I could not stand driving for hours on interstates or getting malled on the outskirts of towns and cities.
I had set out to bring alive some of my reading—to see, not just imagine, the contours of Shiloh, what drove Polk west, or the Cherokee Trail of Tears that winds its way from Florida to Oklahoma. As a visual person, I find it hard to read about a place unless I have been there; after that, it stays with me forever.
I had also gone in search of what might be called Trump’s America—the soft underbelly of the American experiment that is angry about race, immigration, unemployment, health care, Islamic fundamentalism, guns, or the New York Times.
Somewhere between Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—a red state excursion if ever there was one—I ought to come across Trump’s base, for whom the remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society have become lotteries in which they held no winning tickets.
I also wanted to remind myself that the country is more than the sum of its parts on either Fox News or CNN, that there are links between the heroism of the Civil War, for example, and the way that so many people leave for work at 6 a.m.
But between North Carolina and the Arkansas River, all I had seen and heard —on the car radio, in chance encounters—were either giddy soundtracks of boosterism (ESPN, newspaper editorials, the Republican party) or a dirge for the republic that is surrendering to fascism (the anti-Trump coalition, writ large).
Somewhere I was hoping to find middle ground—political speech that didn’t sound like pre-recorded announcements on the New York City subway, or words from which I could extract some of Thomas Jefferson’s idealism.
Maybe an art museum devoted to American history—which after all had lured me across North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas toward Oklahoma and Kansas—would get me headed in the right direction?
* * *
The name Bentonville said something to me, but because I have lived in Europe for the last twenty-five years, I didn’t immediately associate it, or the art museum, with Walmart and the Walton family.
But the more I reflected on the name and the art collection (my bookshop friend said the lot was now worth $500 million), the more I came to the conclusion that I was heading into the charitable belly of the Walmart beast.
Someday Bentonville and the surrounding area, which is called Northwest Arkansas or NWA, will be a megalopolis, not unlike many rural stretches that have morphed into conglomerations of Waffle houses and La Quinta Inns.
Already the interstate into Bentonville is clogged with traffic, and I noticed that the lanes on the highway are getting widened to Los Angeles dimensions.
I have read that one in ten American jobs are tied to sales at Walmart, which explains why Bentonville has grown from a one-horse town in the 1950s of Sam Walton to ground zero of the Box Store Empire.
* * *
By the time I drove north on I-540, I knew the museum for which I was looking was called Crystal Bridges—was it be named after a porn star?—and that it was located just north of Bentonville’s City Square.
Conveniently, the museum was well sign-posted. I followed arrows into the parking lot, which had many levels of accessibility, including a garage. Clearly this wasn’t the Polk Home where you can leave the car out front.
According to a brochure, the architect Moshe Safdie designed the museum, under the direction of Ms. Alice Walton, to complement the landscape, which includes a lake, several streams, and the mountains of the nearby Ozarks.
Near the entrance there was a large restaurant, and the Bentonville demimonde was out in force, enjoying the Southwest salad and $8 glasses of chardonnay.
Walmart covers the cost of admission (just the way it stumped up the millions to buy the pictures). I followed the directions of several company greeters into the first room (not sure from their amiable nature if I were about to discover art or lawn mowers for sale).
* * *
Did I like Crystal Bridges?
No one can spend more than two hundred million dollars on American art (that would include the price for moving Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman–Wilson House from Somerset, New Jersey) and not buy some excellent paintings.
I liked several by George Inness, a winter scene in Brooklyn (more Currier & Ives than Bensonhurst), haystacks at sunset, and, in particular (with Polk in mind), a painting entitled “War News from Mexico,” in which horrified citizens are discovering the extent to which Benjamin Franklin’s republic of letters is morphing into an evil empire.
After a while, it occurred on me that Crystal Bridges is more about the glorification of the money spent on the extravaganza, and less about the art or the narrative of American democracy. The real history will not get on to the museum walls.
Needless to say, the Walton families are not the first robber barons to feather their cut-throat reputation with lavish displays of fine art and an over-the-top museum.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many railroad magnets—the Vanderbilts, James J. Hill, and Leland Stanford among them—bought up paintings, hoping that their landscapes of the West or scenes of aboriginal innocence might cover up the sources of their fortunes, which came, in part, from monopolistic pricing and stealing land from the Indians (with government connivance).
In the same vein Crystal Bridges presents American history as a timeline of Rococo idleness—boys fishing on rivers or cows grazing in idyllic pastures—while if the museum had collected pictures around the themes of the Walton fortune (estimated at $150 billion), the paintings would show the still-life ruins of small-town America, and a trade-deficit economy buying up useless trinkets from Asian sweatshops.
The farther I went into the museum, the more I could imagine art buyers, loaded down with Alice Walton’s front money, being sent into the great American salon to buy up whatever great artists were for sale—here an Edward Hopper, there a Frederic Remington—as if they were snapping up sports shirts sold by the dozen in Shenzhen, China.
Crystal Bridges has a roll call of great American artists, but the more I stared at the paintings, the more convinced I became that many of the works are second-rate—remainders sold off to the Waltons at masterpiece prices.
Yes, in the Early 20th Century Gallery there are works by Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol, but Warhol’s “Eagle” looks like a Forever postage stamp and Wyeth’s “Cornflakes” belongs on a tea towel.
* * *
I left Crystal Bridges almost at a run back to the car. I had come in search of American history—perhaps what I had missed on the interstates from Shiloh to Bentonville—only to discover that Walmart is cornering the market in fine art, much the way it has shorted Main Street America (and moved it out of town to the mall).
Backing out of my parking place, all I could think about was an exchange that takes place toward the end of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, about how intelligence services are as gullible as main-street consumers (perhaps the Waltons among them). Smiley says, in explaining a treasonable affair:
And that’s why his fellow conspirators look to him to deal with Gerald and agree the terms, the financial terms. Because they do want money. Lots of money. I should have mentioned that. In that respect, secret services and their customers are like anyone else, I’m afraid. They value most what costs most, and Merlin costs a fortune. Ever bought a fake painting?
‘I sold a couple once,’ said Toby with a flashy, nervous smile, but no one laughed.
To this Smiley responds:
‘The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it…
Brought to you by Walmart—“Save Money. Live Better”—American history is painting by numbers.
Up next: Bentonville, Arkansas to Kansas City, Missouri, by way of Commerce, Oklahoma, Lawrence, Lecompton, and Emporia, Kansas.