Clintons return to Little Rock for airport dedication


LITTLE ROCK — Bill and Hillary Clinton recalled past experiences with the Little Rock airport during a dedication ceremony Friday for the newly renamed Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

The ceremony also celebrated the completion of a $67 million construction project that is the first phase of a long-term project aimed at turning the national airport into an international airport by 2020.

“More than 40 years ago, the first time I came to Arkansas, I flew into this airport,” Hillary Clinton said at the ceremony, which was held inside a hanger because of rain and an unusual May cold snap.

“I was picked up by this young man that I’d been dating in law school in one of the really horrible cars, I don’t know if it was the burnt orange Opel (station wagon), but it was something that was retired too late,” she said, to laughter from the crowd.

She recalled that Bill Clinton drove her around Little Rock and pointed out his favorite sights, then wandered back roads and stopped at a cafe for pie and coffee as he took her to Russellville and then Hot Springs, where he introduced her to his mother, his brother and friends.

“I just was overwhelmed by the beauty of the state and by the people whom I was meeting,” she said.

She later became a lawyer with the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where her clients included the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission.

“I also remember very clearly flying out of this airport on the way to Washington for Bill’s inauguration,” she said. “Some of you were on the plane with us and some of you were saying goodbye to us, and I don’t think it’s in any way breaking confidence to say that the three of us (including daughter Chelsea) were very, very sad to be leaving our friends and familiar places behind, even though we were thrilled.”

The former first lady and secretary of state said it was “a very profoundly deep honor for me to be here for the naming of this airport that has played such a role in my own life, to know that it is expanding with a vision for 2020 which can only continue to provide more impetus and opportunity for Little Rock and the state to grow and create more jobs and more possibilities for more people, those who are here and those who will be attracted here.”

Bill Clinton said that as the couple was flying in for the dedication ceremony, his wife asked him why he took her to Russellville on her first visit to the state instead of going straight to Hot Springs, and he finally confessed the truth.

“I said, ‘Because that’s the only way I could figure out how to drive you down to Highway 7 so you would see how pretty Arkansas is.’ And she said, ‘You’ve been taking the indirect route all your life,” he said, to more laughs.

He also said he was thinking about “all the times I flew in and out of here,” including the time he flew in after attending a governors’ conference in Washington in 1980, landing “15 minutes before Hillary’s water broke.”

The airport “lets us fly, and it brings America and the world to us,” he said, adding that he looks forward to seeing it become an international airport.

A day earlier, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a talk in Little Rock that Hillary Clinton was the most qualified potential presidential candidate for 2016. Hillary Clinton did not address the question of whether she will run in her comments Friday.

Others who were present for the ceremony included Roger Clinton, Bill Clinton’s brother; Gov. Mike Beebe; former Govs. Jim Guy Tucker and Dale Bumpers; U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock; former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater; former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt; Attorney General Dustin McDaniel; Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola; and Airport Commission Chairman Kay Kelley Arnold.

The Airport Commission voted unanimously in March 2012 to rename the airport after the Clintons.