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Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 13)

Old State House Museum - Monday, June 03, 2019

As we complete this series, we will spotlight the two men who were true “outsiders” as they rose to the Presidency, although their rise and backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar: Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Born in Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama was the son of a Kenyan student on a scholarship to the University of Hawaii-Manoa and his Kansas-born mother, also a U of H-M student. Obama's parents met in 1960 in a Russian language class at the University. His parents divorced when he was three, and his father returned to Kenya. Raised partially by his grandparents in Hawaii, Obama would live for a time in Jakarta, Indonesia after his mother’s remarriage. He would graduate from high school in Hawaii and attend Occidental College in California before transferring to Columbia University, where he received his bachelor’s degree. After working as a community organizer in Chicago, he graduated from Harvard Law School, then returned to Chicago where he taught and civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development. He would continue in this activity during his years in the Illinois Legislature before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Queens, New York born and bred, Donald John Trump was the son of a residential home developer who made his fortune in building single family homes in working class neighborhoods and later, barracks and garden apartments for U.S. Navy personnel near major shipyards along the East Coast. After spending time at a military boarding school in New York, attended Fordham University, and graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics. After graduation, Trump began his career at his father’s real estate development company, and soon expanded it into high-end commercial properties in Manhattan. What became The Trump Organization built or renovated skyscrapers, hotels, casinos, and golf courses, and later started various non-real estate ventures, mostly by licensing Trump’s name He co-authored several books, owned the Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants, and produced and hosted The Apprentice, a reality television show, before seeking the Presidency. He had dabbled in politics previously, but held back from active candidacies.

Both Obama and Trump were as much newcomers to voters in Arkansas as they were in national politics at the outset of their careers. Obama first encountered the state in 2006, when, as a freshman U.S. Senator fresh off a well-received keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, arrived in Little Rock for a rally at the Capitol in support of Attorney General Mike Beebe, the Democratic Nominee for Governor.The crowd of 3,000 heard Obama quoting Dr. Martin Luther King when he exhorted the crowd to “bend that long arc of the moral universe to justice” by voting and motivating others to do the same. Prominent Democrats, such as Former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Lt. Governor Nominee Bill Halter, and Representative Vic Snyder (with his newborn son Penn) all delivered brief remarks. Sen. Mark Pryor warmly introduced Obama, who returned the favor by saying Pryor might be majority leader someday. Beebe took his momentum to victory the next week.

Eight years passed, and President Obama would return to the state, but for a much sadder occasion. Deadly storms ripped through Arkansas on April 27, 2014, leaving a swath of destruction that flattened the Faulkner County towns of Mayflower and Vilonia. Obama arrived to survey damage in Vilonia on May 7 with a delegation that included Governor Beebe, Senators Mark Pryor and John Boozman, and Representative Tim Griffin. After visiting with residents affected by the destruction, the President told the assembled townspeople, “Your country is going to be here for you…Folks here are tough. “They look out for one another … that’s been especially true this past week.”

Not long afterward, another Presidential election loomed, and it would be an open seat as Obama prepared to step down. A wide open battle on the Republican side produced more than a dozen candidates, and ultimately Donald Trump emerged as a serious contender with his unconventional campaign that relied on social media, his own celebrity status, loud and raucous rallies, and self-funding from his personal fortune. Looking for venues to introduce himself to voters for the first time as a candidate, Trump accepted an invitation to address the state GOP’s annual Reagan-Rockefeller Dinner in Hot Springs on July 17, 2015. Before a crowd of 1,000 people, Trump took aim at professional politicians in both parties, and pointed out the problems posed by illegal immigration, taking a more conciliatory tome than in his earlier speeches, saying that he loved the Mexican people and pledged a determined bid to win the Hispanic vote. He also touted his business experience, saying that it would give him an advantage over his rivals when it came to making the best deals on everything from trade to road and bridge construction. Trump, who called the Hogs and was separately with an Arkansas Traveler certificate and a Henry repeating rifle, joked to GOP State Chairman Doyle Webb that he just came to win the rifle. He would win not just the rifle, but the Arkansas primary, and ultimately, the Presidency.