Clinton Meets Elvis

Thanks to savvy marketing by the Clinton Foundation, the former president has discovered a new following. Elvis fans have become fascinated with the foundation's latest fundraising tool -- the Clinton cookbook, featuring the Elvis favorite, grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.

By combining a saxophone-playing president with the rock-and-roll god of all time, the Clinton Foundation gets a new fundraising and tourist demographic for the $160 million library, slated to open in November 2004 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The cookbook, which will be available through direct mail sales starting Aug. 29, is the latest in the brilliant scheme to market Clinton as a tourist attraction.

Recently, the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Clinton grew up and attended high school, printed 100,000 Clinton trading cards to promote the city. It's the seventh time the city has featured Clinton on a card. This one shows Clinton on the White House lawn in 1999 with his late dog Buddy (named for an uncle who lived in Hot Springs).

Clinton as a tourism entity is a 21st century method to market a former president who refuses to sit still, play golf and dodge the limelight. Instead, he's all about selling himself, but of course he always has been. Remember his appearance on the Arsenio Hall show?

Skip Rutherford, a long-time FOB and executive director of the Clinton Presidential Foundation, is the mastermind behind the Clinton marketing blitz. He says that the former president has always attracted attention on an unprecedented scale. Because of that, it's logical to use him as a pitch man for tourism and the 27-acre presidential library site.

"Clinton has this aura about him," says Rutherford. "James Carville called him a rock star, but I'm not of the belief, if you build it, they will come. I think you have to have a plan and good marketing component."

Presidents always concoct methods to raise funds for their libraries. They have to. There is no other way since presidential libraries are odd entities. Funded by private donations while under construction, the libraries, once completed, are turned over to the National Archives to become dense repositories for a specific moment in history.

Clinton has always played to the pop culture of America, hobnobbing with U2 and Sharon Stone as if they were international leaders. It's no surprise that in Clinton's post-presidency, he does the same.

The new cookbook is a prime example. Meshing recipes as simple as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with stories of Clinton lore and cooking, the foundation has created a book that will appeal to Clintonites as well as the masses. It features recipes by Bono, actress and Clinton pal Mary Steenbergen as well as politicos like Carville and former White House aides.

With Elvis in the mix, the foundation also draws tourists from Memphis -- a two-hour drive from Little Rock -- to the library. Good news for Clinton, who hopes to attract 300,000 tourists a year to his shrine by the Arkansas River.

The foundation has mastered the art of selling a president with direct mailings that allow the non-profit to reach people who are interested in Clinton and in politics. The foundation can also buy lists that target potential library donors. With that in mind, the foundation sold granite pavers for $35 in late 2001 and into 2002. Those pavers, engraved with names of nearly 8,000 donors, will line the entrance to the library. Donors also had the option of purchasing trees that will dot the library site.

If that wasn't enough, earlier this year the foundation gave fans of the former prez a chance for their names to appear on a steel beam that was placed in the library in May. The price? $35 a pop. To add to that fundraising effort, Clinton journeyed to Arkansas and signed the final signature on the beam in May. Rutherford won't comment on how much money is raised from such projects. Some donors donate more than the standard price when they support one of these efforts. One thing for sure, Rutherford says, these projects work.

"People like to get something for their money," he says. "These types of projects work and gets attention and that's in part because Clinton just generates international and national attention." It doesn't hurt to keep the focus on the former president, either. Since the library won't open until 2004, the foundation, with help from the National Archives, which is cataloging the extensive collection of artifacts and documents from the eight-year presidency, has held mini-exhibits to hold the public's interest.

The first one in 2001 highlighted gifts from around the world and the 50 states that Bill and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had received during the Clinton administration. The next one centered on a White House Christmas, featuring ornaments and decorations from the Clinton years.

This fall, once again at the renovated Cox Creative Center near the future library, another exhibit will launch. This one, a look at Clinton's favorite books, will have an added bonus -- a small display of Elvis memorabilia from the Clinton collection. The perfect hook to feed the fetish of Elvis lovers.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas journalist. Her work frequently appears in The Economist and US News and World Report. She's the author of the upcoming "Sex in the South" (Justin Charles & Co.)

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