President Clinton arrived — finally — in Nebraska today, greeted by a line of dignitaries standing on the runway of the Kearney Municipal Airport.
Twenty-five state and local officials — including Republican Gov. Mike Johanns and Democratic Sen.-elect Ben Nelson — shook the president’s hand as he stepped off Air Force One. About 20 spectators were at the airport.
Sen. Bob Kerrey, who flew with the president to Nebraska, stepped off the plane immediately after Clinton. Also arriving with the president were national security adviser Sandy Berger and former Omaha congressman Peter Hoagland.
Students Wait in Cold
Nebraska was the last state for Clinton to visit since taking office in 1993.
The president and Kerrey talked with members of the greeting line and posed for photographs at the airport for about 20 minutes before the motorcade left for the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Clinton planned to deliver a speech recapping his foreign policy achievements before an anticipated crowd of about 6,000 at the university.
Thousands of college students were lined up at 5 a.m. outside the university’s Health and Sports Center. Doors didn’t open until after 7:30 a.m.
“Our feet are kind of frozen. I can’t feel them, but that’s OK,” said Joleen Wilson, 22, of Grand Island, who stood with two friends in the cold with a blanket draped around them.
An estimated 3,000 students, nearly half the college’s enrollment, requested tickets to Clinton’s speech.
Saving the Best for Last
Across the street, someone had put out a large red-white-and-blue sign covered with America flags and illuminated by a flood light that said: “Thanks for saving the best for last — Nebraska.”
Clinton’s visit will mark the first time that a sitting president has stopped in Nebraska since George Bush made a brief appearance at a Republican Party campaign rally in Omaha in 1990.
After his speech, Clinton was to tour the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, which spans Interstate 80 near Kearney as a tribute to the historic trails that converged in the area. The Secret Service did not plan to close Interstate 80, yet the Nebraska State Patrol was pulling over any vehicles that slowed down to view the structure.
From Kearney, Clinton was flying to Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue for a public appearance before attending a Democratic fund-raiser at the home of Omaha millionaire Vinod Gupta, founder of the business information company InfoUSA.
While at Offutt, Clinton was expected to speak about the fact that Nebraska is the last state that he has visited. The White House has insisted that nothing should be made of that fact.
Kerrey vs. Clinton
Political wags have opined that it was due to a less-than-cordial relationship with Kerrey, the only Democrat in Nebraska’s congressional contingent.
When Kerrey battled Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, the Nebraska senator predicted that Republicans would crush the Arkansas governor “like a soft peanut” in the general election.
Kerrey was later quoted by Esquire magazine as saying, “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good. Do you realize that?”
On the other hand, there is little political hay to be made in this sparsely populated but heavily Republican state.
The last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Before that, it was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.