6.30 p.m. I arrive at Alltel Arena for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner for the Democratic Party of Arkansas. A volunteer who recently lived in DC but now works at a Little Rock consulting firm quickly ushers me to the media riser. He asks, "How do we know you write for The Economist if there are no bylines?" Trust, baby, trust.
6.40 p.m. Set up computer. Some reporters are in a media area to interview local officials.
6.50 p.m. The start of money begging– please bid on auction items. Pink pearls, a condo stay in Colorado, dinner with Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson at Capeo, a great Italian restaurant a few blocks from the arena. I don't know the man auctioning these items, but he keeps saying Mary's name wrong. I thought everyone in Arkansas knew how to say her last name.
7:00 p.m. People rush the buffet stations. Three large banners direct guests to Barbecue, Steak and Shrimp and Italian Pasta. The poor folks in the stands who bought $25 tickets or received free ones just have to watch the rich people eat. Two bottles of wine – one red, one white – sit on white and blue table clothes along with a simple centerpiece of a single hydrangea in a small bowl with clear marbles. Some tables have more than two bottles. Hmmm. Someone is snatching bottles from other tables. That someone will be under the table before Hillary speaks.
7.04 p.m. The shrimp boil for 20 with Gov. Beebe and First Lady Ginger Beebe is underbid by $500 right now. Someone just made a $750 bid. Whew! I was worried.
7.05 p.m. Who is this yahoo? He is obviously not a professional auctioneer Holiday party with 40 people with Sen. Blanche Lincoln and the symphony singers at the home of wealthy Dem Vince Insalaco. Did he say open bar included? How much again?
7.07 p.m. A herd of reporters, including TV with their bulky cameras, file in with the mandatory escorts. These reporters have been questioning the statewide office holders. The escorts are adamant the reporters stay put. We wouldn't want any reporters sneaking out of the pen and discovering Hillary in a closet somewhere with an old flame. Will we get media availability with Hillary? No one knows. I'm betting no. I have claimed a spot at a table beside a sound guy doing a NYT crossword puzzle and eating buffet food. No Hillary sighting so far.
7.11 p.m. Democrats better pull out those checkbooks. "We don't want to risk someone as dismal as Mike Huckabee getting back into the governor's mansion," says the auctioneer.
7.15 p.m. Only 15 more minutes to give your cash to the Democratic Party. Silent auction is pure profit, folks, pure profit. So get the cash ready.
7.20 p.m. The Arkansas nightmare has ended because the state has a Democrat in the governor's mansion. Small round of applause echoes through the arena, which is becoming more packed including the peon seats in the stands.
7.24 p.m. Spotted: Max Parker, former Jim Guy Tucker staffer and former newspaper reporter, with Ed Fry, Congressman Vic Snyder's former chief-of-staff. David Pryor. A woman in a low cut black dress with red hair with cocktail in hand. State Sen. Shane Broadway. Bill Clinton's former chief of staff Mack McLarty. And Matt Decample, Governor Mike Beebe's press guru.
7.29 p.m. Governor Mike Beebe, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Sen. Mark Pryor Rep. Marion Berry, Rep. Vic Snyder and Rep Mike Ross along Arkansas state constitutional officers are welcomed. And tad a! Hillary in the house!. She shows up on the JumboTron in a peacock blue satin jacket with a black camisole underneath, black pants and a gold necklace. A country song blares "Who says you can't go home?" Wait. Is that Bon Jovi's new one? I think so. Hillary waves to the peons in the stands. They scream. Traveling aide Huma Abedin is with her along with two Secret Service agents with shaved heads who could kick your ass in a blink.
7.33 p.m. All bidding on silent auction items ends in 10 minutes. Hillary still works the crowd. She waves again to the peons in the stands. Not as loud of a screams this time. This Bon Jovi song is driving me crazy. Celine Dion isn't as annoying. Surely. Not that I listen to Celine Dion. Yeah, come to think of it, why aren't they playing Celine. I thought she sung the official Hillary campaign song.
7.35 p.m. She is still working the crowd and getting her picture snapped with old women. And waving to the peons. Now she is closer, right under them. This is the first time she has returned to Arkansas since announcing her White House run.
7.37 p.m. Annoying song ends replaced with John Mellencamp – Little Pink Houses for Me and You. Is that what Hillary will build if elected? Instead of bridges to the 21st century.
7.41. p.m. She is still working the crowd as Mellencamp blares. Ain't this America for you and me? The caterers are dancing. The politicos are mingling. Song ends, huge cheers.
7.42 p.m. Some other country song begins playing. Something about our town. I wonder if Hillary will speak in the Southern accent she used in Selma, Ala. This is beginning to feel like a ho-down with a capital HO.
7.45. p.m. Program starts in two minutes. We should all sit down for the posting of the colors, a male voice booms. Hillary still works the crowd. Does this message apply to her, too?
7.47 p.m. The Democratic Party of Arkansas sure likes the country music. Another sucky song plays about picking on a six-string and watching the cows go by. With so much country music, I almost feel like this is a Republican event. Are the Democrats trying to get the Nashville vote away from the Repubs?
7.50 p.m. Please clear the aisles so the colors can begin, the voice of the Democratic God commands. Democrats including Rep. Marion Berry just won't sit down. Come on, let's get this going. I don't want to be here at midnight.
7.52 p.m. The Star Spangled Banner is sung. The JumboTron shows Hillary looking pensive. She is sitting behind the governor. Maybe she is wondering why she is sitting behind him instead of at his table. Maybe she figures he should be sitting behind her.
7.59 p.m. Prayer by Hank Wilkins. Brother-in-law to former Dept. of Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. He thanks a God who cares about health care, the working poor and yes, even the price of gasoline. Amen.
8 p.m. Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Bill Gwatney comes out on the stage, which is in the round. No podium, no backdrop, just a stage. He welcomes everyone and says the state will do in 2008 what it did in 2006 – go Democratic. Ginger Beebe, the hardest working first lady in the history of the state. "No offense Sen. Clinton," he says. (Ouch that had to hurt.) First vice-chairman of the DNC (and former Little Rock mayor) Lottie Shackleford is in the house. "Elections are won and lost down in the trenches," he says. We knew that, right?
8.05 p.m. Gwatney introduces Beebe, who gets a standing ovation. "God Bless All of Y'all Out there," he says. "This is an extraordinary night made possible by too many people to recount." But he acknowledges a few: Gwatney. (Alert: This is where all the butt kissing starts). There is some young man who wears a hat and h as bushy hair and an IQ out the roof that Beebe is oohing and ahhing over. This mystery man came from Virginia and had worked on a governor's campaign there. He used modern devices to get out the vote. Then, he was asked to come to Arkansas. He provided the same task for all the constitutional officers. "You saw what happened in the last election." Who is this technological wonderkid? Bruce Sinclair, the party's executive director.
8.09 p.m. Beebe still praises people including his wife, Ginger. Remember she is the hardest working first lady the state has ever ever had.
8.10 p.m. Beebe turns his attention to Hillary. She has a mind that few can match with a heart that goes with it. She was a law professor, then the state's first lady of Arkansas for 12 years (applause here ) who performed that role in "magnificent fashion" and improved the quality of education for the young people of this state.
She went on to be a "wonderful first lady" for the United States of America. "Lest you think she was done, she then acquitted herself in extraordinary fashion … brought people together…united behind her candidacy and she is the senator from New York." Lincoln and Pryor will be the first to tell you how respected Hillary is, he says. Why is Hillary here tonight? To talk about quitting the US Senate. (Wonder why Lincoln hasn't endorsed Hillary?) And now Hillary seeks the highest office this country has to offer. Crazy loud applause. "On behalf of nearly three million Arkansans welcome home," Beebe says to Hillary.
8.13 p.m. Beebe praises the Arkansas congressional delegation. Ross. Hardest campaigner. Snyder. Epitomizes courage. Berry. Acerbic guy. Arkansas' Will Rogers. Pryor. Young senator who carries that name well. Lincoln. Fighter of the Delta.
8.17 p.m. Aide Huma stands over to the side of the arena texting on her Blackberry.
8.19 p.m. Marion Berry. Oh my, this should be entertaining, to say the least. "It's my job to make fun of George W. Bush," he says. "I come to do it reluctantly because he is so pitiful. You feel like you are abusing someone. I bring this up to say to all of you … it matters who the president of the United States is. I offer you two visual examples of that. In all my days, when you rose before the public, you were suppose to stand up, not lay down on the podium …we got a president who doesn't stand up. And now we have public officials doing the say goddang thing." Did he just say goddang? He adds, "I will be so glad to have a president who can pronounce nuclear I don't know what to do."
8.22 p.m. Berry praises his colleagues. Yawn. "I will not support Mike Huckabee for president," he says. Loud applause.
8.25 p.m. Berry presents the Jeffery Ledbetter Award to Josh Blevins, former president of the Young Democrats. Poor Blevins, no time for him to give a speech.
8.26 p.m. Snyder takes the stage and welcomes Hillary back to Arkansas. He has five minutes to talk. Snyder has known Hillary for decades. He offers insights on being an old man and a new parent. "She will be the next president of the United States," he says. Snyder shows a picture on the JumboTron of his son Penn with Hillary. Snyder says Penn feeds Hillary ideas. Now he shows a picture of Hillary with a spot on her jacket. That's Penn's drool.
It's not a political event without a baby.
8.30 p.m. Snyder better hurry. He has less than one minute to wrap it up. He is presenting an award to Gary Philips. Whoever that is.
8.33 p.m. Philips now thanks everyone. Here's a big surprise: He wants Hillary to be president.
8.34 p.m. Mike Ross' turn to tell a few jokes. He thinks Berry could be David Letterman's replacement some day. I think I've heard this one before. Thank you, thank you for all your support. Blah blah blah. "We need a Democratic president," he says. "Welcome home Hillary."
He adds, "It's important to have someone who knows our state and our people at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For my daughter's generation, the first woman president of the United States." White signs with "Madame President" wave and people stand and cheer.
8.37 p.m. Another award. Media looks bored and sleepy especially the cameramen and photographers.
8.39 p.m. Gwatney returns to the stage for more awards. He apologizes for not singling out the constitutional officers earlier. I thought he did. Time for kudos to Charlie Daniels and crew including the country's youngest attorney general Dustin McDaniel.
8.41 p.m. Annie Abrams, a tireless Democrat volunteer, receives a heritage award and a standing ovation.
8.43 p.m. Mark Pryor takes the stage. He, too, praises everyone and gives a lovefest to Beebe. Time to tune out.
8.46 p.m. Tune back in. Now this is nice. Pryor asks all veterans to stand up and thanks them for their service. Smart move. He now talks about Iraq. "However you feel about the war … please understand that everyone you have seen on this stage tonight and everyone will see on this stage tonight has made our troops our number one priority." He continues to talk
8.50 p.m. Blanche Lincoln's turn. She is in a cream pantsuit with a stark white tank top underneath it. (Note: Wear color next time, Blanche.) If Hillary wants to master a Southern accent, she should take lessons from Lincoln. Lincoln sends a shout out to former Senator David Pryor and his wife Barbara. Here, here, a standing ovation. "I am so excited to see such an incredible number of Arkansas Democrats under one roof," she says. It's obvious why she is called 'Arkansas' cheerleader.' "In 2008, Arkansas will be solid blue," she says.
8.52 p.m. Lincoln introduces Hillary. She says Hillary has stood out as a young attorney on the Nixon impeachment trails, as a mother, as a first lady, as a senator for New York. "We are so excited to have her home … as one of our own because she is one of our own in Arkansas," Lincoln says. She has known Hillary for years but they have gotten better acquainted in the Senate. Thanks to Hillary, the number of women in the Senate is 16. "Never before in the history of this country."
8.54 p.m. Hillary takes the stage. And hugs Lincoln. Does she know Lincoln hasn't officially endorsed her? Rooms stands and applauses. She waves her hand to the crowd in a majestic fashion.
She says, "Hello, Arkansas. Thank you so much" along with a few other thank yous as the crowd roars.
Alert: No Southern drawl. Smart move.
"You can imagine the rush of feelings and emotions and images that have just filled my mind since I have arrived late this afternoon. I have seen so many of my friends and people who I knew when I first moved to Fayetteville back in 1974. They were my friends then and there are my friends now. People who were at my wedding when I married Bill Clinton in 1975… Those who helped get him elected attorney general in 1976 and was a part of that first campaign for governor in 1978. And were there for the best of years and the worst of years." And she doesn't mean 1998's impeachment. She's talking about 1980 – the year Bill lost his re-election bid but daughter Chelsea was born at Little Rock's Baptist Hospital.
She talks about the great campaign of 1982 when Bill came into power again and she had the opportunity to serve this wonderful state.
Lots of Bill, Bill, Bill, who she knows is more loved here than her.
Hillary free styles with no notes and pivots elegantly to face every angle of the crowd.
She thanks her colleagues in the senate – Pryor and Lincoln. They work to make sure "the needs of Arkansas are front and center."
Huge praise for the Beebes. Maybe she's not jealous over Ginger Beebe's hard work.
She singles out former Senators Dale Bumpers and David Pryor and of course Bill for being leaders. "Each one of them set goals for Arkansas. They said we can do these things together."
I've lost track of time. I'm sucked into her speech already just by the sheer kiss-kisses she bestows to everyone. "When Vic Snyder showed the picture of his beautiful young son Penn that is what got me into politics and that is what keeps me in politics."
9:00 p.m. Hillary recalls visiting every corner of Arkansas when she lived in the state. "I don't remember it being so ideological and partisan, I just remember people wanting to achieve things and make a difference in the lives of people. That is how Arkansas worked and that is the way America will work."
She's good. Really good. The crowd is mesmerized.
9.02 p.m. "Should we treat Democrat veterans different from Republican veterans? No," she says.
Now her favorite topic: Health insurance. She's determined to make health affordable for everyone if elected. When Hillary was a little girl, she believed America had goals. Kennedy wanted man to go the moon. Johnson believed in civil rights and voting rights.
"What are America's goals today?" she asks. "We can't continue to be a great country if we can't decide what we are aiming to achieve as a nation."
"I want to be a president who sets goals for America again …"
More health care talk including 1992 when she failed on health care in Washington. "That didn't turn out too well," she says. "I still have the scars to show for it."
Talking about healthcare, she makes a lot of sense.
Yes she makes a lot of sense.
Hillary tells a story about a man from northern New York who called her a few years ago. He said he had worked hard, paid his insurance premiums and never needed health insurance.
Then his son was diagnosed with a rare disease. Only one place in America he could go. The insurance company said no. "What's the point of having this insurance if I can't save his life?" the man asked Hillary. "I don't think you should have to call your US senator to give your sick boy the care he needs."
End of topic statement: "When I am president we will have health insurance for every single American. That is a pledge."
9.08 p.m. The topic: Foreign oil. "I sure would rather be thinking about the farmers in Arkansas when I fill up my tank instead of some folks across the ocean … who don't care about America."
Yep, Arkansas just might lead the nation in biofuel production.
"Global warming is real regardless of what the president and vice president say," Hillary says.
She sees a job market in global warming. This country can create jobs based on a new energy needs.
Isn't that what Al Gore said a million times in "An Inconvenient Truth?"
9.10 Education, her favorite topic. She mentions an interesting fact that some states plan on how many prison beds they will need by looking at third grade reading scores
Higher education must be affordable for everyone. Aye, aye.
9.14 p.m. Hillary still talking about working since she was 13. Her father told her if she wanted to go to law school that she had to figure out how to fund it herself. "I could borrow money from federal government at 2 percent. I didn't have to worry about being ripped off by financial aid officer or student loan operators."
She says that the Bush Administration is the most ill prepared to govern or indifferent to governing that the country has ever had. Hillary's foreshadowing? "We are going to find out a lot of stuff that we didn't even know."
What does she know that we don't? Inquiring minds want to know.
9.17. Hurricana Katrina equaled national disgrace. No better example than Katrina. "National disgrace." Shout out to former Clinton FEMA director James Lee Witt. He was more suited for "doing the job than the president of the Arabian Horse Association."
Okay, that was funny.
9.18 p.m. America's goodwill abroad is shot to hell. Along with the balance budget and surplus. This country has squandered everything away. Hillary the Gloom Merchant. But then again, maybe it's true. "We have alienated people who still are looking for leadership from the United States and not finding it," she says.
Damn she is really good. She is genuine. Not fake one iota. Or she has turned into a hell of an actress. But wait we know she can't act after seeing that Sopranos take-off video the other.
9.20 p.m. "We have to be willing to make the right decision to bring our troops home from that … civil war." She adds, "Our young men and women can not resolve this civil war for the Iraqis if they are unwilling to do what is necessary." Standing ovation.
9.22 p.m. "People say to me this next president is going to face a lot of problems. I'm going into this with my eyes wide open. I know how hard this job is. … of course I am excited to be running for the presidency of the United States." The woman issues? She says she is not running because she is a woman but because she is the most qualified to hit the ground running.
9.23 Hillary wraps up, ending with a story about Madeleine Albright was asked to go to Europe in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Everywhere she went she saw American flags. The flags only had 48 stars. Where did these flags come from? When the GIs liberated Europe, they handed these flags. They had kept these flags as family treasures. Why? They loved America and America's values. Someday they hoped to like like Americans.
"I want to be the president who restored that feeling about America around the world again," she says.
Standing ovation. No one sits down.
"I want to feel that way about ourselves again. We are a good and great nation. We can demonstrate it to us….and we can believe that tomorrow will truly be better than today. It can't happen unless we are committed."
"I think America is ready for change. I believe I am ready to lead. Arkansas runs deep in me today."
She did not just say that last part? Is someone going to play the song? Confession: I hope so. I love that song. They don't.
9.25 p.m. Hillary ends.
9.28 p.m. Arkansas delegation gets pics snapped with Hillary. People gather around the stage to create a makeshift rope line. That horrible Bon Jovi song blares. Please make it quit.
9.30 p.m. Hillary signs books, programs. Whew, new song. Country remix of "Life is a Highway." Aide Huma is right by her side. I inch closer. Up close Hillary looks good – perfect complexion, soft makeup, rested, not old.
9.33 p.m. Aide Huma says she won't sign any more books. Okay, come on this is Arkansas. We don't take no from a Clinton in Arkansas.
9.35 p.m. John Mellencamp again. Does he get royalties for this song played at political events? Hillary is laughing with old friends. The way people are crowded around her you would think Bill was in the house. Now Aide Huma snaps pictures of her boss with fans.
9.36 p.m. Is that Greg Hale on the stage with Robert McLarty? Thirty-something aides from the Clinton White House days. Hale worked for the Kerry campaign, too. Yes, they're working the event.
9.37 p.m. Pryor and Lincoln on stage, too, shaking hands.
9.40 p.m. Hillary still works the crowd. More country music. Some boot scootin' might break out. I need a drink.
9.41 p.m. Does Bill like it that Hillary is now the rock star in the family? There is some wine left in bottles on the tables. Could I have some?
9.44 p.m. The two Secret Service men with shaved heads move closely with Hillary. But not as close as Aide Huma. She'd take the bullet before they would.
9.45 p.m. Spotted Clinton Foundation executive director Stephanie Streett. A woman wearing a brown T-shirt with an aqua silk-screened Hillary signature walks past. Snazzy.
9.46 p.m. A man in a red, white and blue stars and striped shirt whoops and jumps when he gets Hillary's autograph. He's giddy.
9.48 p.m. Hillary. Still. Shaking. Hands.
9.53 p.m. Hillary has left the stage. Now she is surrounded on the floor by fans. Caterers break down tables. The unglam side of such events.
9.55 p.m. A TV reporter asks me to verify the man standing across the way is Mark Pryor. Yes, son of former senator David Pryor, I say. "That's the mistake I didn't want to make." Do reporters not do their homework anymore?
9.57 p.m. I'm very close to her. She scratches her head before getting her pic snapped. Again.
9.58 p.m. She has her back to me and another reporter, Andrew DeMillo from AP. Someone takes a pic of Hillary with a cell phone. Aide Huma has eyed us. Security is tight.
DeMillo is going for it. "Senator, senator."
"We have to keep walking," someone tells Hillary. Secret Service stops DeMillo.
9.59 p.m. Hillary is surrounded by some old friends. She is almost very close. Secret service blocks us. To her side, Rodney Slater.
10.02 p.m. She walks toward the exit. She is stopped by a woman with a baby. Photo op.
10.03 p.m. Hillary vanishes behind a black curtain. Good-bye.