Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

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Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

He never saw me walk into the back of the room.

It was a Thursday afternoon in the late 1980s, and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas was addressing a group of small business owners at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time. It must have been a slow news day (which was rare on the Washington beat) because this wasn’t a major speech by any means. And I wasn’t trying to hide my presence. It’s just that I walked in late, and the senator didn’t see me.

Bumpers was one of the best orators to ever come our way. He knew how to play to an audience.

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

The former Methodist Sunday school teacher from Charleston would have been an effective evangelist had he chosen to follow that path.

Bumpers said this to his audience: “I know you will find this hard to believe coming from the senior senator from Arkansas, but Wal-Mart has been responsible for killing more small businesses that anything that ever came along.”

I was taking notes.

The staff member accompanying Bumpers was Bill Massey, a Malvern native who later was appointed by President Clinton to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Massey’s head turned as he walked from the room at the end of the speech. He had seen me with my notebook.

Bumpers and Massey were headed to National Airport to catch a flight home to Arkansas.

I worked out of where I lived in those days — the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill — and walked back there to file my story.

Imagine that: An elected official from Arkansas criticizing Wal-Mart. The newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up. The Gazette correspondent wasn’t at the speech, and I had no doubt that my story would play on the front page of the Democrat the next morning since it was exclusive.

I had two phones on my desk — a business phone and a personal phone. The business phone rang as soon as I sat down, and I knew who it was.

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

“Rex, it’s Bill. The senator would like to speak to you,” Massey said.

“I bet he would,” I replied, a bit sarcastically.

The next thing I heard was the familiar voice of Dale Leon Bumpers.

“Rex, you know good and well that I never would have said what I did to those folks had I known you were in the room,” he said.

I replied: “I know that senator. But I was in the room. It was an open event, and you were on the record.”

He said: “Well, all I can do is ask you as a personal favor not to put that in tomorrow’s paper. If you do, I’ll live with the consequences since I said it.”

I had to make a decision.

I wonder to this day if I made the right one.

Here’s what I told him: “Senator, I’ve not yet mentioned this to my editor. We’re the only ones who know about this. If I don’t write it, I’m giving up a front-page story. The only way I can justify doing that in my mind is if I were to get two or three front-page stories in the future that the Gazette doesn’t get.”

Bumpers replied: “You have my word on it.”

I never wrote the story that day.

During the next few months, Bumpers’ office leaked me several stories that received front-page play.

It’s important to understand that Dale Bumpers had no reason to like the Arkansas Democrat, which had consistently been critical of him on its editorial page. But he was true to his word.

In that era before cell phones and the Internet, we did what I call shoe-leather reporting. I was in all six offices of the Arkansas congressional delegation on a daily basis, checking to see if there were news stories I needed to write. My favorite days were those in which one of our state’s two senators — Dale Bumpers or David Pryor — would invite me into their offices and simply tell off-the-record stories. I loved Arkansas history and politics (still do) and could listen to them for hours.

This will sound strange coming from a fellow who would go on to work for a Republican governor and a Republican president, but I likely became too close to the two Democratic senators from Arkansas. When I left Washington after four years on the beat, it was time for a new reporter who could be more objective when it came to Bumpers and Pryor. I still felt I could ask the tough questions when I needed to do so, but my fondness for both men had grown through the years.

One of the best compliments I ever received came one day while sitting in Bumpers’ office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He said to me: “There are only about two reporters I’ve ever been around with whom I felt I could be myself. You’re one of them.”

This former Marine knew he could tell me the latest joke or inside story. Off the record meant off the record.

Dale Bumpers came close several times to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. I still wonder what would have happened had he run.

The first time was in 1976. Bumpers was in his second year in the Senate. Who knows? Dale Bumpers rather than Jimmy Carter might have been the young president from the South had the Arkansan chosen to run that year.

The last time was the 1988 election cycle. It was early 1987, and Bumpers was giving every indication that he would run.

I vividly remember taking the train from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in New York with Bumpers’ press secretary, Matt James, to cover what was being billed as a major foreign policy address at Columbia University. Earlier that day, Bumpers had met with potential donors in New York and received millions of dollars in commitments.

Before we took a late-night train back to Washington, I filed two stories — one about the meeting with donors and one on the foreign policy speech. The announcement that he would run for president seemed like a mere formality at that point.

John Robert Starr, the Democrat’s mercurial managing editor, told me that I would cover the Bumpers presidential campaign on a daily basis. At my current age of 56, I can’t think of anything much worse than spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. At age 27, however, I couldn’t wait to be one of the “boys on the bus.”

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

James had a leading role in a community theater presentation on Capitol Hill. He was about to leave the office for opening night when Bumpers walked by his desk, handed him a sheet of paper and said, “Get this out to the media.”

It was a short statement, explaining why he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

I missed the story that night, but at least I had a good excuse.

Starr was in nearby Reston, Va., for a conference at the American Press Institute. He loved Mexican food and had called me earlier in the day.

“I know you have a favorite Mexican place you could take me for dinner,” he said. “Pick me up at 6 p.m. and we’ll go eat.”

As noted, this was the era before cell phones. No one back at the newsroom in Little Rock could find me. Meredith Oakley wound up doing the story from Little Rock since the Washington correspondent was out eating Mexican food with the boss.

After our dinner, I met some friends who were bank examiners from Arkansas. They were in town for training and had rented a hotel suite. I fell asleep on their couch while watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I didn’t return to my place on Capitol Hill until the next morning. My answering machine was filled with messages from editors back in Little Rock. Whatever had happened that Friday, it was too late for me to do anything about it.

I had picked up my Washington Post outside but failed to open it. I got into the shower. As I got out, the phone was ringing. It was Don Johnson, the Sunday editor.

“Are you planning a follow-up story?” he asked.

“A follow-up story on what?” I replied.

When he told me what had happened the night before, I panicked.

I immediately called the Bumpers home (I always thought the senator lived on the best street possible for a politician — Honesty Way in Bethesda, Md.), and Betty Bumpers answered.

Here’s how the conversation went:

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson from the Arkansas Democrat. Is the senator home?

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“I think he might have gone to the office.”

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

“Please let him know I’m looking for him if he comes home.”

Since she thought he might be at the office, I sprinted the 12 blocks from my place to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. In those days, the photo IDs that congressional correspondents wore around our necks gave us access to the buildings at any hour. I went to the private door that led into Bumpers’ office and knocked.

No answer.

In desperation, I got down on the floor and peered through the crack at the bottom of the door to see if I could see anyone.

Then, I sprinted back to my place and again called the Bumpers’ home.

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson again. I went to the office, and the senator wasn’t there. Has he come home yet?

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

As a last resort, I said this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions.”

Betty Bumpers had no reason to talk with me on the record that day. Yet she did. She told of how the senator had been restless for weeks and was no longer sleeping well. She told me that she would have supported his decision regardless, but she finally had put her foot down and said: “Dale, you need to go ahead and make a decision one way or another.”

I hung up the phone and wrote the story. The Democrat ran it on the front page the next morning.

On Monday, Starr called, praising me for having an angle the Gazette hadn’t thought of.

If only he had known the full story.

By the fall of 1992, I had returned to Little Rock and was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the Gazette had ceased publication in October 1991). With the Clinton presidential race dominating our coverage, I decided to give the Senate race between Bumpers and Mike Huckabee some attention. I would spend two days on the road with each of the two candidates (who could have dreamed that I would wind up working almost a decade with Huckabee in the governor’s office?) and write long stories on each campaign for the Sunday edition.

My two-day trip with Bumpers ended with an evening event in Camden. We were flying back to Little Rock from Ouachita County on a small plane late that night when I asked my final on-the-record question.

“Senator, something you used against J. William Fulbright when you beat him in 1974 was the accusation that he was out of touch with Arkansas; that he had become a part of the East Coast establishment. Let me ask you: Had you rather be at a fish fry in Camden or at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s townhouse in Georgetown?”

Harriman, who died in 1997, was an English-born socialite whose first husband was the son of Winston Churchill. Her third husband, beginning in 1971, was the well-known American diplomat, politician and businessman Averell Harriman. She became an American citizen the year she married Harriman (1971) and also became a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party. The dinner parties she threw at her Georgetown townhouse were the stuff of legend. Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 and she held the title until her death in 1997. Clinton dispatched Air Force One to bring her body back to the United States and spoke at her funeral.

Bumpers looked at me when I asked the question and smiled his famous smile: “Oh hell, Rex, you know how I have to answer that.”

The thing is, he was at home at the toniest events in Washington and the most down-home events in Arkansas that you can imagine.

I can’t count the number of times I saw him speak to a civic club in Arkansas when the members would start the meeting mad about his vote on some issue. After about 20 minutes, those club members would be laughing and smiling. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand.

The Bumpers charisma isn’t easy to put into words. You had to experience it.

It was my great fortune to cover him as a newspaper reporter for several years, experiencing the magic on a daily basis.

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Mr. Chairman: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Even though I was only 26 years old at the time, I was the No. 2 person in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat and enjoying my work.

A Monday morning call from the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, changed my life.

If you work in a newspaper sports department, the chances are that you work on weekends. That’s when the action occurs.

My days off back then were Mondays and Tuesdays. I was sleeping late on a Monday morning when the phone in my Brightwaters apartment rang.

I was jolted awake by the voice of Bob Starr. If Starr were calling me at home on a Monday morning, I figured we must have made a huge mistake in that morning’s sports section.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington job?” he asked almost immediately.

“Because I don’t want to move to Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply and go through the motions because I’ve already decided you’re going,” Starr said.

If you worked at the Democrat for Bob Starr, you knew better than to question him.

Within days, I was on a flight to Washington. I slept on the couch in my predecessor Damon Thompson’s Capitol Hill apartment while looking for a place of my own to live. I would wind up in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse for the next four years.

A few days after my return to Little Rock, I had packed my Oldsmobile Cutlass and was making the 1,100-mile trip on Interstate 40, Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 to the nation’s capital.

I was scared to death.

The newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat was heating up, and you weren’t supposed to get scooped on your beat. Starr wrote scathing daily critiques for the whole staff to read, identifying those reporters he felt had been outworked by the competition. I would be going up against a veteran Gazette Washington correspondent, Carol Matlack. And I was coming from a sports department, not from a government and political beat.

The big story in Washington at the time was the development of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I figured a natural angle for an Arkansas newspaper to take would be to talk to former Congressman Wilbur D. Mills from Kensett, who had written much of the tax code.

Even though he had been gone from Congress for almost a decade, Mills still went to his office each day at a K Street law firm. I set up an appointment with him.

I vividly remember walking in and looking at the wooden nameplate on the front of his desk that simply said “Mr. Chairman.”

I began asking questions. He was cordial but not overly friendly. One of the things I love about this small state of Arkansas is the fact that there’s, at most, two degrees of separation. Thus I decided to mention my maternal grandfather, who had died in 1980 at age 96. My grandfather had been the Prairie County judge at the time Mills had vaulted from the position of White County judge to Congress.

White and Prairie are adjoining counties.

“Mr. Chairman, I believe you knew my grandfather,” I said.

“Who was your grandfather, son?” he replied.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I said.

Mills’ face lit up as he began to smile.

“Good Lord, son, if it had not been for the votes that Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County the first time I ran for Congress in 1938, I might not have been elected,” he said.

Whether or not the story was true, I knew better than to ask the meaning of the word “delivered.”

I can tell you this: From then on, Mills treated me more like a long-lost relative than a newspaper reporter. Anytime I had a question, he would take my call. He didn’t want to be quoted by name, but I could always attribute his background quotes to “someone close to the tax negotiations.”

Little did my readers or the Gazette correspondent know that my source was one of the most powerful people ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Kay Goss was making the rounds in Little Rock last week. She spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday and spoke the following evening at the Clinton School of Public Service.

She’s promoting her new book, “Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills,” which recently was released by Parkhurst Brothers of Little Rock. It’s high time that someone wrote a book on Mills, and Goss was just the person to do it. She first met the congressman when she was teaching at the University of Arkansas. While completing her doctoral studies, she worked for then-Congressman Ray Thornton and watched Mills and his staff in action. In fact, she married his chief of staff, the late Gene Goss.

Among those in attendance at last Tuesday’s Political Animals Club meeting was former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who replaced Mills in Congress in 1977 (and whose grandfather was the incumbent Mills defeated when he first was elected White County judge).

“Kay has special and personal knowledge of Wilbur Mills, both the Chairman and the simply human,” Tucker writes. “She shares it with us wonderfully. Mr. Mills provided steady help and hope for ordinary working Americans and for those in need beginning in 1934 with what was, in effect, a ‘county Medicaid’ program while serving as county judge in White County. There was later the massive strengthening of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. … His good deeds live on in the memories of those who watched and in the lives of those receiving these services today.”

Goss, the former teacher with a keen sense of American history, writes: “The power of Congress has swung like a pendulum through the centuries. The peak of presidential power under Abraham Lincoln was followed by a surge of congressional power after his assassination, causing Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist at the time, before becoming governor of New Jersey and later president, to write in his book ‘Congressional Government’ that congressional committees were ‘lord proprietors.’ However, during the personality cults of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt), Congress was weak and overshadowed.

“After Roosevelt’s passing and the passage of the Legislative Reform Act of 1946, Congress began regaining power. At this time, Mills was a rising star in Congress and a few years from becoming Ways and Means chairman. He was a part of a new generation in Congress, 40 years younger than Robert Doughton of North Carolina, the chairman of Ways and Means at the time, and compiling the second-longest tenure.

“The power of Congress increased until the congressional reform acts of the 1970s. Thus Mills was a congressional legend while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history, doctoral studies at West Virginia University and teaching public administration and political science at three of Arkansas’ institutions of higher education.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers notes that Goss doesn’t ignore Mills’ alcoholism and the personal scandals of his later years.

“The challenges Wilbur Mills faced as he slipped into the disease of alchoholism and resulting controversy are dealt with forthrightly here, rekindling the reaction in the public’s mind during those difficult months,” Bumpers writes. “Unfortunately, Mills’ late-career difficulties dimmed the remembrance of some of his major achievements. … Kay Goss has deftly weighed Mills’ character and shown the complexity that was Wilbur Mills. She lets his example show that no matter how high a person goes, how much he or she achieves, it is possible to fall and then to recover magnificently as Mills did when he went on to help others who suffer from addictions.”

Former Sen. David Pryor remembers that “only a handful of members of the House and Senate called him Wilbur. To most of us, he was Mr. Chairman. No legislative tactician grew to understand better or in more detail the myriad complexities of the federal government, especially our country’s tax code. … In addition, his enormous impact on health programs, most notably Medicare, and social issues remains a hallmark of his service.

“The tremendous respect Chairman Mills enjoyed among his colleagues in the House translated into support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was said that during his years chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, a roll-call vote was needless, as the chairman governed his committee by reason and ultimately consensus.”

After leaving Congress, Mills said: “There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake. If I did, the country would go to rack and ruin. I was making myself a god. Human beings make mistakes, but I thought I couldn’t make a mistake. Therefore I didn’t let myself be a human being. That kind of internal pressure is more than the human system can sustain. Here I was doing it to myself consistently. .. I used to be lonesome all the time, even among 10,000 people. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t feel lonesome.”

Goss writes that when the words Mr. Chairman were spoken in Washington, “everyone from the president to the newest elevator operator knew the reference meant Wilbur Mills. He had a personal network of influence in the House.”

But when asked about giving up that power, Mills later told The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “I enjoy life more now. It’s just great to be a human being. In the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, I was more of a machine than a man.”

In “Mr. Chairman,” Kay Goss probes both the reasons for his greatness and his human frailties.

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Speaker Carter and change in Arkansas

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

In my newspaper column for this week, I noted that the incoming speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives — a 37-year-old banker and attorney from Cabot named Davy Carter — personifies the two revolutions that are forever changing the Arkansas in which I was raised.

The first is a demographic revolution.

The second is a political revolution.

Carter, a man I happen to think will make an outstanding speaker, was raised at Marianna in Lee County.

Lee County is representative of the counties in east Arkansas and south Arkansas that are bleeding population, a trend that has sped up in the past decade.

The largest population ever recorded in Lee County was 28,852 in 1920.

Here are the Lee County census figures since then:

1930 — 26,637

1940 — 26,810

1950 — 24,322

1960 — 21,001

1970 — 18,884

1980 — 15,539

1990 — 13,053

2000 — 12,580

2010 — 10,424

As you can see, Lee County now has about a third of the population it had in 1920.

Lonoke County, where Carter now lives, is representative of the counties in central and northwest Arkansas where there’s explosive population growth.

As agricultural mechanization took hold and sharecroppers left the farm, Lonoke County saw its population decrease from 33,400 in 1920 to 24,551 in 1960.

Then came white flight from Little Rock and the growth of Cabot as a Little Rock suburb. Take a look at the Lonoke County census figures since then:

1970 — 26,249

1980 — 34,518

1990 — 39,268

2000 — 52,828

2010 — 68,356.

With his move from Lee County to Lonoke County, Carter symbolizes the population switch taking place in Arkansas — 39 counties gained population and 36 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010.

It’s a trend for which there’s no end in sight as east and south Arkansas lose population while the central, western and northern areas of the state grow.

Next, there’s the political revolution.

For the first time in any of our lifetimes, Arkansas is truly a two-party state. For the first time in 138 years, Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature, and those majorities are likely to grow in the years ahead.

Because he is a Republican — and a young, articulate one at that — Carter also symbolizes the political revolution. This revolution is one in which younger business and civic leaders statewide are now identifying themselves with the GOP, especially in those 39 counties that are gaining population.

Jay Barth, the Hendrix College professor who understands this state’s politics better than most, divides the state into five political regions. They are:

1. The fast-growing counties of northwest Arkansas, which tend to vote Republican.

2. The counties surrounding Pulaski County, which are also now Republican. The growth rate in these counties match, or in some cases exceed, the growth rates in northwest Arkansas. From 2000 to 2010, Faulkner County grew 31.6 percent, Lonoke County grew 29.4 percent and Saline County grew 28.2 percent.

3. Pulaski County itself (which grew 5.9 percent in the first decade of this century) with its reliably Democratic voters.

4. The Delta counties (most of which are losing population) with their Democratic tendencies.

5. A swath of swing counties that run from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the state (skipping Pulaski County).

Barth sees these swing counties going more and more Republican in the years ahead. Indeed, when I grew up in Clark County, we didn’t know what a Republican was. Earlier this month, Clark County, of all places, elected a Republican to the state House of Representatives.

“The decisiveness of the Republican gains in these counties in 2012 suggests that they may have swung so hard that, combined with the other two GOP-leaning regions, there is now a comfortable Republican advantage in all statewide elections,” Barth wrote in last week’s edition of the Arkansas Times. “The statewide elections in 2014 will test this hypothesis. Probable Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dustin McDaniel may be able to bring some of the rural swing counties in the northeast part of the state back into play for his party, but the Obama-era gains up and down this spine of rural counties suggests that they have left behind their populism of the past and may well quash Arkansas Democratic hopes in the future.”

I agree with that analysis. Unlike Barth, though, I’m not yet ready to call McDaniel the probable Democratic nominee. I think there will be hotly contested primaries in both parties.

And I’ll go ahead and declare that the 2014 election for governor is one of the most important in the past century in this state. Because of our two revolutions — the demographic revolution and the political revolution — it’s crucial that we elect someone with the leadership ability necessary to prevent Arkansas from splitting into what in essence is two states within a state.

We need a governor who understands all of this state’s regions and their residents. In that respect, Arkansas has been fortunate in recent decades. Gov. Mike Beebe grew up in the Delta in Jackson County and never forgets the needs of east Arkansas, though he maintains strong support in the more prosperous regions of the state.

Beebe’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Huckabee, grew up in the southwest corner of the state in Hempstead County and knew what it was like to be an Arkansan outside the reach of the Little Rock television market.

The twin revolutions require a governor who understands the needs of all 75 counties and has the ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats.

Things get even more interesting when you consider that this will be the first governor’s race since 1966 without a clear frontrunner or an incumbent in the race. In 1966, Orval Faubus chose not to seek a seventh two-year term as governor. Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus two years earlier, defeated Democratic nominee Jim Johnson, becoming the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Consider what has happened since then:

— Rockefeller ran as an incumbent in 1968 and 1970, winning the first time and losing to Dale Bumpers in 1970.

— Bumpers won as an incumbent in 1972.

— David Pryor entered the race as the acknowledged frontrunner in 1974 in a Democratic primary race against Faubus and my Arkadelphia neighbor at the time, Lt. Gov. Bob Riley. It was evident that the Faubus era had passed and that Riley couldn’t raise the money needed to run a viable campaign.

— Pryor won re-election in 1976.

— In 1978, then-Attorney General Bill Clinton began the race as the frontrunner. He lost as an incumbent in 1980, and Gov. Frank White in turn lost to Clinton as an incumbent in 1982.

— Clinton then won re-election as an incumbent in 1984, 1986 (when the state went to four-year terms) and 1990.

— Jim Guy Tucker moved up from lieutenant governor when Clinton resigned to move to the White House at the end of 1992, and Tucker won as an incumbent in 1994.

— Huckabee moved up from lieutenant governor following Tucker’s resignation in July 1996, and Huckabee won as an incumbent in 1998 and 2002.

— Beebe entered the 2006 race as the frontrunner and won re-election as an incumbent in 2010.

So we had incumbents in the race in 1968, 1970, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

In the other years — 1974, 1978 and 2006 — there were established frontrunners at the start.

In the newspaper column, I mentioned a story I wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette more than 16 years ago when I was the newspaper’s political editor. In the spring of 1996, with Clinton running for re-election as president, we decided to publish stories on 10 key states. One of the states I wrote about was Texas.

I visited with then-Gov. George W. Bush at a Lincoln Day dinner in Waco, but I decided to focus my story on the changes in Williamson County, which is just north of Austin.

Williamson County was experiencing a population surge at the time. The pace of growth hasn’t subsided since then. The county grew 69 percent from 2000 to 2010. I went to the county seat of Georgetown and heard how Williamson County, once solidly Democratic, had turned Republican.

What was happening in Williamson County in Texas back then reminds me of the things happening now in places such as Saline, Faulkner, Lonoke and White counties in Arkansas.

People such as Carter represent the future of Arkansas politics.

Carter attended Arkansas State University. After a short time in Memphis working for the investment banking firm Morgan Keegan, he returned to Arkansas to work in banking for First National Bank of Eastern Arkansas. He later attended law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Carter, who first was elected to the House four years ago, works for Centennial Bank. He won me over back in early 2010 when he answered a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Three Rivers Edition that went like this: “What’s one thing you want to accomplish in life but haven’t yet?”

His answer: “Own a barbecue joint.”

Now you’re talking. What else would you expect from someone from Marianna, the home of the great Jones barbecue joint, winner of a James Beard Award earlier this year?

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Election thoughts

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

There’s not a person alive in Arkansas who knows what it’s like to have Republicans in control of the Legislature.

Now, we will all learn together.

Regardless of what side of the political fence you’re on, Tuesday’s election was historic in our state. After trailing the rest of the South in going red, Arkansas will join the region with a Legislature in which Republicans have a solid majority in the Senate and a slight majority in the House.

The last time Republicans controlled either house of the Arkansas Legislature was during Reconstruction — a special session in 1874 to be exact.

The political tidal wave began to roll across Arkansas two years ago when the GOP captured every contested state Senate seat along with three of the seven statewide constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner.

On that same election day in 2010, Republican John Boozman defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and Rick Crawford became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win in the 1st Congressional District of east Arkansas.

In the state Senate, what had been a heavily Democratic body suddenly saw Democrats with only a 20-15 majority after that 2010 election.

The Democratic House majority was just 55-45.

For two years after that election, political insiders noted that the GOP was in position to take control of one or both houses of the Legislature in the 2012 election. So in the context of the expecations coming into this week, what happened Tuesday night was not unexpected.

Over the course of two elections, though, the pace of political change in our state is breathtaking.

Will Republicans solidify their new position in Arkansas politics and make this a long-term trend?

I suspect so. I say that with a few caveats. First, the GOP must make sure its nominees are respected business and civic leaders, officeholders such as Rep. Davy Carter of Cabot and Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado. Extremists can and will taint the party brand. The widespread publicity given the comments of some Republican House candidates this year made the margin in the House closer than it otherwise would have been.

Arkansans are conservative for the most part, but they’re not extremists.

Nationally, much is being written today about where the Republican Party goes from here.

This I agree with (and remember I worked in both a Republican gubernatorial and presidential administration): The GOP must be more than the party of angry old white men. I’m an old white man, but I’m not angry. I’m pragmatic — pragmatic enough to realize that if the typical Republican comes to resemble the kind of folks who, say, call in on a regular basis to KARN-FM to complain, the party is doomed to permanent minority status at the Washington level.

Consider some facts:

George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

John McCain won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

Mitt Romney, who pandered shamelessly to the anti-immigration crowd in the GOP primaries of both 2008 and 2012, received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote Tuesday.

You can see the trend.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is all or partially Hispanic (a percentage that includes my wife and two sons) is growing rapidly while the percentage of Hispanics voting for Republicans is declining.

That’s a recipe for political disaster down the line.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who could be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, told Politico: “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”

Politico’s Jonathan Martin writes: “Republicans face a crisis. The country is growing less white, and their coalition has become more white in recent years. But the GOP’s problem is more fundamental than one bloc of voters. For the second consecutive presidential election, the Republicans got thumped among women and young voters in the states that decided the election.”

Martin uses the battleground state of Florida as an example. There are 190,000 more Hispanics and 50,000 more blacks in that state than there were in 2008. In Osceola County, a suburb of Orlando with a heavy Hispanic population, the Obama margin grew from 20 percentage points in 2008 to 25 percentage points this year.

Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, said party leaders must figure out that the GOP is “too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late.”

Former Bush political director Matt Schlapp told Politico: “Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments. It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.”

Basic moral decency. It’s something unfortunately that some Americans seem to be lacking.

Here’s where the Arkansas GOP could be a national bellwether for the party should it choose to do so. You see, the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction was Winthrop Rockefeller from 1967-71. It was Rockefeller who brought blacks into the state’s political system and began breaking down the segregationist policies of 1960s Democrats.

Older blacks in Arkansas remember that heritage. Even those who don’t remember it have heard their parents and grandparents talk about it.

In 1998 and 2002, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller worked hard for the black vote and attracted a sizable portion of it.

Because of the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy in this state and the good will it generated, Arkansas Republicans have a unique opportunity to craft an outreach effort to black and Hispanic voters.

Here are the key questions: Do they have the courage to do so; the courage to ignore the angry old white men who call the radio talk shows and write letters to the editor? Will they stand up to the bigots as Win Rockefeller once did? Will they tune out the heated TEA rhetoric and do what’s right?

Will the Carters, the Shepherds and other rising stars prevail or will the extremists in the party prevail?

This will determine if this Republican majority in Arkansas is the norm or just a blip in our state’s history.

In a state that for so long was controlled by Democrats, wouldn’t it be interesting if the Arkansas Republican Party were to capitalize on its Winthrop Rockefeller tradition and in the process show the national Republican Party the road to majority status?

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Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” — makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

— “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

— “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

— “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

— “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

— “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.'”

— “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

— “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

— “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 — “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.'”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. “Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

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McClellan vs. Pryor: June 1972

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

In her biography of the late Sen. John L. McClellan, titled “Fearless,” Sherry Laymon begins a chapter with something Paul Greenberg wrote in the Pine Bluff Commercial following McClellan’s death in late 1977.

“Not even the Angel of Death would have dared creep up on John L. McClellan in broad daylight,” Greenberg wrote.

Norma McClellan was unable to wake the senator for breakfast on Nov. 28, 1977. She ran to get her neighbor at the Riviera Apartments at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Elsijane T. Roy.

Judge Roy called the authorities. The senator was pronounced dead at about 6:30 a.m.

Laymon writes: “Norma McClellan then called several of McClellan’s staff members, who came up to their apartment to visit with her. After Emon A. Mahony Jr. and Paul Berry arrived at the McClellan apartment and greeted Norma, she told them, ‘I want you to go look in the top drawer there — his underwear drawer.’ She showed them the Valentine boxers that they had purchased for him during the 1972 campaign. Norma told them that McClellan brought the boxers with him to Little Rock to ‘model for my boys.’

“In the days following McClellan’s death, state and national newspapers, members of Congress, former opponents, state leaders and others who had made McClellan’s acquaintance over the years lauded him for his tireless devotion to Arkansas and for his important accomplishments in the Senate, including a record number of Senate investigations (2,808 hours, 831 days and 2,183 witnesses).

“They referenced how the multitude of personal tragedies he had endured turned him into a man of steel and a man of faith, and they mentioned that he performed his duties as a public servant by consistently voting his convictions and doing what he believed to be right.”

Mahony and Berry will join another former McClellan staff member, Bob Snider, for the June meeting of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock as we mark the 40th anniversary of one of the great political races in Arkansas history — the Democratic primary runoff between McClellan and then U.S. Rep. David Pryor in June 1972.

Laymon also will be a member of that panel, which I will moderate. She will autograph copies of “Fearless” before and after the event.

What’s always a good lunch will be included for the $20 cost, which you can pay in cash or by check at the door. We’ll begin at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, in the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion and conclude by 1 p.m.

You can make reservations by emailing Susan Edwards at sedwards@arkindcolleges.org and giving her the names of those who will be attending.

Advance reservations are required.

Laymon describes the David Pryor of 1972 as “a young and attractive congressman who hungered for higher office.”

On Oct. 19, 1967, Pryor had attended the John L. McClellan Day festivities in Camden as a first-term congressman.

McClellan told Pryor that day: “I want you to know that when I do leave the Senate, you’re the type of young man that I’d like to see succeed me.”

Laymon writes of similarities between the early careers of Pryor and McClellan.

“In 1934, McClellan quietly drove over the district to learn the intentions of possible candidates and to assess his chances of winning the congressional race. … In 1972, Pryor traveled outside his congressional district, talking to people and steadily building support. Many of Pryor’s friends told him they would support him for re-election, but not in a race against Sen. McClellan; however, he toyed with the idea of challenging McClellan and pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a senator.”

Pryor had to think about the political timing.

“A McClellan win in 1972 would handicap Pryor’s chances of challenging J. William Fulbright in 1974 with the rest of the state since McClellan and Pryor both called south Arkansas home,” Laymon writes. “If Pryor stayed in the House until 1978, his seniority in that chamber might not make the change worthwhile. Also, by 1978 he could lose some of the national momentum he had gained in the early 1970s when he crusaded for nursing home reforms.”

McClellan announced in a Little Rock news conference on Feb. 11, 1972, that he would run for re-election even though he had reached age 76. He emphasized the benefits of seniority with the campaign slogan “Strong Voice for Arkansas.”

Two days later, Bryant attorney Ted Boswell announced his intention to run against McClellan in the Democratic primary.

Pryor’s announcement came on Feb. 19 during a speech in his hometown of Camden.

“McClellan felt betrayed, disappointed and astonished when he learned that Pryor opted to challenge him,” Laymon writes. “McClellan thought highly of David Pryor and considered Pryor a protege. Some of McClellan’s staff believed that had Pryor first advised McClellan of his intentions, the senator would have stepped aside and endorsed Pryor for the office because of his friendship with Pryor’s family. Also, by Pryor not first informing McClellan of his plans, McClellan felt that Pryor did not acknowledge McClellan’s prominence and status in Arkansas politics, which offended McClellan.

“Regardless, McClellan never backed down when challenged, so he campaigned just as hard against Pryor in 1972 as he had against D.D. Glover in 1934, Hattie Caraway in 1938, Jack Holt Sr. in 1942 and Sid McMath in 1954.”

It had been 18 years since someone had seriously challenged McClellan. Rison native John Elrod was named the campaign manager. Berry was selected to drive McClellan to campaign stops across the state.

McClellan had two rules for staff members.

The first: “Don’t ever lie to me.”

The second: “Don’t ever be late.”

Given McClellan’s age, his staff would leave time in the campaign schedule for the senator’s afternoon nap followed by time to prepare for evening appearances.

Back to those underwear.

Laymon writes: “Often staff invited local young men to visit McClellan in his motel suite during those periods, which was the case when the McClellan party stopped in Newport in February 1972. While McClellan showered, a group assembled to meet the senator, but McClellan stayed an extra long time in the bathroom.

“Finally, he attracted Paul Berry’s attention and told Berry, ‘I don’t have any fresh underwear.’

“Berry and Mahony walked to a store across the street and purchased the necessary items, which Berry handed to McClellan enclosed in the store sack so as not to reveal the contents to the roomful of guests. Soon afterward, a blushing Sen. McClellan emerged to meet his visitors for the first time wearing loud boxer shorts covered with big hearts, cupids and arrows. McClellan credited his mischievous staff for his predicament as he circled the room, extending his hand and greeting the amused individuals.”

Television ads and a 30-minute paid television program that showed McClellan fishing were intended to convey the message that the senator’s age and health weren’t issues.

“Critics became less vocal about McClellan’s age after he took the stage and performed a quick, lively dance at Mountain View as musicians played their instruments,” Laymon writes.

She says McClellan would hold the attention of audiences across the state by interjecting stories from “his former campaigns or his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor. … He said the barbs from his 1972 opponents reminded him of advice that he was given as a young lawyer — when the law is on your side, argue the law; when the facts are on your side, argue the facts; when neither is on your side, find fault with the other lawyers.”

Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, recalls being asked to speak on behalf of an opposing candidate during a rally attended by McClellan at Antioch in White County.

Wilson won a coin toss and could have gone last.

McClellan said, “Aw, you go ahead and go first.”

Wilson did, and it was a mistake.

“That taught me a lesson,” he later said. “I never did that again. After I got through, he wore me out.”

At one joint event, McClellan grabbed Pryor by the arm and said, “Pour it on me, son.”

“His grueling weekly schedule that began early Monday morning and extended until late Saturday night exhausted him physically, emotionally and mentally,” Laymon writes. “He rested on Sundays before repeating the cycle.”

McClellan received 44.7 percent of the vote in the primary. Pryor was second with 41.4 percent, and Boswell was third with 12.6 percent. Foster Johnson received the remainder of the primary votes.

The two-week runoff was on. Those were the “tantamount to” days of Arkansas politics when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would have little problem dispatching Republican Wayne Babbitt in the fall.

Conventional wisdom was that an incumbent was finished if forced into a runoff.

“While the Pryor camp exploded with enthusiasm, the people in McClellan’s headquarters became disheartened and dejected as though all the air had been let out of the campaign tires,” Laymon writes. “Patrick Hays, who worked in McClellan’s campaign, compared the senator’s headquarters to a ship without a rudder. After a couple of days, the old steam engine began to sputter and then get a little traction, and as that traction increased, the wheels started rolling a little faster.”

McClellan informed his staff that he could not continue at the current pace for another two weeks. More than 150 key supporters from across the state arrived for a meeting in Little Rock. They committed an additional $280,000 and promised to all hit the trail on the senator’s behalf, covering far more ground than he could alone.

Every favor imaginable was called in as McClellan worked the phones from early in the morning until late at night. Boswell, meanwhile, endorsed Pryor, and Pryor challenged McClellan to a debate.

KATV-TV, Channel 7, in Little Rock agreed to air the debate in prime time the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. McClellan accepted the debate challenge on June 6 under the condition that McClellan would speak last.

“McClellan approached the debate as he did everything he attempted — by working hard, doing his homework and relying upon his years of experience and political savvy,” Laymon writes. “As an effective debater, McClellan habitually opted to speak last when he argued his position on the Senate floor, which allowed him to respond to points raised by his opponents.”

Mahony prepared McClellan a chart of Pryor’s numerous contributions from organized labor. McClellan hit hard in what would be remembered as the cookie jar debate.

“We talk about 50-cent donations out of overall pockets and out of cookie jars — I believe he said cookie jars,” McClellan said, looking at Pryor. “Listen, this is no overall pocket money. This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. Take a look at this. Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. … Yes, that’s a cookie jar — quite a cookie jar indeed.”

Pryor later said, “They wanted to see blood, and it was my blood that they saw, not his.”

McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote, carrying 52 of the state’s 75 counties.

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Primary election 2012: Some day-after thoughts

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I’ve used it a lot through the years, but it remains one of my favorite quotes.

It was the day after the November general election in 1986. Frank White’s third campaign against Bill Clinton had proved a bust for the GOP with Clinton winning re-election easily.

White had used the colorful Louisiana native Darrell Glascock — the man who had helped Tommy Robinson get elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1984 — as his campaign manager. During that 1986 campaign, Glascock challenged Clinton to a drug test with White practically racing to give a sample first.

On the Wednesday after the election, the Arkansas Gazette sent a reporter to various campaign headquarters to write a story on what the day after is like for political types.

As he cleaned out his desk at White headquarters, Glascock was asked what his plans were.

He answered: “I bought a Cornish hen so I can have all of my friends over for dinner.”

For some on this day after the election, it’s Cornish hen time.

I’m glad I no longer work full time in politics. At my age, I find it much more pleasant to sit back, watch the action and comment, which is just what I did last night from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

Great job with the election coverage, guys. Channel 4 had reporters all over the state.

It was a long, busy day. I had done commentary on Channel 4’s morning show, arriving at 6:20 a.m. I had gone to Camden during the afternoon so I could host a dinner of business leaders and talk about our state’s fine private colleges and universities.

Driving back to Little Rock from Camden, I listened to election coverage on my car radio. First, I listened to the in-depth coverage from Patrick Thomas, Sandy Sanford and Mark Smith on KELD-FM out of El Dorado. Later, Grant Merrill and Jeremy Hutchinson kept me informed on KEWI-AM out of Benton.

Back to that dinner in Camden: On a picture-perfect night with the humidity low, we sat at the River Woods on the shady banks of the Ouachita River enjoying the feast that James Woods had prepared for us — fried catfish, chicken, grilled sea bass, grilled steaks, alligator sausage from New Orleans. River Woods is James’ private events center. If you ever have the chance to go to his Camden restaurant, Woods Place, do so.

These were well-read, intelligent people who are interested in current affairs. We talked about higher education as we enjoyed the feast. We talked about demographic changes in Arkansas. We talked about the economy. But, on primary election day, we talked very little about politics.

I grew up when we were still in the “tantamount to” era of Arkansas politics — winning the Democratic primary was tantamout to election since Republicans just weren’t much of a factor in our state.

As a boy with a deep, abiding interest in Arkansas politics, primary night was when I would beg my father to take me to the Clark County Courthouse to hear the chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee read the box-by-box returns.

“Okolona Box A . . .”

“Amity Box B . . .”

It was intoxicating.

When not at the courthouse, I would be glued to Channel 7, watching Steve Barnes and my fellow Arkadelphian Jim Ranchino. KATV news director Jim Pitcock would plan for months in advance. Channel 7 would begin its blanket coverage around 7 p.m. and stay on the air until well past midnight.

These days, the Little Rock television stations generally wait until 10 p.m. for election coverage.

It’s not that Arkansans no longer care about politics.

It’s that the Democratic primary is no longer tantamount to election.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that in many areas, winning the Republican primary might soon be tantamount to election.

The changes during the past several years have been nothing short of breathtaking. We’re living history. As I wrote here on the morning after the November 2010 general election, we’re living in a true two-party Arkansas for the first time in any of our lifetimes.

In at least a dozen of the counties in the 4th Congressional District, more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

We’re talking about the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas, for gosh sakes, once among the most reliable House districts in the country for Democrats.

Granted, population losses in south Arkansas through the decades have led to counties now being in the district far north and west of its traditional footprint in the piney woods.

Still, let’s go down to the heart of south Arkansas, where I spent much of the day Tuesday.

In Union County, 500 more people voted in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary. I’m not sure that has ever happened there.

Ouachita County — the place where Sen. John L. McClellan once practiced law and where Sen. David Pryor grew up — had 1,100 people vote in the Republican primary. There was a time — not so long ago — when no more than 50 people would have voted in a GOP primary in Ouachita County.

So let’s look ahead to November and then look even further ahead to 2014.

On the congressional side this November, Republican Reps. Steve Womack in the 3rd District and Tim Griffin in the 2nd District seem safe.

Some observers considered Republican Rick Crawford’s 2010 win in the 1st District — Crawford became the first Republican to represent the Delta in Congress since Reconstruction — a fluke. But there was little money raised and little enthusiasm generated by the three candidates in the Democratic primary. Now my old friend Clark Hall from Marvell and Scott Ellington from Jonesboro will beat up on each other for another three weeks in the Democratic runoff campaign while Crawford continues to raise money as only an incumbent can do.

Crawford is by no means out of the woods, but all the rating services in Washington now have that district rated as either leaning Republican or likely Republican.

Back down in the 4th District, Tom Cotton can continue to rake in funds while state Sen. Gene Jeffress and barrister Q. Byrum Hurst beat up on each other for another three weeks on the Democratic side. As was the case in the 1st District Democratic primary, there just didn’t seem to be much energy on the part of Democratic voters in the 4th District.

Regardless of who wins the Jeffress-Hurst race, Cotton will enter the fall campaign as the heavy favorite. He was impressive in winning his primary without a runoff against the organized, energetic Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia.

A former Democratic legislator — who understands Arkansas and its people — told me yesterday that he thinks Cotton is the next rising star in Arkansas politics. He predicted that Cotton will serve one term in Congress and then be elected governor in 2014.

I do know this: There will be far more interest in the 2014 primaries than there were in the 2012 primaries.

For one thing, Sen. Mark Pryor is up for re-election. If I had to guess now, I would say that Griffin will win the GOP Senate nomination to challenge Pryor.

With no clear front-runner in the race for governor, I expect crowded primaries on either side.

On the Republican side, you could see Cotton, Womack, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a business leader or two and maybe even an old warhorse like Asa Hutchinson or Jim Keet run for governor.

On the Democratic side, the attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, has in essence been running for governor since the day he was elected AG. Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter can put a bunch of his own money into the race. Surely there’s a legislator or two on the Democratic side who will run. Maybe even a past statewide candidate or two like a Bill Halter or a Shane Broadway will get in the race.

Consider the fact that this is the first race for governor of Arkansas since 1966 in which we’ll start with neither an incumbent nor a clear favorite.

Mike Beebe was an incumbent in 2010 and the favorite from the start in 2006.

Mike Huckabee was an incumbent in 2002 and 1998.

Jim Guy Tucker was an incumbent in 1994.

Bill Clinton was an incumbent in 1990, 1986 and 1984.

Frank White was an incumbent in 1982, and Clinton was an incumbent in 1980.

Clinton was the strong favorite going into the 1978 race.

David Pryor was an incumbent in 1976 and the clear favorite in the three-man 1974 Democratic primary that included Lt. Gov. Bob Riley (my neighbor from Ouachita Hills) and former Gov. Orval Faubus (whose time had passed).

Dale Bumpers was an incumbent in 1972, and Winthrop Rockefeller was an incumbent in 1970 and 1968.

You must go back to 1966 — almost half a century ago — to find a time when we had a race for governor with neither an established front-runner nor an incumbent. In 1966, Faubus decided not to seek a seventh two-year term. The Democrats nominated Justice Jim Johnson. Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus in 1964, ran again in ’66 and became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Back to this year for a moment.

Republicans certainly have a chance to earn a majority in one or both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. History in the making.

On the congressional front, if the GOP holds its current seats and picks up the 4th District, the Arkansas delegation in Washington will have gone from 5-1 Democratic at the end of 2010 to 5-1 Republican at the start of 2013.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, the pace of political change is amazing from a historical context. As I stated earlier, we’re living in a period that Arkansas historians will be discussing decades from now.

Enough politics for today. That Cornish hen is waiting on me for dinner.

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Ed Bethune’s life of adventure

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune has been making the rounds in recent months, talking about his book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.”

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on this site, but I can tell you that Bethune’s book is well worth the time you’ll invest in reading it.

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he was a “problem child” who often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock.

Bethune was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas, the thinking being that he would be easier to control in a smaller town. Bethune now says the move “saved my life.”

After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served for three years. He met the lady who would become his wife and later his most valuable campaign asset, Lana, when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Lana was the daughter of famous Arkansas Democrat state Capitol reporter George Douthit.

Ed was 23 and Lana was 21 when they married.

Lana’s painting, titled “The Snotgreen Sea,” adorns the cover of the book.

Ed Bethune went on to earn a business degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas. He served for four years as an FBI agent and then became a prosecuting attorney in Searcy.

He writes in vivid detail about being involved in Winthrop Rockefeller’s attempt to reform Arkansas politics in the 1960s.

How could anyone who loves Arkansas political history resist his account of a 1968 attempt to remove Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins from office?

Gov. Rockefeller had obtained a legal opinion that said Hawkins was not qualified to hold office. The governor’s aides asked Bethune to escort the new sheriff that WR had appointed, 83-year-old Ralph Childers, to Morrilton.

“By the time Childers took the oath of office in Little Rock, news of his appointment had already reached Conway County,” Bethune writes. “The governor received reports that Marlin’s supporters were gathering around the county courthouse in Morrilton. Some were armed, and they were saying to anyone who would listen that they were not going to let Ralph Childers serve as sheriff of Conway County.

“They intended to block any attempt by him to enter the courthouse office of Sheriff Hawkins. Mr. Childers was willing to go to Conway County, but everyone agreed he needed an escort to help him navigate his way through hostile crowds and make comments to the press explaining why he was sheriff and Marlin Hawkins was not.”

Childers and Bethune boarded a single-engine plane at Central Flying Service in Little Rock and landed at a small grass airfield west of Morrilton.

Bethune describes the scene they found in town: “By the time we got to the courthouse there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot, and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal the weapons. Many others were sitting in their cars and trucks, armed and ready.”

A young Steve Barnes was there to cover the story for KTHV-TV, Channel 11. It was getting late in the afternoon, and Barnes needed to file a story. He asked Bethune and Childers if they would go to the front door of the sheriff’s office and let him shoot some film.

As Bethune neared the sheriff’s office, a young officer jumped out with a sawed-off shotgun, stuck it into Bethune’s stomach and said: “Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.”

“The rookie cop was shaking and his voice was squeaky and shrill,” Bethune writes. “His jittery eyes, only a foot or so from mine, told the story. He was the one with the gun, but he was scared to death. As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Now, that’s good writing.

In 1972, Bethune was the Republican nominee for attorney general against Jim Guy Tucker.

“It was one thing to get rid of the Old Guard by electing Winthrop Rockefeller, but once Orval Faubus was gone, there was no compelling need to vote for Republican candidates,” Bethune writes. “If a living, breathing Democrat was on the ballot for state or local office in Arkansas in 1972, a Republican candidate for that office had no chance to win. Arkansas, a reliably Democrat state since Reconstruction, was not about to open the door for Republicans. Nevertheless, we needed candidates to fight the good fight.”

Bethune carried three counties — Pulaski, White and Searcy. Tucker carried the other 72.

Six years later, Bethune shocked the Arkansas political establishment when he upset Democrat Doug Brandon in the race for Congress in the 2nd District with 51.2 percent of the vote. Bethune carried only three of the nine counties in the district but piled up large margins in Pulaski, White and Cleburne counties.

Bethune served three terms in the House before making an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor in which the GOP candidate received 42.7 percent of the vote.

Bethune was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He returned to Washington after George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president when Lana was offered the job of social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle.

Ed Bethune quickly became known in the nation’s capital as the go-to lawyer for Republicans who found themselves in hot water — people like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

In June 1990, Ed and Lana Bethune set sail in Salute, their 31-foot sloop. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.

The sea had other ideas.

“It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise,” Bethune writes. “Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

Eventually, the couple was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision.

“We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

So what about the book’s unusual name?

“A jackhammer is easily the most annoying, distracting racket-making device known to man,” Bethune writes in the preface to the book. “It creates a noise level of 130 decibels — equal to a rock concert, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rock concerts occasionally produce a discernible melody. Jackhammers do not. Sometimes it takes such a racket to get our attention.”

The sailing trip in which Bethune almost perished got his attention. It forced him to reflect on his past and think about his future and how he practiced his faith.

Back to politics for a moment.

During a speech last month to the Political Animals Club, Bethune talked about what he described as two great upheavals in Arkansas politics. One happened in the 1960s. The other appears to be happening now.

“The battle to build a two-party system began in the 1960s when independents, Republicans and right-thinking Democrats coalesced to defeat the Old Guard machine of Orval Faubus,” he told those at the meeting. “That victory — the first great upheaval in Arkansas politics — cleared the way for a new generation of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans. For the first time since Reconstruction, women, African-Americans, thousands of good people got a chance to participate in government. It was the most important political development of the 20th century.

“Under Gov. Rockefeller’s leadership our prisons were reformed, corruption and illegal gambling were rooted out of Hot Springs, there was transparency in government and election laws were reformed. It was the death knell of the Old Guard and the beginning of the modern Republican Party of Arkansas. But those of us who became Republicans back then had a long road ahead of us.

“When I filed for Congress in 1978, there was not a single elected Republican official in the entire 2nd District of Arkansas — not even a constable or a justice of the peace. Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt was in office, but we had only one elected member in the entire Arkansas Legislature.

“Today, some 40 years later, Arkansans are shedding their long allegiance to the Democratic Party. The trend is undeniable. Imagine a graph of the past 40 years depicting Republican officeholders in red and Democratic officeholders in blue. The red line would be going up, up, up and the blue line would be going down, down, down.

“Since my election in 1978, Arkansans have elected hundreds of Republicans to local and county offices and scores of members to the Arkansas House and Senate. As we near the November election, Republicans are within a few votes of taking charge of one or both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years.”

Bethune returned to Arkansas from Washington in 2009, and finishing this book became his priority. It’s a captivating read.

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Remembering Rockefeller

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

I made the winding drive up Petit Jean Mountain on Arkansas Highway 154 last Friday, headed toward what would turn out to be a delightful lunch with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

I never drive up that mountain without thinking about Gov. Rockefeller, my favorite 20th century Arkansas figure.

As the 20th century wound to a close, I was asked by a Little Rock radio show host to list the top 20 events of the previous 100 years as measured by their effect on Arkansas politics.

I ranked the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School first, the 1966 election of Rockefeller as governor second and the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president third.

“What?” the host asked in amazement. “You rank Rockefeller’s election as governor ahead of Clinton’s election as president?”

I explained that without a Winthrop Rockefeller, a Bill Clinton would never have been possible. Neither would have a Dale Bumpers or a David Pryor. You see, Rockefeller’s election in 1966 and his re-election two years later forced the Democratic Party to move away from its segregationist past and make way for a new breed of Arkansas politician. The Jim Johnsons and Marion Cranks were out. The Bumpers and Pryors were in.

Time magazine published a lengthy profile of Rockefeller in December 1966, just weeks before he was sworn in as governor.

The story opened with the famous question and answer from “The Arkansas Traveler.”

“Whar’s this road go to?”

“I been livin’ here fer years ‘n’ I ain’t seen it go no place.”

The article then gave us this brutal assessment of the first five decades of the 20th century in Arkansas: “In a part of the world that had gone no place since the Civil War, the directionless road of vaudevillian fame was far more apt as a symbol of Arkansas’ dead-end economic and political condition than as a sampling of Ozark humor. For all its majestic forests and fertile bottomlands, its bountiful natural resources and the Mississippi on its eastern frontier, the state remained for long decades a kind of limboland.

“Arkansas has never been consistently Southern in temperament despite its historic and geographic ties to the Old Confederacy; though it is more Western in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never embraced the West’s expansionist, assimilative outlook. Instead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aimlessly insular, obdurately independent — and comically backward. As then-Gov. Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: ‘You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its people would be self-sufficient.’

“The trouble was — and is — that Arkansans have lived too long behind self-constructed walls of complacency, mediocrity and provincialism. Well into the 1950s, the state ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every index of progress, from literacy to average income to the number of dentists per capita. Though the Legislature in the ’20s dubbed Arkansas the Wonder State and later more modestly renamed it the Land of Opportunity, by the early ’40s the brightest opportunity for young people moving off the farms lay in a one-way ticket to another state. Those who managed to get a good education found little reward for their learning back home; a competent technician could ask higher wages within half a day’s bus ride in almost any direction. State government was hampered at every level by an anachronistic constitution enacted in 1874, which, as Arkansans point out, was ‘two years before Custer’s last stand.”’

If you think that assessment is tough, read on for what Time had to say about 1957: “Then, in 1957, came a great blow to Arkansas’ backwater mentality. Dwight Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers into Little Rock to resolve an unnecessary and uncharacteristic racial crisis over school integration. Overnight the ugly montage of shrieking segregationists, terrified Negro schoolchildren and the dyspeptic protestations of Gov. Orval Faubus became Arkansas’ image to the world. The psychological effect was traumatic. Having previously prided themselves on relatively good race relations, many Arkansans were deeply repelled by the picture that they presented in the unhappy aftermath of Little Rock. It took nearly a decade to germinate, but the seed of change was planted.”

Then, some bright spots.

Time reported: “In the years since, much has altered in Arkansas — all for the better. A groundswell of technological advance, already under way in the late ’50s, has progressed to the point where industry now plays a major role in the economy, population is rising rather than shrinking, about 50 percent of the state’s 2 million people now live in cities and towns and an estimated 30 percent of the population is accounted for by in-migration.

“For its economic and social transformation, Arkansas owes much to a transplanted Yankee whose surname — connoting vast wealth, liberal Republicanism and cosmopolitan interest — once seemed as alien to the state as fine champagne. Winthrop Rockefeller has not only devoted his time and fortune over the last 13 years to improving the quality of life in Arkansas. He has also succeeded almost singlehanded in renovating its political structure. His electoral victory in November was a historic event. He will become Arkansas’ first Republican governor since 1874.”

This New York native, who had arrived in our state in 1953 and helped transform it during the next two decades, made things possible that otherwise would have taken much longer.

What an unlikely savior.

He was good for Arkansas.

Arkansas, in turn, was good for WR.

Here’s how Time put it in late 1966: “Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. Indeed, his brothers David, 51, president of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nelson, 58, governor of New York, both use the same words to describe his incentives: ‘Win found himself in Arkansas.’ Adds David: ‘It was just what he wanted and needed.”’

David Rockefeller said his brother was “basically the nonconformist. He was rebellious against the stereotype of what we are.”

In a note to the three older brothers — John D. III, Nelson and Laurance — mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller once wrote: “It seems cruel to me that you big boys should make Winthrop the goat all the time. You know very well that the only way to help him is by being kind to him.”

Winthrop dropped out of Yale his junior year, the only one of the five boys not to finish college. He then worked as a roustabout in the Texas oilfields for 75 cents an hour.

He liked people. That included pretty women.

Bobo Sears came along when WR was 35.

Time noted: “Born Jievute Paulekiute in the Pennsylvania coal country, renamed Eva Paul, then Barbara Paul as a show business title, then Bobo by the chic set she moved up to, the comely blonde had been married to Richard Sears Jr., a well-to-do Bostonian who went into the Foreign Service after the war. After first meeting the onetime model and bit actress in a New York restaurant, Win Rockefeller burbled: ‘I saw her and I knew I was gone.”’

They were married at 14 minutes past midnight on Feb. 14, 1948. Their son, Winthrop Paul, was born seven months later. The couple was separated in 1950 and divorced in Reno in 1954 after Winthrop’s move to Arkansas.

Bobo was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. She was born in 1916 in Pennsylvania and grew up near the Chicago stockyards and later in Indiana following her parents’ divorce. She was named Miss Lithuania at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and went to New York to pursue an acting career. She was divorced from Sears in 1947 and married WR the following year.

Time reported in that 1966 profile of Rockefeller: “Of more lasting pain has been the separation from his only child, Winthrop Paul, now 18, who was also elected to office this fall — as president of his senior class at the Herringswell Manor School in England. Though young Win spends part of his holidays with his father, Bobo won custody of the boy and has had him in European schools for the past three years.”

Fortunately, Win Paul later would spend quality time with his father.

Like his father, Win Paul would die of cancer at far too young an age. It was the winter of 1973 when we lost Winthrop Rockefeller and the summer of 2006 when we lost Win Paul.

Win Paul’s mother, meanwhile, lived to age 91 and died May 19, 2008, here in Little Rock, where she had come to be near her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Win Paul said this in 2003 when discussing his father: “I know I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son. Dad’s greatest gift to me was not my last name but my first because with that name he left me a great heritage and at the same time an equally great challenge to follow his vision and shape my own, but always to serve, and do so with love.”

We’re fortunate the Rockefellers came our way.

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