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.