Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Political Animals

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

It was 1983, and James L. “Skip” Rutherford of Little Rock was suffering from political withdrawals.

Rutherford had left the staff of Sen. David Pryor and gone to work for Mack McLarty at Arkla.

“I missed seeing people who shared political interests, stories and conversations,” Rutherford says. “So I invited some of them to join me at the Coachman’s Inn for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about Orval Faubus, 1957 and Little Rock Central High School. We had such a good time that we agreed to meet again. This time, people brought their friends. The rest is history.”

Ah, the Coachman’s Inn.

It was located where the downtown Little Rock post office now stands and owned by the Stephens family. Due to the steady decline of the Marion Hotel, the Coachman’s had become the state capital’s prime political gathering spot.

I finished college and moved to Little Rock in 1981 to work in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat. In those days, we would put out a first state edition, a second state edition and a city edition.

Between editions, I often would make my way down East Capitol to have dinner at the Coachman’s. The hotel had great food — the mixed grill with a fried chicken breast, a small steak and a couple of fried shrimp was a favorite — and veteran waitresses who called you “honey.”

I would eat there several times a week. On many of those nights, Faubus would be there dining alone.

One day he said to me: “I still have that article you did on me for the Arkadelphia newspaper a few years ago.”

Faubus had gone to each courthouse in the state to sell his most recent book, and I had done a lengthy feature for the Daily Siftings Herald after his visit to the Clark County Courthouse. I was amazed he remembered it.

He invited me to sit down, which I did. After that first meal, we would occasionally have dinner together — a man who at one time had been one of the most recognizable figures in the nation who now dined alone except when dining with a kid fresh out of college with a strong interest in Arkansas politics.

But I digress (it’s my blog, so I guess I can digress if I wish).

Back in 1983, Rutherford had formed what’s now the Political Animals Club.

“In the beginning, the membership was limited to those who were not running or did not hold elective office,” he says. “In 1987, when I announced that I was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, I stepped down as chairman because I was running for office. Political Animals had grown from the Coachman’s to the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue by that time.”

Little Rock attorney George Jernigan took over as the second chairman of the Political Animals Club. He was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks, who in addition to practicing law is now the president of the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club. Russ and I share a love for both baseball and politics.

The fourth chairman of the organization was Bob Lyford, the senior vice president and general counsel for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. Lyford often held the breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the cooperative headquarters in southwest Little Rock.

In January 2007, Lyford handed over the reins to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the Clinton White House. Ronnel orchestrated the switch from breakfast to lunch meetings and took the club to the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion.

Ronnel also began the Political Animals Scholarship, an annual $3,000 college scholarship competition among public high school student body presidents in central Arkansas.

Late last year, I received a call from the Political Animals chairman. After four years, he was ready to step down. He said he had met with the previous chairmen. They had decided that I should be the sixth chairman in the history of the Political Animals Club.

Just what I needed — something else to do.

Yet how could I turn down the chairmanship of this unique organization whose meetings I had attended on a regular basis since moving back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in 1989?

So here I am the new chairman with my first meeting at the helm planned for next Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Governor’s Mansion at 11:30 a.m.

Our speakers will be Senate President Pro Tempore Paul Bookout of Jonesboro and House Speaker Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City. They will talk about the current legislative session.

The cost for lunch is $20 at the door. You can RSVP by sending an e-mail to If you’re not already on the e-mail list to receive the meeting notices, please ask to be added in a message to that same e-mail address.

Paul Bookout served in the House from 1999-2005. He was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2006 following the death of his father, former Senate President Pro Tempore Jerry Bookout. The Bookouts are the first father and son in the state’s history to serve as president pro tem. Jerry Bookout was one of the most popular legislators in Arkansas history, and his son is filling those big shoes well.

Speaker Moore hails from a Desha County family that has played a role in the state’s political arena for decades. He’s a lawyer and a farmer who had a long career in state government. His positions included director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and chairman of the Arkansas Transportation Commission. The speaker, who served in Vietnam, has a deep love for the Delta region of our state and has worked for years to find ways to revitalize the region.

Among the files handed over to me was a list of speakers dating back to late 1991.

The final four speakers of 1991 were (using the titles at the time) Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, governor’s chief of staff Bill Bowen, Clinton presidential campaign manager David Wilhelm and Sen. David Pryor.

The speakers for 1992 were a relatively unknown Baptist preacher who was about to run for the Senate (a fellow named Mike Huckabee), political columnist John Brummett, U.S. Rep. Ray Thornton, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Robert Starr, a young congressional candidate named Blanche Lambert, Sen. Dale Bumpers, a doctor from Great Britain named Norman Quick who talked about the British election system and finally a congressman-elect from Pine Bluff named Jay Dickey.

It was quite the eclectic group.

In both August 1993 and November 1994, the club heard from respected Arkansas journalist Steve Barnes and a Democrat-Gazette political editor named Rex Nelson. I’m sure Barnes was great. I don’t know about the other guy.

The beauty of the club is that it’s not a highly structured organization. There are no dues, and there is no board of directors. Anyone can join. There’s no staff. We just keep a list of those who want to receive the e-mail notices and send out those notices when meetings are coming up.

Still, with an e-mail list of more than 1,300 names, Skip Rutherford could never have dreamed how big this “little breakfast group” of his would become after almost three decades.

I hope to see some of you at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday.

Post to Twitter

Arkansas goes broke

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The New York Times on Sunday published an article with the headline “The State That Went Bust.”

In case you’re wondering, that state was Arkansas.

Here was the subhead: “In 1933, Arkansas went ‘plain, flat broke.’ The fallout — on roads, spending and image — lasted for decades.”

And here was how the article by Monica Davey put Arkansas’ history into context as states across the nation deal with huge budget deficits: “As the states dream up budget plans for a new year, some find themselves staring at deficits in the billions of dollars, vanishing federal stimulus funds, mounting health care costs, their own struggling cities and a canyon of underfunded pension liabilities ahead.

“That — meshed with images from the European debt crisis — has led some to begin fretting about the possibility, however remote, that a state, unable to pay its bills, might tumble into default. Some policymakers have begun quietly discussing whether states should be allowed to seek bankruptcy protection, a legal status granted to qualifying taxation districts, towns, cities and counties but not to entire states.

“Yet plenty of experts on municipal bonds and government finance — who view as alarmist the notion that a state may default on its obligations — note that it has been decades since any state actually defaulted on its bonds, or, in their view, even came close. As it happens, the most recent such collapse occurred during the Great Depression when Arkansas found itself, in the words of one state historian, ‘plain, flat broke.’ There are familiar threads then and now, not least of all the overlay of a national financial slump.”

It just so happened that I was having an unhealthy but delightful breakfast Monday morning with Justice Robert L. Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Justice Brown is a distinguished jurist and a great writer, having received his bachelor’s degree from the University of the South (Sewanee), his master’s degree from Columbia University and his law degree from the University of Virginia.

The University of Arkansas Press recently published his book “Defining Moments,” which explores how Arkansas governors since Sid McMath have acted in times of crisis. He explores McMath’s battles with the Dixiecrats, Francis Cherry’s attempts to label an opponent a Communist, Orval Faubus’ actions at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Winthrop Rockefeller’s reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dale Bumpers’ battles against political corruption, David Pryor’s fight against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Frank White’s endorsement of creationism, Bill Clinton’s education reforms, Jim Guy Tucker’s Medicaid reforms and Mike Huckabee’s education reforms.

Brown, who worked for both Bumpers and Tucker, lamented the fact that the Times article, while accurate in its depiction of Arkansas’ past, didn’t do enough to talk about how well the state currently stacks up against other states when it comes to fiscal issues.

The article did go this far: “For the record, Arkansas 2011 is not facing the level of economic misery of some other places. State officials are predicting a slight rise in revenue. Some leaders are talking of cutting the sales tax rate on groceries. And the state owes 2.6 percent of its spending — among the lowest in the country — to debt interest.

“After 1933, Arkansas officials eventually restructured their debt, under pressure from unhappy bondholders who had filed suit. But the fallout would leave its mark for years.”

Indeed, when I was working in the governor’s office, there was a great deal of internal opposition at the state Capitol to passing the massive bond issue in 1999 to rebuild our crumbling interstate highways. Since 1933, there had been a built-in aversion to going into debt.

Davey quoted two of my favorite Arkansas historians, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.

In an attempt to pull Arkansas out of the economic doldrums and Arkansans out of the mud, state government pushed road building efforts throughout the 1920s. Local road districts borrowed money. When a number of the districts ran into trouble paying off the debts, the state stepped in to help.

Then came the Great Flood of 1927.

Next came the Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression.

Add to that a drought that decimated the state’s cotton crop.

Davey wrote: “By some historians’ estimates, the state owed half its annual revenue to debt payments, and others say the payments were even higher. At one point, the state’s treasurer reported that Arkansas’ general revenue fund showed a balance of $4.62, Dr. Johnson said, and by 1933, Arkansas could not make its bond payments.”

Williams told the Times writer that 1933 “was a good lesson, one of those things that’s hard to learn about debt until it happens to you. But it also held back ambitions.”

Davey concluded: “Whatever political wind had rolled in with so much excitement (and borrowing) in the 1920s turned the other way. New leaders promised to retrench. They adopted rules that required more approval for any borrowing. One state leader even briefly entertained a plan to end the state’s support of education after eighth grade as one more way to save, Dr. Johnson said.

“In the eyes of John A. Dominick, a professor of banking and finance at the University of Arkansas, a series of financial struggles — including the experience of 1933 — has created an unwritten tenet that still ripples through the state’s culture: Never spend more than you have.”

Justice Brown and I share a propensity for focusing on the good things about our state since so many others focus on the negative. Justice Brown, in fact, has gone so far as to refuse to mention in his speeches our state’s supposed inferiority complex.

What we both regretted is that a national audience did not have a chance to read about the 1945 passage of one of the most masterful pieces of legislation in the state’s history, the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

During Gov. Ben Laney’s first year in office (the new governor from Magnolia became known as Businessman Ben), what’s now simply known as Revenue Stabilization was passed by the Legislature. The act requires the state to prioritize spending in categories. Category A includes the things that must be funded, Category B contains items that are not as high a priority and so on.

When state revenues fall short of projections, items in lower categories simply aren’t funded. In fiscal year 2010, for example, as the Great Recession battered states across the country, Arkansas funded 100 percent of Category A and just 54 percent of Category B.

This innovative model has prevented Arkansas from experiencing the problems of most other states. The model makes it relatively simple to adjust to changes in state revenues.

Think how much better off California would be with its own version of the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

Arkansas learned its lesson the hard way during the Great Depression.

“Perhaps the largest protection against a repeat of Arkansas 1933 is the simplest: states have straightforward — if not always politically palatable — ways to pay their obligations if problems arise,” Davey wrote. “They can raise taxes or cut spending. Arkansas had those options too, but its costs had grown monstrous (for a while, the state had among the highest per capita debt in the nation), and the prospect of new taxes seemed impossible at a moment when per capita income was among the lowest in the country and the state’s revenues were rapidly shriveling.”

During the current legislative session, you will hear a lot of complaining about how much tighter budgets are now than they were when Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007.

But look around the country at what other state legislatures are facing. In a national context, Arkansas shines as a model of fiscal responsibility and restraint.

Part of the credit for that must go to the governor and the legislators who worked at the state Capitol in 1945 during the waning days of World War II.

Post to Twitter

The day after: Some political thoughts

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

I rarely write about politics on this blog.

That sometimes comes as a surprise to those who know me since I’ve spent much of my career in politics and continue to love the political game.

There are several reasons why I don’t write about politics on a regular basis. For one thing, there are too many columnists, bloggers and other commentators already out there writing millions of words and using thousands of hours of valuable air time to express their views. Why add to that already crowded mix?

From the start, I was determined to make this blog something different — a few longer posts each week rather than multiple short posts, a focus on the things (from football to barbecue) that make this part of the country such a great place to live.

Another reason I don’t express my poltical views here is that I figure you really don’t care what I think. As we get older and wiser, we hopefully become a bit more humble. Who really cares what I think about health care reform, for instance? I won’t burden you with my political views.

All of that said, I do have some thoughts about what happened yesterday in Arkansas. Maybe I can add some perspective. I’m not one to exaggerate, but for the first time I believe we’re living in a true two-party state.

Arkansas politics traditionally have been personality based. And the Republicans had some personalities rise to the top through the years — a Winthrop Rockefeller here, a Mike Huckabee there. What happened yesterday, however, was different from anything that has occurred in my 51 years here. In a state where a lot of people have voted straight-party tickets for Democrats, we saw thousands of people vote straight-party tickets for Republicans.

That’s new.

Overnight, we’ve gone from five Democrats and one Republican in our congressional delegation to four Republicans and two Democrats.

We’ve gone from all seven statewide constitutional officers being Democrats to three of the seven being Republicans.

We’ve gone from one of the most heavily Democratic legislatures in the country to an Arkansas Legislature in which the Democrats will hold majorities of only about 55-45 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate. That puts Republicans in a position to capture majorities in both houses of the Legislature in the next one or two election cycles.

Sit back, take a deep breath and think of the enormity of all this.

As I ran my mouth last night in the KUAR-FM studio (thanks to those of you who tuned in), I realized I was witnessing history. I had never seen a Republican elected to Congress from the Delta of east Arkansas, for instance. And only once before had I ever watched a Republican declare victory in a U.S. Senate race in this state.

The scope of things didn’t really sink in, though, until this morning when I realized that Republicans had won every contested state Senate seat, had won the lieutenant governor’s office and had won the secretary of state’s office in addition to the land commissioner’s office.

That’s not to mention the fact that my home county — Clark County — had voted to go wet. Now there’s something I really never thought I would see.

Is this Arkansas? Well, yes. It’s the new Arkansas.

Will it be a better Arkansas? That’s yet to be determined.

Having worked in political campaigns and having worked in government, I can tell you that governing is a far different animal than running for office. Simply winning office doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful serving in office. If you don’t believe me, ask President Obama.

Arkansas Republicans must help govern now.

For my friends in both parties, I say this: Don’t ever abandon your principles. But leave the highly partisan rhetoric at the door now that the campaigns have ended and do what’s best for Arkansas. When I worked for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office, we had a hypothetical question we would ask ourselves in an attempt to remain grounded: “What does this mean for that couple eating breakfast this morning in Dermott?”

As a Republican administration dealing with a heavily Democratic Legislature, we never would have accomplished anything without reaching across party lines on a daily basis and forging compromises. Because we did that, Mike Huckabee will, I believe, be remembered as one of the most successful governors in Arkansas history.

The 2011 legislative session won’t be nearly as pleasant for Gov. Mike Beebe as the 2007 and 2009 sessions were. There’s a lot less money and a lot more Republicans. Given his many years as a legislator, though, I’m confident Beebe will be able to forge compromises. The strategies will have to change, but the goal of building a better Arkansas will remain the same. I have confidence in this governor.

Competition generally is a good thing. I suspect I was a better newspaperman, for example, when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat and having to compete daily against the Arkansas Gazette than I was when I worked for the monopoly Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

And I think competition will be a good thing in Arkansas politics as long as officeholders ask themselves each morning what they’re doing for that couple eating breakfast in Dermott (or Dell, Decatur or Doddridge to bring the other three corners of our state into the mix).

Back in the spring I wrote about how much I enjoy election nights. I’ve found that I enjoy the day after almost as much now — reading the stories, analyzing the returns, comparing notes with fellow political animals. Considering how dry it has been, I love watching the rain out my offfice window today. But I realize that the rainy day likely adds to the sadness of those candidates and campaign workers who were involved in losing efforts.

Twice I’ve worked full time in losing campaigns. That means I woke up the morning after without a job.

The first time was 1984 when I worked for Judy Petty, the Republican candidate in the 2nd Congressional District who lost to then-Democrat Tommy Robinson. I remember how much a call that next morning from Skip Rutherford meant to me. Skip, a Democrat but a friend first and foremost, said: “I’ve been there the morning after losing a campaign. You think nobody in the world cares about you. I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”

I have friends in both parties — people like Democrat Shane Broadway and Republican Beth Anne Rankin — who lost. Good friend Kelly Boyd appears to have lost his legislative race by fewer than 30 votes. To all of them, I say this: Thanks for putting your name out there and running. We need good people running for office, and you’re good people. I don’t have the guts to run. I’m glad you did.

I’m reminded of a story the Arkansas Gazette put together the day after the 1986 election. The reporter went to various campaign offices that Wednesday to see what people were doing and saying. Darrell Glascock had run Frank White’s third, final and worst campaign against Bill Clinton. White had been wiped out as the incumbent Clinton won with 64 percent of the vote.

Glascock was asked what he would do now.

He replied: “I’m going to buy a Cornish hen and have all my friends over for dinner.”

Some final thoughts on this rainy day when it finally feels like fall:

— I was truly saddened by state Sen. Joyce Elliott’s refusal to concede defeat when she came out shortly after 10 p.m. During my years at the state Capitol, I found Joyce to be an excellent legislator with whom to work. She’s smart, articulate and dedicated to those things in which she believes. On Tuesday night, she forgot her manners. It had been obvious since shortly after the polls closed (actually it had been obvious for weeks) that Tim Griffin would be the next congressman from the 2nd District. There’s a certain election night etiquette that should be followed in a civilized society. Admitting the obvious and congratulating your opponent is part of the process. Joyce made all the wrong moves at a time when she had a chance to be classy and graceful with a statewide television audience tuned in. I can understand why it’s easy for candidates to become a bit delusional; after all, they’ve invested more than anyone. But those advising Sen. Elliott should have forced the issue. The lasting impression for thousands of Arkansans will be of that graceless exit, and that’s unfortunate. Tim did exactly the right thing by coming out and declaring victory as soon as it became obvious that his opponent could not bring herself to say “congratulations.”

— The three best-run campaigns were those of Beebe, Griffin and John Boozman. They were disciplined and focused throughout, and focus is a tough thing to maintain in the rough and tumble of a campaign. As an old politico, my hat is off to those involved in each of those campaigns.

 — It appears Boozman will finish with about 58 percent of the vote. That means I can hold onto one of my few claims to fame. Gov. Huckabee gave me the honor of managing his 1998 campaign. We finished with almost 60 percent of the vote. I can still say I managed the campaign that received the highest percentage of the vote of any statewide GOP campaign in Arkansas history.

Enough politics. Back to football tomorrow.

Post to Twitter

Election coverage tonight on KUAR-FM, 89.1

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

On what promises to be a historic election night in Arkansas, I hope you will consider tuning in KUAR-FM, 89.1, in Little Rock beginning at 8 p.m.

Dr. Jay Barth of Hendrix College and I will provide what I hope will be the best election night media analysis you can find in this state on either radio or television.

Kelly MacNeil will anchor the coverage from the studio. Ron Breeding and Michael Hibblen, two of the most talented radio journalists in the country, will be reporting from the field.

If you want to know what’s going on around Arkansas, 89.1 FM is the place to be.

As the great Charles Osgood of CBS would say, I’ll see you on the radio.

Post to Twitter

Election Night

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I’ve always loved Election Night.

I capitalize “Election Night” because it’s an “event” for a political junkie like me — kind of like the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

On Tuesday evening, at the end of one of the most interesting primary seasons in years , I’ll be on KUAR-FM, 89.1, the NPR affiliate in Little Rock.

KUAR does an outstanding job covering Arkansas news. I’m honored to be a part of the station’s Election Night team. Ron Breeding, John Brummett and I will go live at 8 p.m. Tuesday and stay on the air as long as necessary. I hope you have a chance to tune in.

I’m glad I received the invitation to be in the KUAR studios. Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do if I had to sit at home on an Election Night. It has been a long time since I wasn’t busy on an Election Night.

My father wasn’t a political animal. Far from it. He always voted, but his interests were his business, his family, sports, hunting and fishing. I, however, had been bitten by the political bug. When I was a boy, he would answer my pleas and take me down to the Clark County Courthouse to listen to Mr. Jim Gooch, the chairman of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee, read the box-by-box returns.

“Amity Box A. . .

“Whelen Springs. . .

“Curtis. . .”

It was exciting, those Democratic primary nights. All of the action, of course, was in the Democratic primary. I only knew one Republican in Clark County when I was a boy. There were no local races in November.

The local races were where the action was. And there were some great names running for office in those days — Jack Daniels, Shine Duce, Edgar Ball.

Once in the courtroom of the 1899 courthouse, I would look up at the judge’s chair and see John Riggle sitting there, anchoring the live coverage on KVRC-AM, 1240. I remember thinking how much I would love to do that one of these days — sit in that big chair, knowing that people all over the county — from Gurdon to Alpine — were listening to your voice. That was the media big time, my friend.

By the spring of 1978, my senior year in high school, I was working at KVRC. I anchored Election Night coverage from the studio (which was situated in a pasture just south of town), and Mr. Riggle still handled things from the big chair down at the courthouse. That was the year of the titanic Democratic Senate primary that saw our governor (David Pryor) and two of the state’s four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (Ray Thornton in the 4th District and Jim Guy Tucker in the 2nd District) all going for the late John L. McClellan’s seat.

All the county returns were in on primary night, and Mr. Riggle had left the courthouse for home.

I, however, kept the station on the air as we waited to determine who would be in the Senate runoff against Gov. Pryor. We normally signed off at 11 p.m. but could stay on the air when necessary.

I dipped in and out of the coverage being supplied by the Arkansas Radio Network while also reading stories off The Associated Press wire.

Well after midnight, the phone in the studio rang.

It was Mr. Riggle.

“Why are you still on the air?” he asked.

“I was waiting to see whether it would be Thornton or Tucker in the runoff,” I answered.

“Go ahead and sign that mother goose off and get some sleep,” he ordered.

I did as I was told, signing off with these words: “Based on the latest returns I have available, it looks like it will be Pryor vs. Thornton in the runoff.”

I woke up the next morning to discover it was Pryor vs. Tucker.

Thirty-two years later, I serve on boards with both Sen. Pryor and Gov. Tucker. Yes, Arkansas is a small world.

By November 1978, I was a college freshman at Ouachita. My favorite course that first semester of college was taught by Jim Ranchino, who at the time was the state’s most noted political pollster and analyst in addition to being a political science professor. Those of us who were true political junkies would hang out in his office after class. As always, he would be spending Election Night on KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock with Steve Barnes. But Ranchino also had a private plane leased to take him after KATV had completed its coverage to what he said would be a victory party for an out-of-state campaign on which he was working.

“How do you know it will be a victory?” I asked him that morning.

“I’m working for them, aren’t I?” he replied with a smile.

I was back in the KVRC studio that Election Night when a bulletin printed out early in the evening on the AP wire. It read that Jim Ranchino had died of a massive heart attack while walking onto the set at KATV.

I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think the AP had made a huge mistake.

I called the KATV newsroom to confirm the report. The person who answered the phone said it was true.

I slowly hung up the phone. I turned on my microphone and, through my tears, read the sad news on KVRC, the station in the town that Jim Ranchino called home. The rest of that evening — the night Bill Clinton was first elected governor — was a bit of a blur.

In 1980, my childhood wish was granted. Mr. Riggle informed me that he had grown weary of anchoring the box-by-box returns from the courthouse. He asked me to handle the task. So during the primary and the general elections, someone other than John Riggle got to sit in the judge’s chair. It was me. And it was a thrill for a 20-year-old who had grown up spending election nights in that courtroom.

In November of that year, as the county results rolled in, we kept hearing that Clinton was in trouble. He wasn’t in trouble in reliably Democratic Clark County, of course. But statewide, it was a different story.

Surely this Republican named Frank White couldn’t beat Clinton.

Surely not.

It has been fun being back on the radio for Election Night in recent years. Live radio is great fun.

During the 2008 and 2006 elections, I was in the KARN studios as an Election Night analyst.

For the elections of 1996-2004, when I was on the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee, I was wherever the governor was on Election Night. If he were on the ballot, it meant being at the site of his election night party. In November 1998, when I was his campaign manager, that was the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. In 2002, it was the Clear Channel Metroplex.

Even though we knew we were going to win in 1998, Election Night was particularly maddening since I had served as the campaign manager. As campaign manager, you worry about everything. I had devoted eight months of my life to the project and was determined that we receive an overwhelming percentage of the vote. As it turns out, we finished with almost 60 percent, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas.

Huckabee wasn’t on the ballot in 2000 or 2004 but was in high demand for media interviews on those presidential election nights.

In November 2000, we operated from a suite at what was then the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody) since the Bush-Cheney party was downstairs. I answered the phone at one point, and it was Karl Rove. He was calling from Austin and asking for the governor. The television networks, skittish after having had to pull back on their initial projections that Al Gore had won Florida, would not yet call Arkansas. Huckabee assured Rove that Arkansas was firmly in the Bush camp. Without Arkansas’ six electoral votes, of course, Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Al Gore would have been elected president by carrying either Bill Clinton’s Arkansas or Gore’s home state of Tennessee. He carried neither.

On that wild night, I couldn’t pull myself away from the television. I finally left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to make the short drive home, where I continued to watch the vote count in Florida until time to go to work. I never went to bed that evening.

Four years later, we had a suite at the Holiday Inn Presidential in downtown Little Rock. I stayed there watching network coverage of the George Bush win over John Kerry until 4 a.m.

In 1992, 1994 and for the primary in 1996, I was tied to my desk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, writing the lead story in my job as political editor for the next day’s editions. Clinton’s election in November 1992, of course, remains the most memorable of those Election Nights.

Knowing that the next day’s front page would be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in Arkansas history, I decided to take the approach that The New York Times had taken when man first landed on the moon in 1969. The event was so momentous that there would be no need to embellish the lead paragraph.

John Noble Wilford began his July 21, 1969, story this way: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”

The story about the first Arkansan to ever be elected president should get straight to the point, I decided. Our executive editor agreed.

Thus the lead paragraph in the lead story of the Nov. 4, 1992, edition read: “Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States on Tuesday.”

More than 17 years after the fact, I still think it was the correct lead sentence.

In 1984 and 1990, I had worked on campaigns (both losing campaigns, as it turned out), so Election Night found me doing the ol’ “still waiting on more results” routine during radio and television interviews.

In 1988, as Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I made the trip to Houston to be at George H.W. Bush’s headquarters on the night he was elected president. Two years earlier, I had stayed in Washington, gathering comments on the 1986 midterm elections from both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

I’ve gone on too long. It’s just that the Election Night memories always come flooding back.

Please share your favorite Election Night memories.

And remember to vote Tuesday. Then, join Ron, John and me on 89.1 FM at 8 p.m. as the returns start coming in. We’ll have fun.

Post to Twitter

Wynne! Wynne!

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I was in Wynne on business Thursday. As I made the nice drive up Arkansas Highway 1, I was reminded of one of my favorite Arkansas political stories.

It’s the story of Gov. Win Rockefeller’s stop in Wynne near the end of a long day of campaigning.

After having been in a number of east Arkansas towns during the course of the day, the governor had lost track of where he was.

He launched into his stump speech.

“It is a pleasure to be here today in . . .”

He paused awkwardly, and his aides behind him on the podium began to whisper: “Wynne. Wynne.”

The governor started the speech again.

“It is a pleasure to be here today in . . .”

Again, an awkward pause.

And yet again the aides whispered, this time with a bit more urgency: “Wynne. Wynne.”

At that point, the governor whirled around and yelled at them: “I know what my name is. I want to know where I am.”

Like so many great Arkansas political stories, this one might be apocryphal. One former Rockefeller aide has promised me it is based on a true story, though perhaps embellished a bit through the years.

It’s a bit like the recounting of the Friday afternoon when a group of state Capitol reporters rushed into the office of Gov. Frank White to ask him about some new controversy.

According to one of the reporters who was there, White responded to their shouted questions: “It looks like we have opened up a box of Pandoras.”

Paul Greenberg later would begin using the term on a regular basis in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorials.

The by-then former governor called the newspaper one day to claim that he had never said it.

But Paul decided it was too good a term not to use occasionally. So the newspaper would assume Gov. White had said it. If he hadn’t, he should have.

With Govs. Rockefeller and White no longer still with us, we’re going to assume both stories are true.

What are your favorite Arkansas political stories?

Post to Twitter