It was about 6:45 a.m. on a weekday in August 1987 and I was interviewing Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in a suite at the then-Excelsior Hotel in downtown Little Rock.
I don’t remember anything he said, of course. But I do remember his aide stepping to the door and announcing, “Governor—the Political Animals await.”
That meant it was time to motor across Little Rock to the Hilton Inn on South University. Dukakis, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, would speak at 7 a.m. to the emerging legendary outfit calling itself the Political Animals Club.
Skip Rutherford, a Pryorite and Clintonite and consummate political animal, had helped found this group years before. And now it was inching toward the big time.
Here was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. He was in town because of the Arkansas-inclusive Super Tuesday Southern regional primary the next March. Arkansas, governed by his friend, Bill Clinton, offered Dukakis rare hope for a few delegates out of old Dixie.
I recall only that Dukakis addressed the club reservedly and efficiently and articulately and unremarkably. He revealed himself as he was, in other words.
Weeks later, the Arkansas favorite for the Democratic nomination, young Sen. Al Gore from neighboring Tennessee, came in to speak to the political animals. I remember only that he shouted.
I recall thinking that Democrats needed something in between.
They had something like that. He was living right there in Little Rock. He was the political animal to beat all political animals. And he would show everyone in 1992 how it was done.
Arkansas indeed is a land of political animals—uncommonly intense and talented ones, from Joe T. Robinson to John McClellan to Wilbur Mills to J. William Fulbright to Orval Faubus to Dale Bumpers to David Pryor to Bill Clinton to Tommy Robinson to Mike Huckabee to Mike Beebe.
They say it’s something in our water that produces political talent and political animals. But I think it’s our smallness, both in size and population, that renders our politics uncommonly personal. And I think has to do with our relative lack of entertainment opportunities, leading us to look to our politicians for amusement.
Historically we’ve had no opera, little ballet, limited symphony, no professional sports of note and reduced cinematic and musical opportunities. But we’ve had the politicians on the stump and coming out of tar-paper shacks.
And we’ve had the football Razorbacks. So we have obsessed thereon, on the politicians and the Hogs, sometimes beyond the level of optimum cultural healthiness.
Soon there would be a Political Animals Club in Fayetteville. For a while there was one in Fort Smith, but it faded. Actually there was one for a week or three in Pine Bluff.
Now there’s a new one in Jonesboro. It got off to as good a start as a club could possibly achieve with Asa Hutchinson as the speaker.
Forgive me the gratuitous shot. One thing about obsessive political animals is that they can get a little mean sometimes.
The grandfather of all these clubs, the flagship in Little Rock, assembled at noon last Wednesday in the sparkling meeting hall that Janet Huckabee got built on the back of the Governor’s Mansion.
It was the 30th anniversary celebration of the club. They tell me it was one of the most engaging and charming meetings ever.
They had to tell me about it because I had another obligation. So I was blissfully absent when Beebe, asked to rank himself among the state’s governors, remarked that it had been said of him—and of me, he added, speaking of gratuitousness—that we could strut sitting down.
I do not know why he would extend such a sideswipe to an absentee columnist who does not strut from any location.
But I must tell you that, in keeping with the rich tradition of Arkansas political animals, the line was not original to Beebe.
It was part of rich Arkansas political lore. The late Justice Jim Johnson said it of Dale Bumpers in the early 1970s.
I’m told I received another mention—from Rutherford, who credited me among others with a scheme in 1990 to encourage liberal Democrats to vote for Sheffield Nelson in the open Republican gubernatorial primary. Thus they would avail themselves of a low GOP turnout and take their first and best shot at eliminating Tommy Robinson and saving that state that menace as governor.
Nelson won the primary, then lost the general election.
I am proud to say that my liberal precinct in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock posted a record Republican primary turnout that year.
Bill Clinton nearly blew a gasket worrying that all his voters were going to abandon him for the Republican primary and leave him to get beat by Tom McRae in the Democratic primary.
Political animals can be so silly sometimes.
Is there greater relevance here—a point, perhaps?
I think so. It’s that the political-animal peculiarity and eccentricity of Arkansas is endangered.
Alas, our politicians aren’t so interesting anymore.
Our next governor, Mike Ross or Asa Hutchinson, won’t exactly scintillate. Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton are not powerful or magnetic personalities, to understate.
Our state politics have become more homogeneously Southern, strictly divided between strident Republicans and cowering Democrats.
That’s one reason I so liked the private-option solution to Medicaid expansion that got passed in the recent legislative session.
It was unique to us, a partisan blend and the work of a few talented people who might even be able—I couldn’t say—to strut while sitting.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Print Headline: Animal attractrion