LITTLE ROCK Mike Gauldin, the “unflappable” and incorrigibly witty press secretary for Bill Clinton during his years as Arkansas governor in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, died Thursday night after a battle with brain cancer, his friends said Friday.
He was 55.
Close buddies and colleagues remembered Gauldin’s dry and almost wicked sense of humor, his ability to remain cool under intense pressure, and his propensityto sketch caricatures as personal gifts.
Gauldin was among the “Friends of Bill” who landed government jobs in Washington after Clinton was elected president in 1992.
“Mike operated under stress like nobody else,” recalled Betsey Wright, who served as Gov. Clinton’s chief of staff for nine years.
“Without a whimper, he accepted whatever impossible task he was handed, turned out a superior product and delivered it with his trademark wit like a cherry on top,” Wright said.
President Clinton released a statement Friday evening on Gauldin calling him “a very good, very gifted manwith a wonderful sense of humor.”
“All along the way, he kept us laughing with his cartoons and hilarious observations on people and politics. He faced his last battle with courage and grace, and he continued to grow ‘wiser’ right to the end,’” Clinton wrote.
Kathy Van Laningham, who worked with Gauldin in the governor’s office, said he was “someone who - has your back.”
Van Laningham, along with her husband, first met Gauldin during the 1970s while the three were studying and working in Fayetteville. She was Clinton’s senior assistant for education from 1988 to 1992.
“He was so talented and so witty,” said Van Laningham, now vice provost for planning at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “And he was unflappable.”
In 1992, when Van Laningham left the governor’s office to take a job back in Fayetteville, Gauldin penned a caricature of her as a parting gift.
“It’s just me, between the Capitol dome on one side and the towers of Old Main on the other,” she said.
Her husband, Scott Van Laningham, said he worked with Gauldin in the late 1970s at the Springdale News - Gauldin as a copy editor, he as a reporter covering the Fayetteville city beat. Van Laningham now runsthe Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
The two men appeared together in roles during the local journalists’ “Gridiron” shows.
After Van Laningham covered Fayetteville’s “sewage disposal saga” and was preparing to leave for a job with the Arkansas Gazette, Gauldin’s mischievous tribute was an outhouse he sculpted from popsicle sticks.
Gauldin was born Nov. 13, 1954, in Mena, according to newspaper archives.
He was a U.S. Army information specialist from 1974-77. In 1981, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UA-Fayetteville.
When the U.S. Geological Survey hired him in September 2007 as a public affairs officer, it said his background included 10 years as a journalist and a cartoonist for several Arkansas newspapers in places that included Springdale and Russellville.
When he followed Clinton to Washington in 1992, he landed a job as a spokesman for the Interior Department.
After Clinton left office, Gauldin got into sculpting, among other things.
Kathy Van Laningham said one of his ventures was designing and copyrighting “Native American action figures” and selling them on an Internet store called Broken Spokes Mfg. According to the site, it includes a “Dog Soldier” line.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, said Gauldin “had such a great understanding of Arkansas politics that you knew that when you saw one of his cartoons, it wasn’t just something he had read in the news. It was something he lived and experienced.”
He was able to get his political cartoons published before and after his political career with Clinton.
Like the Van Laninghams, Bobby Roberts was among the tight-knit group of former Clinton aides and their friends who had annual reunions to keep in touch.
“I had kept up with Mike and his illness over the years,” said Roberts, now director of the Central Arkansas Library System.
“And Mike hadn’t been able to make it the last couple of years,” which Roberts figured was related to his health.
Lynda Dixon of Little Rock, Clinton’s gubernatorial personal secretary for 10 years, said Gauldin “had a real dry wit about him.”
“I loved Mike because he was so comfortable with himself,” said Dixon, who worked for Clinton for nearly 27 years all together until she retired in December 2009. “I mean, he didn’t put on airs for anybody. He was just Mike.” Information for this article was contributed by Bill Simmons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.