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They say a politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. They might also say, less poetically, that a politician campaigns in his dreams and governs after waking.

Voters tend to value eloquence and vision in campaigns and competence and command in office.

Few politicians excel in both. Mike Huckabee could talk it better than do it. Asa Hutchinson can't much talk it but surely seems to be doing it. Mike Beebe came to office with great command of prose and then grew into poetic flourish. Bill Clinton was good enough at both to become president. Dale Bumpers was good enough at both to become statesman.

A candidate can run successfully on poetry alone only once, like Barack Obama. He won the second time because of a pretty good record, if less impressive than his poetry. Ronald Reagan won first for offering morning in America. He won second for seeming to deliver something of a new day.

Jimmy Carter won with a timely if simplistic poem promising he'd never lie to us. He lost because the prose he wrote in office was about a malaise.

Donald Trump, naturally, is the exception. His poetry was crude but effective and his prose is unwritten because he spends all his time tweeting and watching television.

It's nearly impossible to win running initially on prose. Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 by running with the credible prose that the other guy was nuts. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania went with the nut's ball-capped poetry about making America great again.

But this is about Little Rock's newly high-profile mayor's office, won last year by Frank Scott's soaring poetry about opportunity and harmony and unity in "our beloved city."

Scott bested a runoff opponent in Baker Kurrus who insisted on running on the hard truths of pedestrian prose that Scott is now inevitably confronting in office.

Scott--a preacher like Huckabee, I must note--campaigned on lofty words and objectives. Those objectives were more police and more professional behavior by them, a more racially serene and unified city, modern opportunity, stronger neighborhoods, a new form of government, even a new chief education officer who might lead the way for the city to take over a consolidated public-school district.

Now, five months past the poetry, Scott deals with Kurrus' futile campaign prose about what the city could not do, at least in the short term, because the budget had to be cut.

At the moment Scott is not talking much about vision. Instead he's finding it necessary to deny that he instructed his new personally selected police chief to fire a white officer over a shooting death of a black man in a case in which the local prosecutor has cleared the officer. He's fielding police-fraternity criticism of his new chief for not standing up for the officer.

It was Kurrus who won the police fraternity endorsement in the campaign. It was Kurrus who tempered his reaction with cautious prose when The Washington Post reported on abusive no-knock warrants by Little Rock police officers against drug suspects.

Scott's campaign poetry on no-knock warrants had been to call for a never-to-happen federal civil rights investigation of the police department that now criticizes his administration.

Scott hasn't talked much lately about adding to the budget with a chief education officer. He's been busier reacting to parks and recreation cuts including early discussion of closing the iconic midtown gem that is the money-losing War Memorial Park golf course.

What seems on the one hand to be a fiscal necessity--a plain declarative prose sentence--appears on the other to be an ironic poem inviting public-course golfers to look for unity and harmony by joining a country club.

Scott has been talking less about unity and harmony and vision than about why he felt it advisable to acquiesce to the police chief's recommendation that he move about the city with an expensive two-man security detail. It is a new detail taking two officers from the police force with which he finds himself at odds even as he remains committed to expanding that force.

I don't regret that I favored Scott in the runoff even as I knew Kurrus would run the city with a clearer knack for command and efficiency.

Little Rock was at a point that commanded generational and government change. The city was ready for, even desperate for, the soaring poetry Scott was writing. The city was not in a mood to hear a baby boomer recite fading-page prose about what it couldn't afford.

And, sometimes, the campaign poet can compose decent-enough prose. Obama did it. Reagan did it.

Mayor Scott has only lately begun to position himself at the keyboard to plow into budget numbers and other reference materials and confront a blank screen staring relentlessly at him.

This is his prose phase. Poetry, his more enjoyable subject, was last semester.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 05/14/2019

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Poetry, prose and politics


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Archived Comments

  • mozarky2
    May 14, 2019 at 5:16 a.m.

    "I don't regret that I favored Scott in the runoff even as I knew Kurrus would run the city with a clearer knack for command and efficiency".
    So, let me see if I've got this straight, Brummett. You chose the affirmative action hire over the candidate that you KNEW to be better qualified.
    And I can assure you, Brummett, the problem areas of Little Rock aren't much interested in poetry...

  • Waitjustaminute
    May 14, 2019 at 6:30 a.m.

    A good John Brummett column is like a day at the beach; overall, it's a pleasant experience, except for the sand that gets in your swimsuit and gives you a rash.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- -- - - - -
    Good insight into politics, and the poetry vs. prose observation is good. But poor John just can't bring himself to ever give a Republican President any credit: Reagan got re-elected by "seeming to deliver something." Only "seeming to," not actually accomplishing anything. And Trump's record (prose) "is unwritten because he spends all his time tweeting and watching television."
    Dang, if Trump would just get off of twitter and turn off the TV, maybe he could get something done; maybe ramp up the economy, or restore sanity to the federal judiciary. Or maybe he could do something about our NATO allies freeloading off of us, or stand up to China's horrible trade practices. Heck, maybe he could do all the above!
    I won't defend his twitter and TV habits, but I also won't pretend he doesn't have a record.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    But back to his main subject: Mayor Scott would do well to tape this column to his desk, and read it every morning.

  • Packman
    May 14, 2019 at 8:19 a.m.

    Hey Brummett - Nah, you're wrong. Scott didn't win because of his poetry. He won because he's black. That doesn't mean the guy won't do a good job or anything else. But let's be honest. He beat Baker Kurrus based on skin pigmentation, nothing more, nothing less.
    That's the problem with libs. Symbolism always trumps substance, and when the rubber meets the road (as in doing real stuff like managing employees and balancing a budget) the symbolism is all hat and no cattle.

  • mozarky2
    May 14, 2019 at 8:49 a.m.

    Packy, you're dealing with Brummett here: it's "all hat, no saddle".
    And, you'll notice in my 5:16 post that Brummett admitted he voted for Scott because of his race, even knowing Kurrus was the better candidate!

  • drs01
    May 14, 2019 at 9 a.m.

    Finally John (thank you) for writing this column. I'm tired of seeing so much idealistic crap.
    Little Rock is and has been in serious financial trouble for years. The sales tax increase of 2012 has not produced the revenue expected; The Scott Script document calls for a sales tax increase ($17 million), plus the renewal of the 3/8th existing sales tax passed in 2012 which has sunset of 10 years. And that's still not enough.
    What Little Rock needs, but will never get, is more contribution from the state to care for the infrastructure problems that being the state capital creates. Collecting a few cents from sales taxes is not sufficient. Also, we continue to improve our interstate highways to enable job commuters to come to work here then retreat to a perceived better life in the suburbs. We need a 1% earning tax to fix the potholes these folks create, and to pay for the emergency services we will provide if needed. This is reality.

  • mozarky2
    May 14, 2019 at 9:29 a.m.

    The folks who create those potholes are already paying a gas tax, drs. What more do you want?

  • mozarky2
    May 14, 2019 at 9:31 a.m.

    Hey! Here's an idea! Make Little Rock livable, and the LRSD attendable, and you just might get some of those pothole creators back!

  • RobertBolt
    May 14, 2019 at 9:55 a.m.

    Politicians know we vote based on our aspirations. Voting based on electability gives us election losers like Secretary Clinton, Senator Romney, and Senator McCain.

  • Waitjustaminute
    May 14, 2019 at 10:08 a.m.

    RobertBolt, correct. And Baker Kurris' problem was, you also don't win on "competence." Ask Michael Dukakis.

  • GeneralMac
    May 14, 2019 at 10:25 a.m.

    BOLTAR.....and voting IGNORING electability gives you Democrat candidates like George McGovern.

    ELECTORAL votes