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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 05/14/2019
Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Poetry, prose and politics