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OPINION | REX NELSON: The pragmatists

by Rex Nelson | November 1, 2020 at 8:51 a.m.

In a lengthy profile of Winthrop Rockefeller published in December 1966, Time magazine painted what at times was a brutal portrait of Arkansas.

Playing off the legend of the Arkansas Traveler, the magazine noted: “In a part of the world that had gone noplace since the Civil War, the directionless road of vaudevillian fame was far more apt as a symbol of Arkansas’ dead-end economic and political condition than as a sampling of Ozark humor. For all its majestic forests and fertile bottomlands, its bountiful natural resources and the Mississippi on its eastern frontier, the state remained for long decades a kind of limboland.

“Arkansas has never been consistently Southern in temperament despite its historic and geographic ties to the Old Confederacy; though it is more Western in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never embraced the West’s expansionist, assimilative outlook.

“Instead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aimlessly insular, obdurately independent—and comically backward. As then-Gov. Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: ‘You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its people would be self-sufficient.’ The trouble was—and is—that Arkansans have lived too long behind self-constructed walls of complacency, mediocrity and provincialism.”

Time sent its reporters and photographers to Arkansas after Rockefeller defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Johnson the previous month. The man known as WR was about to become the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Few Arkansans could have realized at the time that the state was entering an era of pragmatic moderate governors, an era that has now lasted more than half a century.

“Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him,” the Time article stated. “Indeed, his brother, David, president of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nelson, 58, governor of New York, both use the same words to describe his incentives: ‘Win found himself in Arkansas.’ Adds David: ‘It was just what he wanted and needed.’”

The late John Ward was Rockefeller’s public relations director from 1964 until 1971 and managed Rockefeller’s successful 1968 re-election campaign against Democrat Marion Crank of Foreman. Ward was the author of the 1978 book “The Arkansas Rockefeller.”

“Arkansas in 1953 was a very different place than now, when Winthrop Rockefeller set down his suitcase at the Sam Peck Hotel in Little Rock determined to make this state his home,” Ward wrote. “That he did make it his home is manifestly evident in all the changes he wrought, and so many elements of that progress are attributable to him—race relations, industrial and economic development, a two-party system of government, education, prison reform—and a whole range of other changes and improvements that have made life better for his fellow citizens.

“He was frustrated but determined from the very beginning, starting with his assessment that Arkansas labored under ‘a vast inferiority complex.’ He vowed to change that perspective, talking directly to as many Arkansans as he could—from the most humble farmer to the highest industrialist. He did convince many Arkansans that there was a better way, that there was a world beyond the borders of the state that could be a rich source of learning and example for all who would tap into it.”

Ward noted it was Rockefeller who appointed Sonny Walker, a Black man, to direct the state’s Office of Economic Opportunity and thus “set a standard for enabling African Americans and other races to have a real chance at serving their fellow man in high positions.”

All in all, “his administration was progressive, and set in place a standard that was permanently unhitched from those that had preceded his and that paved the way for future progressive governors,” Ward wrote. “Upon leaving office, Rockefeller said he wanted historians to think of him as more than a political phenomenon. He wanted to be remembered as ‘a catalyst who hopefully served to excite in the hearts and minds of our people a desire to shape our own destiny.’”

By defeating Johnson in 1966 and Crank in 1968, Rockefeller forced what was then the state’s majority party to change. Four years removed from office, former six-term Gov. Orval Faubus thought the time was right to come out of political retirement and return to the Governor’s Mansion. But Faubus was stunned in the 1970 Democratic primary by an erudite lawyer from Charleston named Dale Bumpers, who went on to defeat Rockefeller in the fall.

Heavy Democratic majorities in the state House of Representatives and state Senate had blocked Rockefeller’s attempts at reform. Bumpers was able to push through such reforms during his four years as governor. Arkansas historians rank him as one of the two or three most effective governors in state history.

Bumpers moved to the U.S. Senate after two terms and was succeeded by folksy David Pryor from Camden, another pragmatist who was willing to buck the state’s powerful business interests from time to time. One example was Pryor’s opposition to the proposed Bell Foley Dam on the Strawberry River in north-central Arkansas.

“My attention didn’t focus only on the financial cost,” Pryor wrote in his book “A Pryor Commitment.”

“I was greatly concerned about the potential environmental damage to a pristine part of the state. I read every study published on the issue, talked to groups on both sides, and invited people with differing views to visit the state Capitol and express themselves. One raucous meeting flared for most of one day, divided almost equally between business interests favoring the dam and local citizens opposing it. Twice I rode in a National Guard helicopter over the river area, picturing in my mind its hills and gentle slopes submerged under water, surrounded by lines of gas stations, bait shops and billboards.”

Pryor’s opposition led to a flood of phone calls to the governor’s office. He loves to tell the story of answering the phone in the office late one night when he was the only one there. An angry woman demanded to speak to someone “no lower than the governor himself.” A weary Pryor replied: “Ma’am, there is no one lower than the governor himself.”

Pryor wrote about another call from an old man in that area of the state: “He said that in 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers had driven a steel pipe in his tomato patch and ordered him not to move it. They said one day they would survey for a dam, and the pipe would provide a reference point. For nearly 40 years, he had plowed around that pipe. Would it be all right now if he went out there and pulled that blankety-blank pipe out of the ground? I told him to go ahead.”

Pryor’s four years as governor were followed by 12 years of Democrat Bill Clinton, with the stretch interrupted by two years of Republican Frank White from 1981-83. Democrat Jim Guy Tucker moved up from lieutenant governor when Clinton headed to the White House after being elected president in 1992. Tucker was elected to a full term in 1994. His reign was cut short by the Whitewater investigation, meaning that Republican Mike Huckabee moved up from lieutenant governor in July 1996.

Huckabee was elected to four-year terms in 1998 and 2002, making him the third longest-serving governor behind Faubus and Clinton. Huckabee was followed by eight years of Democrat Mike Beebe, who was succeeded by current Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

On the national stage, Clinton’s rhetoric was further left than his governing style in Arkansas, and Huckabee’s rhetoric was further right. But they governed in the same pragmatic moderate style. So have Beebe and Hutchinson.

Will that pragmatism and moderation continue when we elect a new governor in 2022? The divisive presidential election comes to a merciful conclusion this week. We’ll now be able to focus on the 2022 race for governor, the most important Arkansas election since 1966.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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