David Pryor's political career curved almost relentlessly upward. Now
74, Pryor began as a reform member of the state House of
Representatives, at a time when state government was machine-run, and
went on to be a U.S. congressman and governor while the civil rights
movement was transforming Southern politics. He finally made U.S.
senator, an office he held for 18 years and from which he retired in
1996. The seat is now filled by his son, Mark.
David Pryor was defeated once — when he ran for the Senate in 1972
against a long-term, well-connected incumbent, John L. McClellan. Two
years after his Senate loss, Pryor was elected governor. This excerpt
from his recently published autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment,” deals
with his decision to make a second Senate race.
In 1977, Senator McClellan addressed the Arkansas General Assembly. I
didn't know whether to attend and hear him or quietly retreat into my
[governor's] office downstairs. We had not spoken during the five years
since our fierce Senate battle. I felt it might create an awkward
situation if he saw me in the House chamber.
So I compromised. I called his Little Rock staff and invited him to
visit my office when he finished his address. He accepted my
invitation, and we had a cordial visit, drinking coffee and discussing
mutual hometown friends in Camden.
That was the last time I saw or spoke to Senator McClellan. He died
later that year, on Nov. 28, at his Riviera Apartments home in Little
Rock. He was 81. I made quick arrangements to visit his wife Norma at
their apartment the night of the funeral.
Exquisitely choreographed ahead of time, the meeting included detailed
steps for the way our talk would start and end. A state trooper would
drive me, and I would be ushered to a back room for our private talk.
As governor, it was up to me to fill the vacant Senate seat. One year
remained before the general election to permanently fill the position.
At a certain point in my conversation with Mrs. McClellan, I was to
offer the “McClellan seat” to her. She would express her thanks, but
turn it down.
That's not exactly the way things turned out. In the first place, I had
lived only two blocks from the McClellan home in Camden. Our
relationship with her, while never close, had always been cordial, even
through the heated 1972 campaign. Barbara and I had always called her
Despite her somewhat regal bearing, Norma McClellan was down to earth
and approachable on any subject we had ever discussed. That evening,
following the Senator's funeral earlier in the day, she could not have
been more gracious.
As we sat down in the small room, almost knee-to-knee, 15 or 20 friends
and family were milling about. She said, “David, would you be more
comfortable if this conversation were just between us? I can ask these
people to leave.”
I told her that suited me fine. She quickly stood up, asking everyone
to please go into the next room and out into the hall while the two of
Then we were alone. I began by telling her how sorry I was at the
Senator's death. I even suggested that five years earlier, in some
unfortunate way, I might have shortened his life, forcing him through
that rigorous re-election battle.
She stopped me there. “You didn't shorten his life at all,” she said.
“In fact, you added years to it. That campaign gave him new energy. He
was an old warrior, you know, and he loved recounting details of that
Then she reached out and took my hand. “I know what you're supposed to
say, and I know what I'm expected to say, too,” she explained. “And I
appreciate what you're about to suggest. But I'm through with politics,
and my plan is to move to North Carolina to be near my family. Thank
you for coming by to say hello, and give my love to Barbara.”
I received more than 70 viable names for replacing Senator McClellan.
They ranged from Wilbur Mills and Sid McMath to J.W. Fulbright, Oren
Harris, and just about every practicing lawyer in the state.
On December 9, I called Kaneaster Hodges, a Newport attorney and
long-time friend who had worked on my legislative team in 1975. A
licensed Methodist minister, he is still a prominent lawyer and farmer
in Jackson County. I said I wanted him to succeed Senator McClellan.
He came back with a raft of reasons for turning me down. He had a young
family, extensive farming operations, and a law practice. There was no
way he could pick up and move to Washington. I asked if he wanted to
deny his children the chance to say their father had served in the U.S.
Senate. Did he want to keep them from spending a year in the nation's
capitol, visiting the Smithsonian, and learning firsthand about the
world's greatest government? I asked him to think about it overnight.
The next morning, I called him back. He said he would do it. I made the
announcement that afternoon, and Kaneaster Hodges was sworn in the next
day in Washington. He quickly adapted to the Senate and was highly
respected for his work ethic, his humor, and his uncanny ability to
make lasting friends.
Meanwhile, Arkansas's political scene was bustling, an inevitable
result of Senator McClellan's death. In late '77, I invited Attorney
General Bill Clinton to drive with me to Hot Springs, where I would
speak to a tourism conference. For two hours we talked in the car,
discussing issues ranging from our views of Arkansas politics to our
plans for the future.
Our conversation carried no particular intensity, but I did sense an
air of personal sparring from both of us. Without mentioning it, we
both knew a Senate race loomed. Recent polls showed him in an even
match with Congressman Jim Guy Tucker, who represented Arkansas's
Second District. At the same time, my Senate-race polling numbers
appeared slightly healthier than theirs.
In all likelihood, I told him, I would run for the Senate, leaving the
governor's office wide open for someone like Arkansas's young attorney
general. He was only 31, hungry, and developing an extensive political
base. The governor's race would likely begin in a few weeks or months.
I told him I thought he would be the favorite.
“This is your chance,” I said. “You can become the state's youngest governor ever, and you can stay there for a long time.”
Several of my closest friends were growing wary of the young, ambitious
Clinton — a caution that continued in my camp for years. They felt it
inevitable that some day we would seek the same office.
For reasons I can't fully explain, this potential match-up never
concerned me. We shared too many of the same friends and similar
positions in the political center. I sensed a mutual respect so real
that only the most bizarre circumstances would pit one of us against
the other. In the course of time, that sense proved true. We never did
compete for office and remained friends.
On the other hand, Jim Guy Tucker, then 34, could some day become
serious competition. Smart, ambitious, and articulate, he had won the
1974 attorney general's race following a creditable record as
prosecuting attorney of Pulaski and Perry counties. We also had mutual
friends, including labor, teachers and the Arkansas Democratic Party's
progressive wing. This overlap proved true for central Arkansas and
many surrounding counties.
People often said that Tucker reminded them of a young John F. Kennedy,
square-jawed and with an infectious smile. In 1977, the national
Jaycees had named him one of the country's 10 outstanding young men. As
early as mid-November, an Arkansas Democrat columnist observed, “Jim
Guy Tucker is the most serious threat to Gov. David Pryor in a
potential Senate race.” A University of Arkansas poll showed him with a
10-point lead over me.
Congressman Ray Thornton, 49, loomed as another potential Senate
candidate. He had been my friend since we were students at the
University, when he ran successfully for student body president. I had
watched him campaign on the library steps, strumming a guitar, calling
himself “Cowboy Ray Thornton,” asking for our votes. He had gone to
Yale, and was then a second-year law student. He was also a tough
campaigner, a trait I clearly remembered as 1978 drew near.
Thornton was attorney general when I announced against Senator
McClellan in 1972. I had given him advance warning that I would leave
my Fourth Congressional District office and seek the Senate. He took
the early jump, campaigning to replace me and defeating Richard Arnold,
who was making his second run for the seat.
In Congress, Thornton distinguished himself on the House Judiciary
Committee, taking part in hearings and voting to impeach President
Richard Nixon. Stepping down from Judiciary, he took a seat on the
Agriculture Committee, strengthening his position back home.
Not only a formidable speaker and vote-getter, Ray Thornton also
possessed a powerful family connection: he was the nephew of power
broker “Witt” Stephens and his brother Jack. Ray's mother, Wilma
Stephens Thornton, was their sister. A wealthy family, they had always
remained close in their personal and political ties.
Strategically based in Grant County at the state's center, Ray could
run for any office he chose. He was blessed with talent, family, money,
By the end of 1977, Tucker and Thornton appeared on the verge of
announcing for the Senate. A race between a governor and two seated
congressmen would result in a political tornado.
The open Senate seat also created a domino effect among people wanting
to fill two congressional seats, an open governor's slot, and possibly
an attorney general vacancy. A stampede seemed imminent for one or two,
possibly four, vacant positions — unprecedented in Arkansas history.
We quietly began the Senate race January 13. Our first campaign finance
committee meeting took place that night, after we returned from
inspecting ice-storm damage at Lake Ouachita. James H. “Bum” Atkins, my
long-time friend, agreed to come on as finance chairman. The next day,
I attended a Nashville Chamber of Commerce banquet, followed by the
50th anniversary of Camden's paper mill. Then McGehee's “Farmers' Day”
and the engineers' banquet in Little Rock, where I introduced Oklahoma
Gov. David Boren. After that, Russellville, Lake Village, Van Buren,
Springdale, Malvern, Hot Springs and Conway.
Why was I putting myself through this killer schedule? Since my
earliest interest in politics, I had considered the U.S. Senate a
special place. Serving as a senator would be the best job in the world.
The best job for me, at any rate.
My unsuccessful attempt at defeating Senator McClellan had only made
the pursuit more attractive. Maybe I needed to redeem myself.
Opportunities to seek an open Senate seat come rarely, especially in
the South, where turnover has traditionally been low. I had to do it,
and I was ready. Of equal importance, Barbara was ready. Both of us
knew full well the gruesome schedule that lay ahead, and the stress it
would place on our lives.
Ray Thornton announced on January 10. Two days later he said that
Archie Schaffer, Sen. Dale Bumpers' nephew, would come on as his
campaign manager. Schaffer had directed all of his uncle's campaigns,
and served as his administrative assistant in both Little Rock and
Bumpers quickly made it clear: Schaffer's heading the Thornton campaign
in no way indicated Bumpers' preference. Still, the appointment sent
immediate notice of a real contest.
With Thornton definitely in the mix, I wanted to gain support from as
many Stephens people as possible, or at least to neutralize them. My
first strategic move was to secure Wayne Hampton's help. The state
representative from Stuttgart, he was a powerful legislator and a
supporter during my four years as governor.
Hampton was also a former member of both the Highway and the Game and
Fish Commissions, and long-time ally in Witt and Jack Stephens' banking
and investment businesses. In fact, they had placed Wayne on their
Farmers' State Bank board in Stuttgart. For years he had also ardently
supported Orval Faubus.
On Jan. 8, I spoke at the Gillett coon supper, an annual must for any
Arkansas politician planning to stay in office. Everyone shows up for
this first post-New Year's celebration. Just as it ended, I caught up
with Wayne on our way to the door. I asked for a quick visit before I
drove back to Little Rock. He suggested we meet in front of the
courthouse in half an hour. The state trooper pulled our car up next to
his, and Wayne got in the back seat with me. That night was country
dark, as Barbara would describe it.
Wayne liked being addressed directly and without protocol. “Wayne,” I
said, “I need your support in my race for the Senate. We've been off
and on in different camps, but I admire and respect you, and you've
been an ally since I've been governor. I need you.”
Wayne didn't hesitate. “Governor, there's a vacancy coming up on the
Game and Fish Commission. Are you committed to anyone for that
“Do you have somebody in mind?” I asked.
“Yes, my son Rick,” he said.
“I'm committed now,” I told him. “That appointment is his.”
I appointed Rick Hampton to the Commission on January 11, as a
replacement for Kaneaster Hodges, who had to resign when he went to the
Senate. Four days later, Wayne picked up the local paper and read he
had been dropped from the Farmers' State Bank board.
Politics, as they say, does make strange bedfellows. Sheriff Marlin
Hawkins became another early member of the Pryor campaign team. In
fact, he had supported me in the 1972 Senate race, and in 1978 he
proved even more determined. His total domination of Conway County
politics was legendary. “Go to every funeral in the county,” he would
advise young politicians. Another rule: “Don't burn your bridges; you
never know when you might need to cross back over the river.”
Sheriff Hawkins was a “Yellow Dog Democrat.” In 1972, he even came
close to carrying the county for George McGovern against Richard Nixon.
The Saturday night before the election, he called me and asked, “Do you
think I should bring in the county for McGovern?” The only reason he
didn't was that he feared Arkansas would go heavily for Nixon, and
Conway County would stand alone in the Democratic column. This might
hurt his county, so he called off his people the night before the
election. By a small margin, Conway County came in for Nixon.
Sheriff Hawkins didn't much believe in election reform. He said that
whatever it takes to elect Democrats to public office, that's where he
would end up. He had called me during the McClellan race to pledge his
support, much to my surprise. He was sure that Senator McClellan was
actually a Republican in Democrat's clothing. That's when he broke with
On February 18, the Pryor living room once again became the setting for
a political announcement. Only one question from the press still comes
“How will this Senate race differ from the one in 1972?”
"Why do you guys not care about your community? You’re tearing it down, not building it up, especially in the black community … It’s just a simple question — do you care?" one mother asked the superintendent. "Ma’am, I do care deeply about this district, and I do believe wholeheartedly we are making a better district every day," Poore replied.
When President-elect Trump announced he would, in a few days, force Congress to enact comprehensive health insurance for everyone, poor or rich, that would provide better and cheaper care than they've ever gotten, you had to wonder whether this guy is a miracle worker or a fool.
Robocalls -- recorded messages sent to thousands of phone numbers -- are a fact of life in political campaigns. The public doesn't like them much, judging by the gripes about them, but campaign managers and politicians still believe in their utility.