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Moving on up 

Former senator and attorney general Mike Beebe has made the governorship look easy.

'EVERYTHING GOES THROUGH YOU': Beebe in the Senate, the center of attention as usual, around 2000. From left are Sens. Jon Fitch, David Malone, John Brown, Beebe.
  • 'EVERYTHING GOES THROUGH YOU': Beebe in the Senate, the center of attention as usual, around 2000. From left are Sens. Jon Fitch, David Malone, John Brown, Beebe.

So far, it appears the Beebe administration was worth waiting for.

Governor only a year and a half, Mike Beebe has reached goals that eluded his predecessors, spoken out on controversial issues when he could easily have remained silent, and maintained an amazingly high level of popularity through it all, even with people who didn't really expect to like him much. Somebody suggested he could be Governor for Life if the state constitution didn't impose a two-term limit.

These happy days were a long time getting here. As far back as 1987, when Beebe was a very junior state senator, the Arkansas Times asked “Is This the Next Bill Clinton?” and in all the election years since, followers of politics have discussed whether and when — most thought it a question of when — Mike Beebe would make his move for higher office.

As it turned out, Mike Beebe was most certainly not Bill Clinton in one regard. Clinton leapt up the political ladder as fast as he could go. Barely out of law school, he ran for Congress in a race his party didn't expect to win (and didn't) but in which he could gain political capital for later successful races (and did). He was attorney general at 30, the youngest governor in the nation, president at 46. Beebe was 60 when he took office last year, Arkansas's oldest first-term governor in 75 years.

Even after Clinton left the governor's office and made advancement possible for other Democrats, Beebe remained in the state Senate — a very prominent senator to people who knew state government, a man who made the Senate work, but still a state senator. Political junkies speculated that he lacked the famous fire in the belly successful politicians are supposed to possess, that he was afraid to face an opponent (he'd never had one, amazingly), that he'd used up all the potential a politician is allowed.

Perhaps, it was said, he's simply intimidated by Arkansas political history, which reflects that legislators who run for governor don't do well. Some of the thousands of votes that legislators cast are sure to be thrown back at them. And those unpopular votes may be all they're remembered for. Legislators are familiar to the media, the lobbyists and the hard-core fans of politics, but they are not well known to the general public, even if, like Beebe, they've also served a term as attorney general.

Beebe says now that it was other people, not him, who did most of the talking about his advancing to higher office. He might still be a senator today, he says, had not the voters imposed term limits in 1992.

 “I was content,” he says. “I had the best of both worlds. I had a real, satisfying job [as a highly successful lawyer], I was making money [in quantities perhaps especially gratifying to one who'd been a poor boy], but I also had a say in public policy. People talked to me about running for higher office, but I didn't fan the flames.” As a teen-ager, he'd thought about being a U.S. senator, and, like Clinton, he had a hero. The same one, in fact — John F. Kennedy. Pictures of President Kennedy adorn the governor's office.

“But as you grow older, your youthful ambition becomes tempered,” Beebe says, denying aspirations to higher office now. “I love where I am.”

 

The story of Beebe's impoverished childhood — born in a tarpaper shack, moving all over the country with his waitress mother, settling in Newport long enough to graduate from high school — was comprehensively told in the 2006 governor's race. With ambition, and assistance, young Beebe made it to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and then to the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville. He had a vague notion of becoming an FBI agent. While he was in law school, he got a summer job with a Searcy law firm. He liked the people in the office, he liked the town; after graduation, he joined the firm full time. This was a fateful decision.

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