Favorite

Can voters handle the truth? 

The question of how much truth about their elected leaders people can stand gets debated afresh every election, although you would think that Bill Clinton and his girlfriends had answered it: quite a lot, even when the politician has tried to hide it.

Campaigns spend a lot of effort putting a good face on peccadilloes and trying to dull voters' memories of public records and ideas that may have been but are no longer in fashion. McCain, Obama, Hillary Clinton, Huckabee — it has been a central part of all their campaigns.

History affords us examples from time to time where the voters actually rewarded unpleasant truthfulness, or at least accepted it, and rested their faith in a higher principle than personal behavior, that being public ethics.

There must not be a starker example than the one recounted Saturday by three members of the brain trust of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller on Petit Jean Mountain. Someone declared this to be “WR Heritage Month” to celebrate what the 37th governor had wrought in the state that he adopted at midlife after fleeing New York, where his private life had become a fable, and on the occasion of the dedication of a gallery and theater at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the University of Arkansas arranged a conference on Rockefeller's ample political legacy. My job was to get U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele, Marion B. Burton and John Ward, who ran Rockefeller's four campaigns for governor and his executive operations, to talk candidly about how it was all done.

That was the '60s and, owing as much to Rockefeller as anything, the decade was as strange and transformational in Arkansas as it was nationally.

Strange because Rockefeller was the most unlikely politician ever to win high office in the South. Arkansas once had a one-legged governor, briefly a blind governor, even more briefly an insane governor and once a governor who had dashed down to Louisiana to join a KKK klavern to qualify himself for the job, but they all possessed native political skills. Rockefeller had none of those, and he carried the baggage of a reputation and habits developed in his salad days in the New York cafe society.

He was a night person and no matter how many morning appearances Eisele arranged for him he was going to start campaigning at noon. After a day of frenzied shuttling between Fourth of July picnics across the state that Eisele said he absolutely had to make, Rockefeller telephoned him at 3 in the morning and said he still had some time on his hands, where  to now?

But it was in the election of 1968, in which Rockefeller won a second term against all odds, where voters supplied a resounding testament to honesty and political courage.  

In the spring Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at Memphis and Southern cities were tinderboxes. Rockefeller did what no Southern politician dared to do in 1968. He organized a rally on the Capitol steps, clasped the hands of civil rights leaders and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, and vowed to use the instruments of government as best he could to overcome the terrible legacy of centuries of bigotry and injustice.

He summoned the legislature to town for an extraordinary session to undertake reforms that he thought vital but that ran across the grain of rural values: a law legalizing mixed drinks, organizing for a modern state constitution, a state minimum wage law and an overhaul of a prison system that had been something of a source of public pride because it was the most cheaply run in the nation.

Eisele recalled that after reading a State Police report on torture and extortion in the prisons, Rockefeller wanted to investigate for himself. On arriving at the Cummins Unit, which was largely run by the most dangerous prisoners under the old trusty system, Rockefeller's State Police escorts were relieved of their sidearms by murderers. Capt. Kenneth McKee, a criminal investigator, surrendered his gun to a con whom he had sent to prison. Rockefeller thought he had a clue about what the problem was.

Rockefeller didn't help his cause with the public by muttering to reporters that he would be glad when “those bastards” (the lawmakers) went home, which propelled legislators to the House well to protest the slur against their mamas. Then a senator who was hostile to Rockefeller told a reporter that the governor had “two or three drinks too many” before addressing the legislators. His press secretary said he had one drink, and the next day at a civic club meeting he backed up his aide by raising one finger when a Rotarian asked him how many drinks he had had.

He never tried to hide his enjoyment of good liquor, unless you count the time, recounted by Burton, that rumors reached Rockefeller during a  campaign that his home would be raided to see whether his reputed stash of wines and fine liqueurs might violate liquor laws. He had his liquor loaded onto a bob truck and parked on the street in downtown Little Rock for the campaign's duration.

But the riskiest of all was the campaign he intentionally devised. If re-elected, he said, he intended to make a vast investment in education, public health and corrections, which his foes translated for voters: much higher taxes. He would seek a 50 percent increase in aggregate state taxes, including a sharply graduated income tax that would soak rich people like him at the marginal rate of 12 percent while ending taxes on the meager wages of the poor.

No politician today would trust people with such reckless honesty, would he?

Favorite

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ernest Dumas

  • Sex and Trump

    No one, least of all Donald Trump, should be surprised when sex puts him in mortal jeopardy, which seemed to be the case last week when his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to violating the law by arranging $280,000 in hush payments to a porn actress and a Playboy model who were prepared to tell voters about having sex with him.
    • Dec 13, 2018
  • A decent man

    The beatification of George H.W. Bush, which even the current president signaled was OK, would have surprised the 41st president, who seemed to have accepted the public's verdict that, although a waffler, he was a decent man who did his best and didn't do any harm to the people of the country or the world with whose well-being he was entrusted for a time.
    • Dec 6, 2018
  • Prelude to war

    President Trump's casual disinterest in the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia's leaders, a crime he once abhorred, may be only the final repudiation of America's ancient obedience to human rights, but what if it is much more? What if it is a prelude to war?
    • Nov 29, 2018
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Along the civil rights trail

    A convergence of events in recent days signaled again how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in civil rights.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • The Oval outhouse

    One thing all Americans finally can agree upon is that public discourse has coarsened irretrievably in the era of Donald Trump and largely at his instance.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • Shrugging off sulfides

    The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported a shocker on its front page Sunday. The rotten-egg odor from the Koch brothers' sprawling paper plant at Crossett is still making people sick, but the state's pollution control agency is unaware of the problem.
    • Mar 29, 2018

Latest in Ernest Dumas

  • Sex and Trump

    No one, least of all Donald Trump, should be surprised when sex puts him in mortal jeopardy, which seemed to be the case last week when his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to violating the law by arranging $280,000 in hush payments to a porn actress and a Playboy model who were prepared to tell voters about having sex with him.
    • Dec 13, 2018
  • A decent man

    The beatification of George H.W. Bush, which even the current president signaled was OK, would have surprised the 41st president, who seemed to have accepted the public's verdict that, although a waffler, he was a decent man who did his best and didn't do any harm to the people of the country or the world with whose well-being he was entrusted for a time.
    • Dec 6, 2018
  • Prelude to war

    President Trump's casual disinterest in the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia's leaders, a crime he once abhorred, may be only the final repudiation of America's ancient obedience to human rights, but what if it is much more? What if it is a prelude to war?
    • Nov 29, 2018
  • More »

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: No leash

    • I used to believe I wasn't a cat person, till I had my first cat…

    • on December 18, 2018
  • Re: No leash

    • I once had a cat -- Earl was his name -- who loved to ride…

    • on December 17, 2018
  • Re: Beware of 'unity'

    • I like this opinion piece of yours published on my 71st birthday. My best friend…

    • on December 17, 2018
 

© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation