by Max Brantley
Refreshing my memory, I realized that it had been 11 years since the former state representative had been in the news, and then in controversy. He was among those favored with a pardon in the waning hours of Bill Clinton's presidential administration in 2001. Clinton acted shortly after a final appearance as president before the Arkansas legislature, where several legislators implored him privately to pardon George. He'd served a stint of home detention on a 1997 federal mail fraud conviction for selling an irrigation system to the state prison system for more than he'd paid for it.
George, at the time of his 1997 plea, had served 28 years in the legislature and was one of its most powerful members as chair of the House Agriculture and Economic Development Committee and of the Legislative Council. Boisterous and thoroughly accessible (even to sometimes harsh journalist critics, I can testify), he celebrated the end of legislative sessions by donning overalls to signify that it was time to go back to his Yell County farm. But the farm boy was also a Hendrix-educated lawmaker with a school teaching background. If he became aligned with some of the state's powerful business lobbies — and he did — he also aligned with people like the progressive governor Dale Bumpers and, memorably in 1991, with liberal Sen. Vic Snyder to propose a constitutional amendment — only barely passed — to end the enshrinement of racial discrimination in the Arkansas Constitution.
For me, George's high mark came in 1981, when Arkansas passed and Gov. Frank White signed the creation science law, to mandate teaching of "creationism" in public schools to balance teaching about evolution (still sorely lacking in many public schools). George, a former biology and physics teacher, was among a tiny band of 18 House members who voted no on the law, eventually invalidated in a landmark federal court ruling. "It's the state meddling where it shouldn't," George said. "Teachers are not qualified to give equal time to teaching the theory according to Genesis."
The absence of term limits and fervent support from the people they represented sometimes allowed legislators the courage to speak against popular hysteria. Not always. But I wonder if creation science would muster as many as 18 "no" votes in today's House?
Cornwell Funeral Home in Danville will be handling arrangements.