In calling the horserace that is Arkansas politics over the past 30 years, the Arkansas Times has inevitably backed our share of winners, losers, and winners who turned out to be losers. However, nothing has quite prepared us for the strange performance of one of the ponies we put our money on almost 20 years ago: Mike Beebe. Now the attorney general with his eye (once again) on the governor's race in 2006, back in January 1987, when we first fingered him as a rising star with a real shot at the highest office in the land, Beebe was a four- year veteran of the state Senate - a "comer," as reporter Mike Trimble put it then - maybe even the next Bill Clinton.
"When asked if he's going to run for governor," Trimble wrote, "Beebe takes the obligatory swipe at trying to be coy, but finally succumbs to his own natural candor and self-confidence and says probably, one of these days, if he doesn't run for the United States Senate first. The most amazing thing about that fairly amazing statement is that when Mike Beebe says it, it doesn't sound offensive. Bill Clinton can speak 10 times as modestly and sound 20 times more conceited."
Hearing such hem-hawing from a man of such political skill, Beebe's "probably, one of these days," very likely went in one of Trimble's ears and out the other. Little did Trimble or anyone else expect his subject's sloth-like caution. It's a measure of that caution that even today, a man with nearly 25 years in political office, including that of the attorney general, Mike Beebe has never run opposed in any election.
For his part, Beebe says there was never any pull to run for anything higher than his position in the legislature. An incumbent was always sitting in the governor's chair he said, and what's more, he enjoyed his work in the Senate. "Frankly, there was never a strong tug on me to want to give up the Senate at the time," Beebe said. "I might well still be there is term limits hadn't forced me to make a decision to either get in or get out."
Arkansas political columnist John Brummett has followed Beebe's career since the beginning. He said that though Beebe was a great legislator and would make a "spectacular" governor, his untested mettle as a campaigner could prove to be his undoing if he runs in 2006. He has, after all, never campaigned for public office against an opponent, much less suffered the slings and arrows any Democratic candidate for the governor's chair will be forced to weather when Mike Huckabee vacates two years from now.
"He has leadership skills, he has pragmatic skills, he's a compromiser, he's persuasive in his impromptu comments at legislative hearings. He's very responsible," Brummett said. "What we don't know is what kind of political candidate he'll be, either in retail politics which is important in Arkansas, or in taking hits. He's never really been criticized much."
For now, however, Beebe said he is enjoying his time as attorney general, even more than his time in the Senate. While he said that anyone involved in politics thinks about higher positions from time to time, he is characteristically coy when it comes to putting his cards flat on the table when it comes to the governor's race. "I'm going to give you the standard answer," he said. "And the standard answer is: Right now, I want to do the best job I can at the job the people elected me to. We'll worry about that other stuff as it gets a little closer."
"Governor Beebe," the reporter opines, "does have a nice ring to it."
Beebe's laughter is just nervous enough that you get the idea it isn't the first time he's heard that line, maybe even from his own lips. He sounds like a teenager caught flexing his muscles in the bathroom mirror. "I'll let you say that," he says, laughing. "I don't want to say that."