Columns » Max Brantley

A failed coup, Arkansas style

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I'd had ample warning, but I couldn't credit it. It was too crazy to think Jim Guy Tucker would really renege on his promise to resign July 15.

But that was before Monday, banana republic day in Arkansas, when angry mobs surged through the Capitol.

The first hint came from Tucker himself in a meeting a couple of weeks ago. He told me, in the course of a discussion of his short-lived notion to hold a special legislative session, that he had acted too hastily in setting a resignation date following his felony convictions. His motions for acquittal awaited action of the federal judge. What if he were to resign and the judge were to make him an innocent man again? The possibility tormented him. Better, he said, if he had declared a disability and allowed Mike Huckabee to act as governor temporarily.

Tucker did not, in case you wonder, sound crazy. He emphasized that he didn't expect the judge to grant his motions. But Tucker's second thoughts apparently grew stronger last week, when his lawyers developed evidence that a sitting juror had, during his trial, married a man who had been denied clemency by the governor.

Tucker seized the new development, letting hope outweigh reason. When he sought counsel, most of his best advisers urged him to keep his word. But some underestimated the public fallout of a change of heart. Word began circulating Friday that a change was in the wind. Attorney General Winston Bryant even began researching the lawsuit he filed on the shocking official news Monday.

Ironically, if Tucker had declared a disability immediately after his conviction, he probably could have gotten away with it. Mike Huckabee would have had the power of government; most would have accepted as fair the idea that Tucker, governor in name only, should be given a few more weeks for his last-ditch motions. There would have been no substantive call for impeachment, no lawsuit for removal.

Incidentally, Huckabee would have been in a political bind. It would have been far more difficult for him to make the decision to leave the Senate race.

So there it is. Tucker did Huckabee a favor by promptly announcing his plans to resign. Then, with his bombshell inauguration interruptus, he helped make Huckabee a folk hero. Already riding a wave of good feeling, Huckabee was soothing, but forceful in the four-hour constitutional crisis, climaxed by the hour in which the two men claimed the governor's office.

Friends insist Tucker yielded when he realized his resistance imperiled the viability of the entire state Democratic Party. But the public will remember that, chronologically, Tucker folded after Huckabee's public vow to begin speedy impeachment proceedings

Much is to come. But at this minute, it's easy--if not altogether comforting to liberal souls--to picture a state governed 10 more years by a man from Hope.

Print headline: "A failed coup, Arkansas style" July 19, 1996.

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