Columns » John Brummett

A fate not quite as bad as prison for Lu Hardin

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There is no crime in being overly and transparently solicitous for the purposes of aggrandizement and personal political advancement. That's simply acute neediness, a common and benign human frailty. 

Wire fraud aside, acute neediness also is the greater defining essence of Lu Hardin.

His crime itself was but an "aberration," Hardin told a federal judge Monday, and I suspect that is, while no excuse, correct.

He should have done some brief time, not simply the probation and community service he got. That would have served the broader appearance and cause of justice. It is not unfair that he won't go to jail. It is unfair that others already are there.

But for his own part, the public humiliation that has happened to him is nearly as bad.

For three decades I've simply known no one more covetous than Hardin of the one thing he hasn't received now in years and that I always happened to be in a position to extend. That would be good press.

It gives you pause to know a man for 30 years and then watch him stand on the threshold of federal prison.

You remember when you met him. It was near dusk on a Saturday in 1982 and there was a street rally in Russellville for Bill Clinton. You liked him in spite of his lathering too unctuously his high regard for those articles you were writing in the newspaper about the gubernatorial campaign.

You remember in the mid-1990s when you saw him in the state Senate and he said he wanted to get you on the tennis court even though golf was his game and he hadn't played tennis in years. So you said fine. When you showed up and offered to pay the court fee for a guest who would be arriving momentarily, the man at the desk pointed to a fellow who had borrowed a racket and was already madly practicing serves, faulted ones.

You remember Lu's going on about how good you were, especially with that, uh, what-do-you-call-it: forehand? You weren't good except in comparison to the day's opponent. But the ever-ingratiating Lu's getting a chance to say you were — that apparently was the point of this event.

Along the way he began to gamble and to enjoy it too much, then to compile debts. Then he maneuvered and deceived to get early payment of a deferred compensation package as president of the University of Central Arkansas. Then he lied about it. 

The greater value in all this would be in considering broader lessons:

1. All of us are laden with human frailties. All of us must remain vigilant against the temptations of those weaknesses, whether of greed or flesh or drink or something else. Any of those, if indulged, could overpower everything good.

2. None of us is invisible or indispensable or above the rules, even as we bask in much laud and seeming comfort. Empires crumble. Insularity gets penetrated by the real world outside. College presidential fiefdoms vanish. One's ability to write himself a $300,000 check disappears, along with a law license, a political career and a reputation.

3. Higher education must be about higher education, not enrollment growth, enhanced institutional profile, personal political advancement, physical edifice or winning athletics. A college president's job ought to be to nurture learning, probably by staying out of its way. When they began calling UCA "Lu-CA," priorities were probably as amiss as identities.

Assuming he never feeds another slot machine, Hardin can be redeemed. He can become less needy and more serenely resigned to what he is. After one has endured front-page ignominy, a fate not quite as bad as prison for Lu Hardin, what would be the point of worrying anymore about what someone thought? When others don't like you, you need to start by liking yourself.

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