Columns » Max Brantley

And a happy news year

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The week leading into New Year's is usually a wash-out in the news business. Government more or less shuts down until after the bowl games. Not this year.

First up was a partisan battle royal over next week's highway bond election. It is Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's program, make no mistake. Sensing sure defeat, Arkansas Republicans rushed to the head of the parade so as to take a little credit.

Oiled with national Republican funds, the state GOP filled the air with TV ads featuring friendly Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee, who urged voters to stick with their historic preference for pay-as-you-go highway improvements.

This was shadow government at its best, if a bit disingenuous. The vote isn't a partisan issue, but Huckabee's coming race for U.S. Senate is. The ad campaign provided him $85,000 worth of exposure that won't count against any Senate spending limits.

Silliness ran rampant. Democratic Chairman Bynum Gibson called the Huckabee ads a "shameful display of partisanship." There's nothing shameful about partisanship. If there was, presumably the state Democratic chairman wouldn't have hurried up to Little Rock to defend the Democratic governor's highway program.

Huckabee responded that he had no intention of getting into a name-calling contest. Funny thing. Nobody had hurled any offensive epithets until Huckabee, who plays the religion card better than Johnny Cochran plays the race card, accused Gibson of being a religious bigot for referring to Huckabee as "Reverend." Baptists don't call their preachers reverend. But the honorific is often used mistakenly by those who don't know better, including by many of the groups that proudly advertise Huckabee as a keynote speaker.

Then came Lloyd Stone, the new state Republican chairman, who said it was "shameless and unconscionable" for Governor Tucker to criticize Huckabee for attacking the highway program without offering an alternative. Really.

It's true that only Tucker's proposal is on the ballot. So alternatives are not immediately at issue. But shameless? The shame is that Huckabee avoided public leadership on the issue in its formative stages in the legislature. A few months ago, he even launched a tirade at me for little more than trying to get him to state his position on the highway bond issue.

Mike Huckabee could find himself governor someday. Then, he'll find how hard it is to be both for highways and against tax increases.

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Then there was Little Rock School Superintendent Henry Williams who was a) revealed to have been a property tax deadbeat; b) cursed Democrat-Gazette editors and threatened a mild-mannered photographer as he belatedly paid his tax bill; c) said he should never have taken the job, and d) gave a tepid "yes, but..." apology.

Correct answer: C.

Print headline: "And a Happy News Year" January 5, 1996.

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