Columns » John Brummett

Bill Gwatney’s moment



He's vibrant, in the prime of life, very close to the top of the world. Then he's dead.

Some crazed guy had a bad day and, like so many crazed guys, an extensive personal arsenal. Of all the places in the world, this ticking time bomb ventured for some inexplicable reason into state Democratic Party headquarters.

Bill Gwatney didn't spend a great deal of time there. He had car dealerships to oversee and golf to play. Any other day at a quarter of noon, he probably wouldn't have been there signing checks.

Sorry, sir. Chairman Gwatney is not here. May I leave him a note?

But he was there.

If only he'd started that vacation to Sea Island one day earlier.

Smart, funny, friendly, privileged, wealthy, acerbic, articulate, partisan, confident, tanned, well-attired, and ego-healthy, Bill Gwatney is suddenly gone, a few days short of his 49th birthday.

Images run through your mind.

There's the Don Henley concert at Alltel Arena. There's Gwatney on the front row, embracing his wife, swaying, eyes to the rafters, singing along. It's as if he's transported.

On the exit ramp he says, man, that's just the greatest song. He means that one about the desperado who needs to let somebody love him before it's too late.

There's Mike Beebe, leading state senator, telling with amusement about Gwatney's passing his first major bill as an emerging state senator in the early 1990s. It was a big one, presuming to force HMOs to contract with any willing medical provider.

“Gwatzilla,” as Beebe called him, had this palpable look of adrenaline and accomplishment as the victorious roll call was completed. Beebe recalls sensing that this Gwatzilla was going to be of the personality type to love legislating.

Years later, there's Senator Gwatney, always candidly disdainful of Mike Huckabee, decrying that two tax cuts are making their way through the legislature and that Huckabee says he'll take both, which the state can't afford. There's Gwatney putting in the “poison pill” amendment by which enactment of the second would void enactment of the first. Somebody has to be responsible around here, he says.

There's Gwatney, term-limited, sitting in the Joint Budget Committee late in a legislative session when the General Improvement Bill comes in, larded, as ever, with legislators' pork-barrel. He turns and says he defies you to find anything in the vast bill for him or his Jacksonville constituency. Term limits can be positively liberating, he says.

Gwatney would become maybe Beebe's second-best friend, after Morril Harriman.

“He was a unique individual,” Beebe told me Thursday morning. “He was what I called a true Kennedy Democrat. He was born rich, but he had a connection with, and he cared about, people who weren't. He'd joke about the good fortune of his birth. And, boy, he was glib, smart, good with the quip, quick on his feet ... You know he played Asa [Hutchinson] for me in our debate preparation, don't you? He was a lot tougher than Asa.”

Beebe, Gwatney, Harriman, Lu Hardin and a few others were known in their state Senate days by the name Nick Wilson had heaped on them out of envy and with scorn. They were the reform-minded Young Golfers. Indeed they were all moderately progressive in their politics. Indeed all could shoot in the 70s or low 80s.

These were bona fide male bonders and this was their time. One was governor. One was the governor's chief of staff. One was president of the University of Central Arkansas. One was chairman of the Democratic Party.

But the human journey takes tragic turns. On this day, the president of UCA was mired in controversy and lying in a hospital bed in Memphis after surgery for recurring cancer of the eye. The chairman of the Democratic Party was dead of gunshot wounds.

Sometimes your time doesn't turn out the way you thought or that it ought.

The moral is simply the tired cliche. The only time you have is right now. Make the most of it. No one can know the bizarre intersections that await.

Oh, and this: You better let somebody love you before it's too late.

Add a comment