Columns » Ernest Dumas

Can voters handle the truth?



The question of how much truth about their elected leaders people can stand gets debated afresh every election, although you would think that Bill Clinton and his girlfriends had answered it: quite a lot, even when the politician has tried to hide it.

Campaigns spend a lot of effort putting a good face on peccadilloes and trying to dull voters' memories of public records and ideas that may have been but are no longer in fashion. McCain, Obama, Hillary Clinton, Huckabee — it has been a central part of all their campaigns.

History affords us examples from time to time where the voters actually rewarded unpleasant truthfulness, or at least accepted it, and rested their faith in a higher principle than personal behavior, that being public ethics.

There must not be a starker example than the one recounted Saturday by three members of the brain trust of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller on Petit Jean Mountain. Someone declared this to be “WR Heritage Month” to celebrate what the 37th governor had wrought in the state that he adopted at midlife after fleeing New York, where his private life had become a fable, and on the occasion of the dedication of a gallery and theater at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the University of Arkansas arranged a conference on Rockefeller's ample political legacy. My job was to get U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele, Marion B. Burton and John Ward, who ran Rockefeller's four campaigns for governor and his executive operations, to talk candidly about how it was all done.

That was the '60s and, owing as much to Rockefeller as anything, the decade was as strange and transformational in Arkansas as it was nationally.

Strange because Rockefeller was the most unlikely politician ever to win high office in the South. Arkansas once had a one-legged governor, briefly a blind governor, even more briefly an insane governor and once a governor who had dashed down to Louisiana to join a KKK klavern to qualify himself for the job, but they all possessed native political skills. Rockefeller had none of those, and he carried the baggage of a reputation and habits developed in his salad days in the New York cafe society.

He was a night person and no matter how many morning appearances Eisele arranged for him he was going to start campaigning at noon. After a day of frenzied shuttling between Fourth of July picnics across the state that Eisele said he absolutely had to make, Rockefeller telephoned him at 3 in the morning and said he still had some time on his hands, where  to now?

But it was in the election of 1968, in which Rockefeller won a second term against all odds, where voters supplied a resounding testament to honesty and political courage.  

In the spring Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at Memphis and Southern cities were tinderboxes. Rockefeller did what no Southern politician dared to do in 1968. He organized a rally on the Capitol steps, clasped the hands of civil rights leaders and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, and vowed to use the instruments of government as best he could to overcome the terrible legacy of centuries of bigotry and injustice.

He summoned the legislature to town for an extraordinary session to undertake reforms that he thought vital but that ran across the grain of rural values: a law legalizing mixed drinks, organizing for a modern state constitution, a state minimum wage law and an overhaul of a prison system that had been something of a source of public pride because it was the most cheaply run in the nation.

Eisele recalled that after reading a State Police report on torture and extortion in the prisons, Rockefeller wanted to investigate for himself. On arriving at the Cummins Unit, which was largely run by the most dangerous prisoners under the old trusty system, Rockefeller's State Police escorts were relieved of their sidearms by murderers. Capt. Kenneth McKee, a criminal investigator, surrendered his gun to a con whom he had sent to prison. Rockefeller thought he had a clue about what the problem was.

Rockefeller didn't help his cause with the public by muttering to reporters that he would be glad when “those bastards” (the lawmakers) went home, which propelled legislators to the House well to protest the slur against their mamas. Then a senator who was hostile to Rockefeller told a reporter that the governor had “two or three drinks too many” before addressing the legislators. His press secretary said he had one drink, and the next day at a civic club meeting he backed up his aide by raising one finger when a Rotarian asked him how many drinks he had had.

He never tried to hide his enjoyment of good liquor, unless you count the time, recounted by Burton, that rumors reached Rockefeller during a  campaign that his home would be raided to see whether his reputed stash of wines and fine liqueurs might violate liquor laws. He had his liquor loaded onto a bob truck and parked on the street in downtown Little Rock for the campaign's duration.

But the riskiest of all was the campaign he intentionally devised. If re-elected, he said, he intended to make a vast investment in education, public health and corrections, which his foes translated for voters: much higher taxes. He would seek a 50 percent increase in aggregate state taxes, including a sharply graduated income tax that would soak rich people like him at the marginal rate of 12 percent while ending taxes on the meager wages of the poor.

No politician today would trust people with such reckless honesty, would he?

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