Columns » Bob Lancaster

Canvassed ham

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The legislature is in town, and in session once more, and that’s always occasion for celebrating. Let us pay our respects to the solons as we did recently to the library luminaries. Roll out the barrel. Bring forth the fatted calf and the canvassed hams. As Doc Alford said in his famous salute to the frogs, Campho Phenique! Times change. The legislators don’t meet in smoke-filled rooms anymore, and not as many of them whoremonger or pack. There aren’t the long lines for the matutinal B-12 injections, the traditional hangover remedy. There aren’t the harangues, or they’re not obligatory. There isn’t the Gar Hole wheeler-dealery. Seniority don’t mean jack now. Newcomers’ arms aren’t twisted into pretzels — because everybody is a newcomer, or a relative newcomer. You might go whole weeks now without hearing the story of the scorpion and the fox. One thing that hasn’t changed about the legislature is that the idiots still get the ink. This is not as bad as it sometimes seems. It’s one of the small costs of democratic government. Dictatorships with their grim assemblies aren’t bothered with clowns and yahoos performing in the speaker wells. The high jinks and tomfoolery are a tradition in Arkansas that goes back to the territorial period. Back then, the assembled honorables sometimes murdered one another with large knives over blatherskite. They fought duels and caned one another. The violence was an embarrassment but it seemed to have had a sobering effect. The shenanigans got to be a more serious matter later on. The morons held fast to their conspicuousness from opening gavel to sine die. In living memory the phenomenon has often been merely laughable but sometimes not. There was a bill once to outlaw cavorting in the back seats of automobiles at drive-in picture shows. There was a bill to tax and regulate pedicures. There was another one to make whuppings with a leather strap legal for convicts who looked at a field warden the wrong way, younguns in school, uppity women, squirrel dogs that refuse to tree and mules. I have personal memory of the bill back in segregation days to prohibit any and all forms of outside agitation by any and all manner of outside agitators. As I recall it, outside agitators were defined in this masterpiece as troublemakers or would-be troublemakers coming into a “situation” from another region, another state, another county, another part of the same country, the other side of town, or from “over yonder somewhere.” Outside agitation was defined as advocating, asserting, suggesting, or hinting that Negro people were equal with, or deserved equality with, people of another color, “even Japs, Communists, Mexicans, and so-called people like that.” This was one of the milder legislative offerings of the nyctotropic middle Faubusian period, too. In recent times, the legislative follies have been less poisonous if no less noxious, concerned less with race and speech and more with the proper alignment and functioning of genitalia and with promoting if not yet quite compelling religious conformity. A bill to make “family values” the official values of the state of Arkansas is a pretty safe prediction for the ’05 legislature. Another thing that doesn’t change about the legislature is the claque that would have you believe that they and they alone know what’s really going on “out there.” They know who’s pulling the strings. They know who’s greasing the skids. They know what’s in legislators’ black hearts and small minds. Some of these know-it-alls are acquaintances of mine. Including old geezers and old bastards who sit around coffee shops, where they obtain their insights and scuttlebutt. Also including the talk-radio blowhards and the Mensa candidates who listen to their programs and phone in. I don’t know why anyone would listen to such people. I don’t know why they would listen to themselves, or to each other. You’d think the still small voice would finally drive them insane. Anyway, anything they say, at least out loud, you can safely and confidently believe the opposite. The best policy is to regard them as magpies, and proceed accordingly, but it’s all right if on extremely rare occasions you can’t resist inviting one of them to shut up or cram it or what the vice president told Sen. Leahy. The fact is, the legislative mind is unreadable, unfathomable, in these anarchical times, and nobody knows what’s going on out there until it’s too late. Well, Ernest Dumas always knows, our one great sage of the epoch, but also our great Cassandra, doomed to perennial disregard and unheeding. This would be a great state if it had listened to Dumas all these years. There used to be some legislators too who had an inkling — I could tell you names but you wouldn’t believe me, either — but term limits made sure there were no longer knowledgeable members of the General Assembly, just as the Democrat winning the newspaper war insured cluelessness among the generality for the foreseeable future.

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