Even when engaged in spirited disagreement, as all legislators must from time to time, it was hard for Jerry Bookout to be unpleasant. The most amiable of men, he valued the good will of his colleagues more than the scoring of transient debating points. Few people involved in the Arkansas legislative process ever stayed on as good terms with as many people for as long a period of time as Bookout. Even reporters were friends.
He was a good and serious legislator too. In his early years, some thought him flighty, a new boy who seemed to enjoy the legislative milieu as much as the business of government, and who showed gumption in the advancement of only one cause, that of his alma mater, Arkansas State College at Jonesboro (soon to become, with Bookout’s help, Arkansas State University). But he grew into the legislator’s job. As time went by, his interests broadened — not just ASU now, but higher education, and not just higher ed, but public ed, and correctional institutions and all those huge issues the legislature confronts. He stayed after them for nearly 30 years, a “parttime legislator” who spent far more time on the state’s business than on his own. The state was better for it.
Bookout died last month, and surely some said that we won’t see his like again, which is painfully true. But we did get to see him at his peak. Had Arkansas had its three-terms- and-you’re-out law when Bookout was first elected to the legislature, we would not remember him so reverently as we do. To become a legendary public servant requires a deepening of character and a broadening of experience that does not happen quickly. It is also painfully true that we won’t see the likes of Jodie Mahony and Jay Bradford in the legislature again. Happily, they’re still with us in the flesh, but they are two more legislative giants who’ll be missing from the chambers next year, removed not by voters but a malicious term-limits law.
The term-limits law was devised and sold to credulous voters by elitists who don’t believe in democracy, who don’t think the people should choose their own leaders or are capable of doing so wisely. (To chooe unwisely, they believe, is to choose leaders unacceptable to the monied interests accustomed to running affairs in this low-income state.) Bookout, Bradford, Mahony — all were among those legislators too proud, too honest, too loyal to their state to be controlled by the special interests. With seniority, they achieved the influence to exert their independence. Now, we no sooner learn that a legislator has a talent for public service, than we must replace him or her, usually with someone worse. It’s a sorry system, and it ought to be changed.