Columns » John Brummett

Father and son reunion

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It was made with Rockefeller money by Rockefeller friends and beneficiaries, which is to say with expense unspared and a tone more adoring than journalistic. But the slick and engaging biographical documentary shown the other evening on state public television reminded me that the subject, the late Winthrop Rockefeller, was more than a transitional figure in Arkansas history. This New York refugee, governor of Arkansas from 1967 through 1970, was a monumental one. You don¹t see people of such courage, compassion and clarity of bold purpose in public life anymore. And this hard-drinking, chain-smoking and inarticulate man, ever-clumsy in the public arena, modernized Arkansas forever. Made as part of a 50-year commemoration of WR¹s fateful move to Arkansas, the documentary pointed out an irony. Rockefeller tried in the 1960s to build an Arkansas Republican Party to counter one-party Democratic machine rule. He failed. Only now are we seeing a viable Arkansas Republican Party, and it rises not in WR¹s image, not as a New York Republican-styled movement producing people like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki. It rises instead from the pews of evangelical churches. But what Rockefeller did accomplish was that he forced Arkansas Democrats to remake themselves from their racist past into moderates and progressives like Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Bill Clinton. The film also made me realize that WR¹s son, Win Paul, the current Republican lieutenant governor, will need to run for governor next year, as he intends, with political ambidexterity. By that I mean he¹ll need to run both on and from the legacy of a father he plainly and justifiably reveres. He¹ll need to embrace that legacy to be that rare Republican getting black votes in a general election. His daddy got 90 percent of the black votes in 1966, and there ought still to be a reservoir of good will for the name alone four decades alter. But to get to that general election, Win Paul will need to high-tail it from that legacy in a contested Republican primary, one dominated by white religious, cultural and economic conservatives. Those voters will worry about Win Paul¹s commitment to the pro-life movement and about a man whose father, on his way out of office after being defeated by Bumpers, commuted all the Death Row sentences on a pre-Christmas night in 1970. They¹ll worry that the father proposed a 12 percent tax rate on the highest incomes. Perhaps it was from concern over the film¹s celebrations of his father¹s liberalism that Win Paul made a point in the documentary of talking about his father¹s spirituality and favorite Bible verse. At any rate, these contemporary political considerations should not detract from such a powerful story: A billionaire from the most famous American family comes on a war buddy¹s invitation to backwater Arkansas, where he doesn¹t hide with his money, but observes the dire economic need of his new home and determines to do something about it. He accepts the invitation of a Democratic governor, Orval Faubus, to head industrial recruitment. He tries to underwrite political reform only to determine that he can only accomplish it by doing the last thing he wants to do, and the thing for which he is least suited ‹ running for governor himself. As governor, he sings ³We Shall Overcome² with blacks mourning the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and proclaims the death penalty immoral. The generosity of his estate blesses the state politically and culturally to this date. Of course you don¹t hold a father¹s sins against the son. But how do you handle it, exactly, when cynical political considerations suggest that a rightfully proud son must shy away from even portions of his father¹s greatness? That may prove one of the burning questions of Arkansas politics in 2006.

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