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Going after ‘the best job in the world’

A Senate seat was open; David Pryor was ready.


TWO LEGENDS: John McClellan and David Pryor.
  • TWO LEGENDS: John McClellan and David Pryor.

David Pryor's political career curved almost relentlessly upward. Now 74, Pryor began as a reform member of the state House of Representatives, at a time when state government was machine-run, and went on to be a U.S. congressman and governor while the civil rights movement was transforming Southern politics. He finally made U.S. senator, an office he held for 18 years and from which he retired in 1996. The seat is now filled by his son, Mark.

David Pryor was defeated once — when he ran for the Senate in 1972 against a long-term, well-connected incumbent, John L. McClellan. Two years after his Senate loss, Pryor was elected governor. This excerpt from his recently published autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment,” deals with his decision to make a second Senate race.

In 1977, Senator McClellan addressed the Arkansas General Assembly. I didn't know whether to attend and hear him or quietly retreat into my [governor's] office downstairs. We had not spoken during the five years since our fierce Senate battle. I felt it might create an awkward situation if he saw me in the House chamber.

So I compromised. I called his Little Rock staff and invited him to visit my office when he finished his address. He accepted my invitation, and we had a cordial visit, drinking coffee and discussing mutual hometown friends in Camden.

That was the last time I saw or spoke to Senator McClellan. He died later that year, on Nov. 28, at his Riviera Apartments home in Little Rock. He was 81. I made quick arrangements to visit his wife Norma at their apartment the night of the funeral.

Exquisitely choreographed ahead of time, the meeting included detailed steps for the way our talk would start and end. A state trooper would drive me, and I would be ushered to a back room for our private talk. As governor, it was up to me to fill the vacant Senate seat. One year remained before the general election to permanently fill the position. At a certain point in my conversation with Mrs. McClellan, I was to offer the “McClellan seat” to her. She would express her thanks, but turn it down.

That's not exactly the way things turned out. In the first place, I had lived only two blocks from the McClellan home in Camden. Our relationship with her, while never close, had always been cordial, even through the heated 1972 campaign. Barbara and I had always called her Norma.

Despite her somewhat regal bearing, Norma McClellan was down to earth and approachable on any subject we had ever discussed. That evening, following the Senator's funeral earlier in the day, she could not have been more gracious.

As we sat down in the small room, almost knee-to-knee, 15 or 20 friends and family were milling about. She said, “David, would you be more comfortable if this conversation were just between us? I can ask these people to leave.”

I told her that suited me fine. She quickly stood up, asking everyone to please go into the next room and out into the hall while the two of us talked.

Then we were alone. I began by telling her how sorry I was at the Senator's death. I even suggested that five years earlier, in some unfortunate way, I might have shortened his life, forcing him through that rigorous re-election battle.

She stopped me there. “You didn't shorten his life at all,” she said. “In fact, you added years to it. That campaign gave him new energy. He was an old warrior, you know, and he loved recounting details of that race.”

Then she reached out and took my hand. “I know what you're supposed to say, and I know what I'm expected to say, too,” she explained. “And I appreciate what you're about to suggest. But I'm through with politics, and my plan is to move to North Carolina to be near my family. Thank you for coming by to say hello, and give my love to Barbara.”

I received more than 70 viable names for replacing Senator McClellan. They ranged from Wilbur Mills and Sid McMath to J.W. Fulbright, Oren Harris, and just about every practicing lawyer in the state.

On December 9, I called Kaneaster Hodges, a Newport attorney and long-time friend who had worked on my legislative team in 1975. A licensed Methodist minister, he is still a prominent lawyer and farmer in Jackson County. I said I wanted him to succeed Senator McClellan.

He came back with a raft of reasons for turning me down. He had a young family, extensive farming operations, and a law practice. There was no way he could pick up and move to Washington. I asked if he wanted to deny his children the chance to say their father had served in the U.S. Senate. Did he want to keep them from spending a year in the nation's capitol, visiting the Smithsonian, and learning firsthand about the world's greatest government? I asked him to think about it overnight.

The next morning, I called him back. He said he would do it. I made the announcement that afternoon, and Kaneaster Hodges was sworn in the next day in Washington. He quickly adapted to the Senate and was highly respected for his work ethic, his humor, and his uncanny ability to make lasting friends.

Meanwhile, Arkansas's political scene was bustling, an inevitable result of Senator McClellan's death. In late '77, I invited Attorney General Bill Clinton to drive with me to Hot Springs, where I would speak to a tourism conference. For two hours we talked in the car, discussing issues ranging from our views of Arkansas politics to our plans for the future.

Our conversation carried no particular intensity, but I did sense an air of personal sparring from both of us. Without mentioning it, we both knew a Senate race loomed. Recent polls showed him in an even match with Congressman Jim Guy Tucker, who represented Arkansas's Second District. At the same time, my Senate-race polling numbers appeared slightly healthier than theirs.

In all likelihood, I told him, I would run for the Senate, leaving the governor's office wide open for someone like Arkansas's young attorney general. He was only 31, hungry, and developing an extensive political base. The governor's race would likely begin in a few weeks or months. I told him I thought he would be the favorite.

“This is your chance,” I said. “You can become the state's youngest governor ever, and you can stay there for a long time.”

Several of my closest friends were growing wary of the young, ambitious Clinton — a caution that continued in my camp for years. They felt it inevitable that some day we would seek the same office.

For reasons I can't fully explain, this potential match-up never concerned me. We shared too many of the same friends and similar positions in the political center. I sensed a mutual respect so real that only the most bizarre circumstances would pit one of us against the other. In the course of time, that sense proved true. We never did compete for office and remained friends.

On the other hand, Jim Guy Tucker, then 34, could some day become serious competition. Smart, ambitious, and articulate, he had won the 1974 attorney general's race following a creditable record as prosecuting attorney of Pulaski and Perry counties. We also had mutual friends, including labor, teachers and the Arkansas Democratic Party's progressive wing. This overlap proved true for central Arkansas and many surrounding counties.

People often said that Tucker reminded them of a young John F. Kennedy, square-jawed and with an infectious smile. In 1977, the national Jaycees had named him one of the country's 10 outstanding young men. As early as mid-November, an Arkansas Democrat columnist observed, “Jim Guy Tucker is the most serious threat to Gov. David Pryor in a potential Senate race.” A University of Arkansas poll showed him with a 10-point lead over me.

Congressman Ray Thornton, 49, loomed as another potential Senate candidate. He had been my friend since we were students at the University, when he ran successfully for student body president. I had watched him campaign on the library steps, strumming a guitar, calling himself “Cowboy Ray Thornton,” asking for our votes. He had gone to Yale, and was then a second-year law student. He was also a tough campaigner, a trait I clearly remembered as 1978 drew near.

Thornton was attorney general when I announced against Senator McClellan in 1972. I had given him advance warning that I would leave my Fourth Congressional District office and seek the Senate. He took the early jump, campaigning to replace me and defeating Richard Arnold, who was making his second run for the seat.

In Congress, Thornton distinguished himself on the House Judiciary Committee, taking part in hearings and voting to impeach President Richard Nixon. Stepping down from Judiciary, he took a seat on the Agriculture Committee, strengthening his position back home.

Not only a formidable speaker and vote-getter, Ray Thornton also possessed a powerful family connection: he was the nephew of power broker “Witt” Stephens and his brother Jack. Ray's mother, Wilma Stephens Thornton, was their sister. A wealthy family, they had always remained close in their personal and political ties.

Strategically based in Grant County at the state's center, Ray could run for any office he chose. He was blessed with talent, family, money, and location.

By the end of 1977, Tucker and Thornton appeared on the verge of announcing for the Senate. A race between a governor and two seated congressmen would result in a political tornado.

The open Senate seat also created a domino effect among people wanting to fill two congressional seats, an open governor's slot, and possibly an attorney general vacancy. A stampede seemed imminent for one or two, possibly four, vacant positions — unprecedented in Arkansas history.

We quietly began the Senate race January 13. Our first campaign finance committee meeting took place that night, after we returned from inspecting ice-storm damage at Lake Ouachita. James H. “Bum” Atkins, my long-time friend, agreed to come on as finance chairman. The next day, I attended a Nashville Chamber of Commerce banquet, followed by the 50th anniversary of Camden's paper mill. Then McGehee's “Farmers' Day” and the engineers' banquet in Little Rock, where I introduced Oklahoma Gov. David Boren. After that, Russellville, Lake Village, Van Buren, Springdale, Malvern, Hot Springs and Conway.

Why was I putting myself through this killer schedule? Since my earliest interest in politics, I had considered the U.S. Senate a special place. Serving as a senator would be the best job in the world. The best job for me, at any rate.

My unsuccessful attempt at defeating Senator McClellan had only made the pursuit more attractive. Maybe I needed to redeem myself. Opportunities to seek an open Senate seat come rarely, especially in the South, where turnover has traditionally been low. I had to do it, and I was ready. Of equal importance, Barbara was ready. Both of us knew full well the gruesome schedule that lay ahead, and the stress it would place on our lives.

Ray Thornton announced on January 10. Two days later he said that Archie Schaffer, Sen. Dale Bumpers' nephew, would come on as his campaign manager. Schaffer had directed all of his uncle's campaigns, and served as his administrative assistant in both Little Rock and Washington.

Bumpers quickly made it clear: Schaffer's heading the Thornton campaign in no way indicated Bumpers' preference. Still, the appointment sent immediate notice of a real contest.

With Thornton definitely in the mix, I wanted to gain support from as many Stephens people as possible, or at least to neutralize them. My first strategic move was to secure Wayne Hampton's help. The state representative from Stuttgart, he was a powerful legislator and a supporter during my four years as governor.

Hampton was also a former member of both the Highway and the Game and Fish Commissions, and long-time ally in Witt and Jack Stephens' banking and investment businesses. In fact, they had placed Wayne on their Farmers' State Bank board in Stuttgart. For years he had also ardently supported Orval Faubus.

On Jan. 8, I spoke at the Gillett coon supper, an annual must for any Arkansas politician planning to stay in office. Everyone shows up for this first post-New Year's celebration. Just as it ended, I caught up with Wayne on our way to the door. I asked for a quick visit before I drove back to Little Rock. He suggested we meet in front of the courthouse in half an hour. The state trooper pulled our car up next to his, and Wayne got in the back seat with me. That night was country dark, as Barbara would describe it.

Wayne liked being addressed directly and without protocol. “Wayne,” I said, “I need your support in my race for the Senate. We've been off and on in different camps, but I admire and respect you, and you've been an ally since I've been governor. I need you.”

Wayne didn't hesitate. “Governor, there's a vacancy coming up on the Game and Fish Commission. Are you committed to anyone for that appointment?”

“Do you have somebody in mind?” I asked.

“Yes, my son Rick,” he said.

“I'm committed now,” I told him. “That appointment is his.”

I appointed Rick Hampton to the Commission on January 11, as a replacement for Kaneaster Hodges, who had to resign when he went to the Senate. Four days later, Wayne picked up the local paper and read he had been dropped from the Farmers' State Bank board.

Politics, as they say, does make strange bedfellows. Sheriff Marlin Hawkins became another early member of the Pryor campaign team. In fact, he had supported me in the 1972 Senate race, and in 1978 he proved even more determined. His total domination of Conway County politics was legendary. “Go to every funeral in the county,” he would advise young politicians. Another rule: “Don't burn your bridges; you never know when you might need to cross back over the river.”

Sheriff Hawkins was a “Yellow Dog Democrat.” In 1972, he even came close to carrying the county for George McGovern against Richard Nixon. The Saturday night before the election, he called me and asked, “Do you think I should bring in the county for McGovern?” The only reason he didn't was that he feared Arkansas would go heavily for Nixon, and Conway County would stand alone in the Democratic column. This might hurt his county, so he called off his people the night before the election. By a small margin, Conway County came in for Nixon.

Sheriff Hawkins didn't much believe in election reform. He said that whatever it takes to elect Democrats to public office, that's where he would end up. He had called me during the McClellan race to pledge his support, much to my surprise. He was sure that Senator McClellan was actually a Republican in Democrat's clothing. That's when he broke with the Stephenses.

On February 18, the Pryor living room once again became the setting for a political announcement. Only one question from the press still comes to mind:

“How will this Senate race differ from the one in 1972?”

My answer: “This time I'm going to win.”

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