It has never been as consequential as Versailles, which helped trigger the French Revolution, but the royal palace of Arkansas's First Family has always been an object of political intrigue.
As soon as Sid McMath and his big family settled into the new digs in 1950 (it was built at a cost of more than $100,000 by his predecessor), the press hammered him for using Mansion funds to buy canned dog food for Ol' Red, a red-bone hound given to the new governor by the Scott County Coonhunters Association. McMath claimed Red's mournful baying provided security for the Mansion and grounds at the dangerous corner of 18th and Center streets.
Mike Huckabee's extravagant use of Mansion funds for personal items like pantyhose, a doghouse, dry-cleaning and Taco Bell meals and his vast expansion of the official home, including the chandeliered Janet Huckabee Grand Hall, made Red's subsidy seem trifling.
But Asa Hutchinson is the first governor to summon a special session of the legislature to deal with critics of the first couple's ideas for the Mansion — mainly the Governor's Mansion Commission, which was set up in 1947 to manage the decor and design of the official state residence. Hutchinson's bill transferred the commission's powers to the governor and his wife, Susan.
Whatever the merits of the couple's objections to the commissioners' fixation on period furnishings for the elegant Georgian Colonial mansion, it has not been the governor's finest hour. He was caught dissembling on whose idea it was to pass a law neutering the commission — he said the House speaker and a Mountain View senator wanted it done — and the reasons. He indicated the commission had not been diligent about taking care of problems like rats and poor wiring.
Actually, as the papers subsequently made clear, it was the first lady's displeasure with some commissioners, not so much rats and wiring. Mike Beebe, Hutchinson's predecessor, said the rats had been taken care of when he was governor, though it never hurts to keep a few lids of d-CON around for vector control.
Governors have always had problems with the official abode. Winthrop Rockefeller wasn't comfortable there and commuted from his Petit Jean Mountain home, although he spent a lot of money on permanent furnishings for the place, notably giant antique Persian rugs that grace the formal living and dining rooms. The family of the Mansion's second resident, Francis Cherry, gave a 1770 antique clock from Waterford, Ireland. The last time I looked it still graced the living room. (The Huckabees, by contrast, tried to take Mansion furnishings with them.)
Like most homes, the Mansion always needs repairs. Brooke Bumpers, who was 8 when her father became governor in 1971, recalls Gov. Bumpers, who had run a hardware store back in Charleston, crawling around in the third-floor attic with a flashlight one night a few weeks after they moved in trying to fix a pipe rupture that had soaked his new gubernatorial suits and shirts and her mother screaming up at him to come down before he electrocuted himself.
The big Mansion foofaraw apparently was both philosophical and financial. Who gets to decorate its public spaces — the couple living there at the moment or a public committee charged with that duty — and how much to spend on it? Susan Hutchinson apparently had serious disagreements mainly with Kaki Hockersmith, the interior designer and commissioner who has done a lot of decorating there (and at the White House) the past 25 years. A big dispute was the first lady's desire to spend $200,000 on a splendid setting for a $3,500 piece of metal sculpture donated to the Mansion.
Previous governors, perhaps excepting Huckabee, considered it a public institution they were occupying for a short time and had little to do with furnishings and design outside the living quarters, which were small before Huckabee. From now on, the family living there each four years will settle that. First lady Hutchinson disliked the perpetual use of the public rooms for nonprofit events, so that will now be limited.
Money, not questionable taste, is the issue that might pique the public interest in the Mansion wars. Mansion improvements typically have come from private fundraising. It was revealed that Hutchinson's Heritage Department director had shifted $1.1 million from a Heritage agency to make structural changes in the Mansion to improve the comfort of the family quarters, including a $2,000 television and a $3,500 washer and dryer so the couple will not have to use the regular Mansion laundry facilities.
It leads to an observation about the Republican takeover of the executive and legislative branches. While schools, colleges and state employees adjust to acute downsizing, spending on the politicians and their facilities and staffs grows by leaps and bounds — a redefinition of conservatism perhaps.