Our new Republican governor has decided to go to Washington and New York to try to improve Arkansas's image, which has been damaged by the assaults on our native son Democratic president. But Gov. Mike Huckabee's handlers are quick to say that he will be defending the state, not Bill Clinton or Whitewater.
Anyway, it's a worthwhile mission. The state has endured absurd criticism ever since Clinton's election.
The Wall Street Journal refers to Arkansas as a "congenitally violent place" with an "incestuous" business community. The New York Times says Arkansas has a "mind-set for cutting ethical corners." Magazines and TV regularly picture the state as a backwater inhabited by ignorant hillbillies.
Huckabee, accompanied by Rex Nelson, a former newspaperman and now spokesman and advisor to the governor, will be visiting "opinion makers" in both cities Nov. 19-22. This will include the editors of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as some business publications.
Huckabee might also do some industrial prospecting, according to Nelson, although the trip is primarily for refuting incorrect perceptions about the state. He won't be spending tax money; the trip will be paid for by the private Arkansas Industrial Development Commission Foundation.
In 1994, a group of civic leaders assembled by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce became concerned that the bad publicity was not only unfair but detrimental to industrial development. They met several times and discussed paying visits to the northeastern press, placing ads in national newspapers, etc., but the group broke up, deciding finally that nothing would help.
Former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, before he was trapped in the Whitewater net, sometimes tried to counter the bad publicity the state was receiving, but he never tried to cut it off at its source. So why has Governor Huckabee decided to try?
Nelson says Huckabee was already thinking about it when the AIDC approached him. Mid-November is an ideal time, according to Nelson. Huckabee can tell the opinion-makers that Clinton "has made his last political race" and that "Arkansas is open for business."
Translated that means that the editors' nemesis is either defeated or a lame duck, and, for only the third time since the Civil War, a Republican is now governor of Arkansas--a Republican with a 74 percent approval rating.
Curt Bradbury, chief operations officer and executive vice president of Stephens, Inc., thinks Huckabee might be able to change some minds. He has a sense of humor and is a good communicator, Bradbury said. "Who better to say that all the criticism was overstated? It is sort of like Nixon opening China.:
Bradbury, the CEO of the Stephens-controlled Worthen bank that was being attacked for lending money to Clinton, was one of those civic leaders who wanted to take action back in 1994. When the group refused to act, Bradbury went alone to try to convince editors that they were wrong and he believes his presentations go Stephens and the bank off the editorial pages.
However, another member of that 1994 group still has doubts about Huckabee's trip. He's Kent Ingram, owner of a concrete company in West Memphis and chairman of the board of the state Chamber of Commerce. "I think those editors will just turn around and laugh when he leaves," he said.
"Anyway, I'm not real worried about what those people think. Arkansas is not doing too bad."
Print headline: "Mr. Huckabee to D.C." September 27, 1996.