Parker Westbrook has worked for more federal politicians than any other person in Arkansas. He let us know what he thought about a few of them last week in a speech at the Butler Center at the Little Rock Public Library.
He lives alone in Nashville in a house his father built in 1915. It sits on 10 acres in the middle of Nashville; he calls it an "urban farmstead." However, Westbrook spent 26 years of his 78 years in Washington, D.C. Because he took shorthand and liked it when he was in Nashville High School, he began working as a teenager as a court reporter and in clerks' offices in Nashville, Ashdown, Mena and Murfreesboro.
He was so adept that in 1948 Congressman Boyd Tackett hired him, and Westbrook went to Washington. However, the state's population dropped in the 1950 census, and Tackett's district was eliminated, leaving Arkansas with five rather than six members of Congress. So Tackett decided to run for governor in 1952. Westbrook helped him, but Tackett ran third in the Democratic Party's primary.
U.S. Sen. John McClellan then hired Westbrook, who worked for him for only one year.
"I was never an admirer of John McClellan," he said. "He was mean, he misled people, he carried grudges and was just a big, crabby and difficult man." To illustrate, Westbrook said that at the dedication of the Millwood Dam at Ashdown in 1954, a man came up to McClellan and asked to shake his hand. McClellan said no and told the man that it was because "you didn't vote for me in 1938."
With a grin, Westbrook said, "In 1938, McClellan ran against Hattie Caraway, and she beat the hell out of him."
His next job was with Congressman Took Gathings, and he didn't like him very much either. "Gathings was a descendant of Mississippi people and was completely out of his era. He was elected in 1938 and stayed in the House of Representatives for 30 years but never got to be chairman of his Committee on Agriculture."
One day in 1960 Gathings called Westbrook into his office. "What's this I hear about you supporting Joe Hardin for governor?" Westbrook told him that must be his 80-year-old mother in Nashville. That didn't satisfy the congressman. "It scared the hell out of him that somebody could be supporting Hardin for governor instead of Orval Eugene Faubus."
Gathings said: "I've known for some time that you and I don't read the Bible the same way." Westbrook knew that Gathings had seen him having lunch in the Capitol with black aides to congressmen from Chicago and California and that he had gone to the theater with some of them.
"When you work for the president, you have to do what the president says because it could embarrass the president," Gathings told him. Westbrook then replied: "Well, Mr. Gathings, if embarrassment is the subject of our conversation, I want to tell you that I've been embarrassed for some time."
Westbrook quit and then went to the office of J. William Fulbright -- a man he liked. "Fulbright was one of the greatest people I have ever known," he said.
After Fulbright was defeated by Dale Bumpers in 1974, Westbrook came back to Nashville. But he had barely unpacked when, on two day's notice, he was hired by former Congressman David Pryor, who was running for governor, and he proudly helped him defeat Faubus. He bragged about him persuading Pryor to name the first female on the state Supreme Court (Elsijane Trimble Roy) and the first black man (George Howard).
Westbrook was just warming up when the Butler curator, Tom Dillard, told him he was out of time. He managed to squeeze in his friendship with Bill Clinton and his disappointment with Governor Huckabee for not reappointing him to the State Review Board he had been on for 27 years. And before Dillard could get the hook, Westbrook also said that the next time he came back he didn't want any time limit so he could talk about all the politicians he has known.
About 10 years ago I rented a box at the huge Little Rock Process and Distribution Center (PDC) that's in North Little Rock on McCain a mile east of Highway 167. Because of the heavy traffic created by the opening of a Super Wal-Mart just a block from the PDC, I decided in late March to give up that box and rented one at the Park Hill Postoffice, which is really closer to my house. I mailed my new box number to magazines, newspapers and organizations I like to hear from, and on April 30 I closed the old box, turned in my keys and gave the clerks my forwarding address.
Well, a week went by with not a single piece getting inside my new box. A Park Hill Postoffice clerk told me she had heard there was delay somewhere in the system. I went to the "Easy References to Government Offices" in the telephone book and found that all the 43 postal facilities in this county had the same 800 number that took you to recorded equipment in some far-off town. I made the call but the recordings didn't offer me any answer to my questions.
I plowed through the Yellow Pages and finally found a number that led me to the North Little Rock Postmaster. His name is Rich McComber, and he agreed that 10 days was too long to wait for forwarded mail in the same town. In two hours, he personally drove to wherever the trouble was, found my missing mail, drove to the Park Hill Postoffice and put it in my box.
Don't tell anyone in Washington, but he also said he didn't think those nationally recorded phone numbers provided many answers.