Loyal Democrats would not agree but Arkansans are really indebted to Ronald Reagan. He's responsible for us becoming a two-party state, which means the majority of us will decide who will run our state and our country.
To my wife's dismay, I keep old newspaper clippings. While TV was showing the funeral of the 40th President of the United States, I dug out a dozen clips that quoted Democrat leaders giving this credit to Reagan.
Some credit Winthrop Rockefeller, and certainly his election as governor helped end the monopoly. There were only three Republicans in the state's 100-member House of Representatives when Rockefeller left office, and now there are 32. Except for our native son, Bill Clinton, Arkansans have voted Republican for president ever since Reagan.
I never voted for him and am surprised that the Federalist Society's scholars have rated him as the 11th best president. But most people liked him because of his plain talk, his optimism, his sense of humor, his dislike of communists and union leaders (even though he used to be one) and because he saved Social Security. What I disliked about him was that he increased the deficit and did very little to help the poor and blacks.
As Professor Roger Wilkins of George Mason University said on public television, President Reagan went to Charlotte, N.C. where school busing was successful and spoke against busing. He went to Stone Mountain where the Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses, and he said that Jeff Davis was one of his heroes. Then in a speech in Mississippi where three civil rights workers were lynched, Reagan told his audience he was in favor of states rights.
After Reagan switched from movies to politics, he came to Little Rock four times - in 1979 to test the water in what was then the most Democratic state in the country, in 1980 to campaign for the presidency, in 1984 to campaign for a second term and in 1988 to persuade Arkansans to vote for George Walker Bush to succeed him.
Late in October 1980, Candidate Reagan went to Texarkana and his wife went to Little Rock. Thousands went out to the airport to see Reagan and cheered when he said that President Carter had broken 227 of his campaign promises. At Reagan headquarters in Little Rock, Nancy Reagan was telling reporters that she resented personal attacks that her husband (age 69) was too old to be president and explained that he was not against the proposed, Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution because things like that should be handled by the states.
Since Arkansas became a state in 1836, only three times had Arkansans voted for a presidential candidate who was not a Democrat. For the last 25 years they had never failed to give a Democrat governor a second term. But when November 1980 came along, Arkansans voted for Reagan for President, denied Gov. Bill Clinton a second term by electing Republican Frank White, elected the first Republican in the state Senate and the seventh Republican in the state House of Representatives. Herby Branscum, Arkansas' Democratic Party chairman, said, "You'd have to be a blithering idiot to say we don't have a two-party system now."
In 1980 I was doing a half-hour show on AETN, and before the election Clinton and White agreed that whether they won or lost I could interview them 15 minutes each. But Clinton was so depressed that he refused, so I interviewed a very happy Frank White for 30 minutes.
When Reagan ran for a second term in 1984, he drew a crowd of 10,000 at the Statehouse Convention. People lined up for tickets at 5:30 a.m., and in 10 minutes all tickets were gone. "Republicans have come out of the closet," a ticket-holder told me. The audience yelled and clapped 60 times as Reagan said things like his explanation of Democrat candidate Walter Mondale's two plans: "Raise your taxes and then raise them again." Reagan carried Arkansas by 60 percent.
President Reagan and his staff stayed one night on the 16th floor of what was then the Excelsior Hotel at the cost of $25,000, according to a story by Gazette reporter Scott Van Laningham. After the president left, Van Laningham got to see the presidential suite where, he wrote, he saw the city's two newspapers that were both turned to the comic pages.
The most Arkansas adoration for Reagan came in 1988 when he flew to Little Rock to campaign for George W. Bush. School buses brought more than 20,000 people to the airport to hear his 17-minute speech. "I hope you'll win just one more for the Gipper," said Reagan, and then he quoted Ed Bethune, a former Republican congressman, as saying Bush's opponent, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, "was more liberal than anyone he had ever met." Two high school bands played, cheerleaders cheered and President Reagan yelled "woo pig sooie" and held up a sign that read, "I'm a Bush Hog."
John Brummett, then an Arkansas Gazette columnist, didn't like any of this, especially the sign. He said, "Someone should have told Reagan that you use a bush hog to get rid of bushes you don't want." But 11 days later, Bush got 53 percent of the Arkansas votes.