One thing we don’t cotton to in Arkansas is getting too big for your britches. I’d say “breeches,” but that would be getting too big for them. Another thing: Your garden-variety newspaper reporter can spot presumptuousness and showiness a mile away. That’s especially true when these affectations are transparently designed to enhance television images and take advantage of the pliable nature of local television talking heads, who seldom understand what’s going on and can therefore be manipulated readily.
Bill Clinton got beat for governor once because the people of Arkansas thought he’d outsized his britches. Then he spent a decade trying to fit into them, and pretty much succeeding. But the day after he won his last gubernatorial race in 1990, his staff announced that he would be available only for a “photo opportunity.” It was a tactic plainly intended to avoid newspaper reporters’ questions but successfully plant his victorious mug on the ever-pliable 6 o’clock news, where the picture mattered but the words did not. Newspaper reporters screeched in righteous indignation. They didn’t need pictures; they knew what the guy looked like. They wanted to ask him about the election and policy intentions. One columnist, an old boy still writing, wondered if Clinton had suddenly fancied himself as an imperial governor, or whether he might be preparing for the pomp and circumstance of the presidential run in two years that he’d just spent months on the gubernatorial re-election campaign trail promising not to make.
All of this has been to set the stage for the hilarious little dust-up Friday at the state Capitol. Gov. Mike Huckabee has this new press secretary, apparently a recent local television talking head, a weekend anchorperson. I say “apparently” because I never watch the station they say she was with. Nor does anyone else, from the way I read the Nielsens. She presumed to assemble reporters for something previously unheard of in Arkansas. That would be a formal briefing by the press secretary, like they do at the White House. She said the governor had gotten so busy with his important business outside the state that he didn’t have time himself to keep Arkansas reporters abreast. This would be a way, she said, to give the TV people the visuals they need.
From what I gather, a couple of the veteran print reporters — a wire-service guy, especially — were equal parts aghast and outraged, and gave a little of the business to the new press secretary fresh off the weekend anchor desk. You see, a real newspaper reporter could simply gather his gubernatorial news as he’d always gathered it. That would be from the elusive governor himself when possible, or by telephoning or dropping in on gubernatorial aides with whom he’d developed relationships, or — imagine this — by reading news releases himself, privately, maybe without moving lips. Yet here was this new press secretary fresh off the weekend anchor desk standing before rolling cameras reading verbatim from news releases. A grizzled print reporter asked whom he should quote. Should it be the governor whose comments were between the quotation marks or should he quote the new press secretary fresh off the weekend anchor desk who actually was reading the words publicly? Another print reporter — or maybe it was the same one; this is all second-hand, as I would never attend such a charade myself — wanted to know what the governor’s current out-of-state location was, anyway. Actually, said the new press secretary fresh off the weekend anchor desk, the governor was around town, busy with private things. The new press secretary’s supervisor stepped in and ended the briefing early. That brings us to our puzzler of the day: How could a man lose 110 pounds and still be too big for his britches? It happens. You’re down from 50s to 34s. But it’s never quite enough. You pour yourself into 32s. You wind up needing a tailor more than you need a press secretary.