To be so smart and talented and well-intentioned, maybe the best politician of his time, Bill Clinton could make a heck of a mess.
He would endure these spells when he lacked discipline and practicality. He’d whip himself into over-energized lathers during which he’d spew ideas and dial phones and lose all track of time and logic.
Clinton resembled a clarinet virtuoso who didn’t know how to put a reed in the instrument, and who’d leave the horn out in the rain. He needed someone following along, picking up after him.
So, no one stayed in greater need of devoted, competent, calming, disciplining and long-suffering staff.
Early in his first year as president, Clinton had badly mishandled the issue of gays in the military. He’d lost an economic stimulus package. He’d nominated and withdrawn the name of a touted black civil rights lawyer, academician, author and thinker for a top job in the Justice Department. His defenders said he was snake-bitten. His detractors said his presidency predictably was failed already.
This is what some old friends from Arkansas were saying: “He needs a Jim Pledger.”
Not the Jim Pledger, necessarily. Jim was a tall, boots-wearing old boy from Danville seemingly lacking in ambition beyond home. His brain would have sustained him in Washington, but his style surely was ill-suited for the fast pace and pretense of the White House.
He’d stayed home to be Jim Guy Tucker’s right hand, too. His ego required nothing bigger. Many whose egos required more ended up with those egos handed back to them by Washington, D. C.
What President Clinton needed in those early days, they said, was somebody to do for him what Jim Pledger always had done for Governor Clinton. That was to say, “Gov’ner, I don’t think they’re gonna go for that in Yell County.”
Pledger’s Yell County always served as a kind of Peoria for Bill Clinton’s Arkansas.
Let’s put it this way: Clinton was a governor who needed a governor, and by the latter I mean one of those attachments to regulate the speed of his motor. Pledger was the governor’s governor.
I always called it good ol’ boy competence. It was the kind of thing the nation saw in Pledger’s Yell County pal, James Lee Witt, who’d been Yell County judge while Pledger was county treasurer.
They tended to underwhelm when they spoke. Then, invariably, you’d look up and they’d have done the job, and well, while those more fluid with the spoken word were leaving disasters in their wake.
Witt told me Friday, the day after Pledger’s year-long bout with cancer ended, that he remembered the day in 1984 when Clinton came to speak to the County Judge Association. Witt said Clinton motioned for him to come to the head table. He said Clinton told him he was thinking about bringing Pledger on board his staff, and wondered what Witt thought.
“I told him he couldn’t make a better appointment,” he said.
Witt told me that in 30 years he simply could not ever recall Pledger’s getting mad, or at least showing it.
I never saw him show much enthusiasm of any kind, to tell you the truth.
Actually, there was that one time.
Pledger had been a legislative liaison, chief of staff and finance and administration director for Clinton, and finance and administration director for Tucker. He’d taken the job running the Arkansas State Fairgrounds and Barton Coliseum.
I happened to call him for some political recollection, and it happened to be the morning after a big concert at Barton.
Reba McEntire. Jim Pledger was demonstrably excited about Reba McEntire.