Columns » John Brummett

Spectacular? We'll see about that

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Following Mike Beebe’s inauguration as governor Jan. 9, I acknowledge what you could easily find in the record if you bothered to search. It’s that I’ve touted Beebe as governor’s material for nearly 20 years.

There’s an old quote in the Arkansas Times in which I said, perhaps overexuberantly, that Beebe would make a “spectacular” governor.

We’ll see about that now, won’t we?

The assessment stemmed from an insular culture. I’d spent more than two decades around the Arkansas legislature. Beebe had spent most of those two decades as the most effective leader therein. Like many others, I had come to admire Beebe’s intelligence, consensus-building skills and consistent application amid the madness of logic, sound judgment, good intentions and prudence.

I’ve been told that what I admired in Beebe is known as “transactional leadership,” meaning one that solves problems to get today’s job done today, as opposed to what’s known as “transformational leadership,” meaning one that sees a brighter future and inspires people to march there.

Transactional leadership is well-suited for a legislator, who by definition disposes rather then proposes. It may be fine, as well, in a governor, although the better modern ones — Rockefeller, Bumpers, McMath — tended to be somewhat transformational.

Mike Huckabee, too, aspired to the transformational, eschewing the legislative process as he advanced ARKids First, the tobacco settlement, the interstate highway bond issue and school reform.

It’s what Huckabee was talking about, actually, when he said during the campaign that while he liked Beebe and wouldn’t mind voting for him to be his state senator, he feared that Beebe’s leadership style, his affinity for the insider’s club, would not serve the state well from the governor’s office.

Beebe acknowledged to me last week that he’s found a “world of difference” already between legislating and governing.

He confirmed something I’d written: When first told that outgoing House Speaker Bill Stovall was pressing for restrictions on funding for unfilled guard positions at the state prisons, he reacted favorably, as if a legislator. But then it hit him that this was his Department of Correction now and that perhaps the prisons needed the flexibility to use money appropriated to those positions for other purposes that might arise.

“There’s some wisdom in your assessment,” Beebe replied when I reminded him that I’d predicted he’d govern pragmatically and incrementally, rather than boldly, settling for effectiveness instead of reaching for greatness.

“Often times I do appear to have emphasized pragmatism and working incrementally,” he said. “But there’s some unfairness in what you say, too. The food tax, insisting on phasing it out with the entire legislative leadership against me — I’d call that bold leadership. Many have tried to get that tax phased out. I am committed to getting it done.”

Beebe said the theme he will reach for in his inaugural address is that Arkansas stands at a special moment, poised for progress.

We’ve heard such platitudes in practically every inaugural address I’ve ever endured. I asked him what was supposedly different.

“It’s because the world and the economy are changing and Arkansas is well-positioned to change with it,” he said. “It’s about developing biofuels and recommitting to education from pre-K to retirement. And, yes, it has to do with the fact that we’ve got this surplus, if we use it wisely. And it also has to do with the fact that I know the process, how things work, how to get things done. We have a chance to combine vision with execution.”

My goodness. If you put transformational and transactional leadership together, that might be spectacular indeed.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m not even sure Beebe can pass the food tax phaseout or keep a coterie of senators from squandering the surplus.

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