Columns » Bob McCord

The unseen debate

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The first TV debate between the two major candidates for governor, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Beebe, was televised in Jonesboro Monday, and most Arkansans like me couldn’t see it because the station’s programs can’t be seen in most of Arkansas.

Even though the campaign managers say there are to be two more TV debates — one in Northwest Arkansas and another in Little Rock — no one yet has announced at which station it will be in Little Rock.

Everyone who really likes politics has always thought the debates would be on high-powered AETN in Conway as they always have been, giving maybe two-thirds of Arkansans the chance to see and hear them. And AETN already has planned debates for all the other candidates for major state-wide offices just as it has done every election year. But it’s not going that way this year unless things change.

One reason for this is that the two campaign managers, Chris Masingill for Beebe and Chris Battle for Hutchinson, told AETN that they would debate at its station but it had to be conducted just as the two managers say.

Examples: There could be only one moderator, and he or she had to be okayed by the two candidates. Every question from the moderator had to be asked to both candidates. The candidates could not ask questions of each other. If someone in the audience asked a question, it had to be screened. They even stipulated what the two candidates could take to the podium — note pad, pen and briefing notes.

There’s a rumor going around that the two candidates for governor will debate on one of the commercial TV stations in Little Rock. But those television stations also like to have control of what they televise.

Some of the political reporters who have been following Hutchinson and Beebe around the state say that this isn’t the first mistake that the two campaign managers have made.

Every president in recent times has come to Arkansas to see and speak to residents, I guess, but in my many years, I believe that there were only two who didn’t come to speak to all the people.

The latest one was President Bush, who flew into Little Rock a couple of weeks ago to encourage Arkansans to raise money for Asa Hutchinson for governor and other Republican candidates. But he never talked to “us.” A couple of weeks ago, he went directly from the airport to one of those gated communities of fine houses. Only hundreds of Republicans with big wallets were invited, and they gave him $650,000 for Republican candidates.

The local press and even the dozens of Washington reporters and photographers who flew with him were kept away from his speech. The only time he talked to the press was when his car stopped at Cotham’s restaurant so he could buy some fried pies. For a few minutes he told reporters that he appreciated his friends in Little Rock, and then he moved quickly to the airport.

The next day Hutchinson told reporters, “The best thing about it was that the press was excluded and he could talk from his heart.”

The other closed presidential visit that I remember was made by Franklin Roosevelt. He had been here many other times, including coming to the state’s centennial in 1936, where he spoke at the fair grounds, went to an orphanage and drove to Hot Springs, where he and his wife saw a pageant of the state’s 100 years in a grammar school.

But in the toughest days of World War II, Roosevelt came to Camp Robinson in North Little Rock to encourage thousands of its soldiers who secretly were about to be sent to Europe, and his presence was kept a secret. I was a 13-year-old, after-school photographer for the North Little Rock Times. The owner of the paper, John Pruniski, heard about the president being in his town, and he put me in his car and we went to Camp Robinson, only to be stopped by the soldiers guarding the gate.

“We’re the press,” Pruniski said, “and we know the president is up here, and we are entitled to listen and photograph him.” The guard replied, “Well, you are right, but the president left yesterday.”

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