Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Arkansas Politics

My father was born in Osceola, Arkansas on December 28, 1919. For anyone who saw the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Osceola is a county seat town in the north of Arkansas, about fifteen miles from Dyess, Arkansas, where Johnny Cash grew up. In the film, there is a scene where the entire Cash family is picking cotton and someone says it will be one hundred and two degrees by noon. Speaking as someone who made a dozen week-long visits to visit my paternal grandmother in Osceola, always in the summertime, my reaction was, “Goodness, they’re having a cold spell.”

He was thirteen years old when FDR took office and told me the following story about the impact the New Deal had on the region. A popular joke had a new teacher asking her grade schoolers who built this new school. The children would chorus, “Roosevelt!”

“And who got us our new textbooks?”


“Who made heaven and Earth?”

A newcomer child says, “God?

His classmates got together and decided, “During recess, we’ll beat up that Republican.”

I did some research and learned that FDR carried Arkansas with 82% of the vote in 1932. Four years later, he actually improved his score, moving up to 86%. (Across the river in Mississippi, FDR did even better, with 94 and 97%, respectively.) Arkansas voted Democratic in every Presidential election from 1836 until 1968, when George Wallace carried the state as an independent.

I once asked my father which would have astonished him more: to see a man walk on the moon or to see a Republican win election to the governorship of Arkansas. He laughed and said that latter. This leads to the story of one of the great electoral flukes of American history. Back in the 1930s, John D. Rockefeller’s five sons all seemed destined for great things. Nelson wanted to be President of the United States. David wanted to run the Chase Manhattan Bank. Winthrop, however, appeared to be an utterly hopeless alcoholic. He managed to get himself expelled from Yale. (Exactly how bad to you have to be to get expelled from college when your name is Rockefeller?) The family sadly concluded that Winthrop was a lost cause and they shipped him off to a treatment center in Arkansas where they were certain he would drink himself to death.

Wonder of wonders, Winthrop sobered up after a few years. He had spent enough time in Arkansas that he’d grown to rather like the place. He went into politics as a Republican in a state that had been solidly Democratic since day one.

Winthrop was extraordinarily fortunate in his opposition. Arkansas had a four-term governor by the name of Orval Faubus, who was utterly corrupt and a vociferous racist. It was he who had forced President Eisenhower to send fifteen thousand troops to Little Rock to protect black students integrating in the local high school. Winthrop Rockefeller was a reasonably intelligent man and, as far as I can tell, an entirely honest man. (Exactly how do you bribe a Rockefeller?)

He won election in 1970 and won reelection four years later. I believe he was the only Republican my father ever supported in his entire life.

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