Library of Congress
Sen. David Pryor at work at the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry in 1993.

David Pryor, a natural-born politician who spent 34 years in public offices, including governor, the state Legislature and both houses of Congress, died  Saturday, April 20, at his home in Little Rock at the age of 89.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture called him “arguably the most popular Arkansas politician of the modern era,” although the description might have covered a much longer stretch of history. He ran for public office 13 times between 1960 and 1996 and lost only once — a 1972 race for the U.S. Senate against Sen. John L. McClellan. 

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After McClellan’s death in 1977, Pryor defeated two other rising political stars for the Senate seat — Congressmen Jim Guy Tucker and Ray H. Thornton Jr., both of whom would be elected to other major state offices. Pryor would hold the seat until January 1997, when he retired owing to heart problems and his dismay over the rising partisanship, wrath and extremism in Congress and national politics.

In 2002,  Pryor’s son Mark, a former state representative and attorney general, won his father’s Senate seat by defeating Senator Tim Hutchinson and served two terms.

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David Pryor’s nearly 35-year career in the state and national capitols was marked by passionate and sometimes lonely efforts for better and affordable medical care for the elderly and poor, peace, public safety in the nuclear age, the direct election of American presidents, reform of Arkansas’s ancient constitution and, perhaps most markedly, collaboration among political foes and parties.

Former President Bill Clinton, who got his inspiration for politics and public service in 1966 from the “young Turk” lawmaker, said he and his wife, Hillary, were deeply saddened by the death of their friend and collaborator, who was always “honest, compassionate and full of common sense.”

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In every office he held, Clinton said, Pryor “fought for progressive politics that helped us put the divided past behind us and move into a brighter future together. He was always one of America’s greatest advocates for the elderly, waging long battles to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and to improve nursing home and home care to help more people live in dignity.”

U.S. Sen David Pryor in 1982 (Courtesy of the Museum of American History, Cabot Public Schools)

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“David made politics personal — from his famed retail campaigning to his ability to calmly and confidently explain tough votes to his constituents,” Clinton said. Clinton was Arkansas’s attorney general in Pryor’s last two years as governor. He was elected governor in the same election in which voters promoted Pryor to the U.S. Senate.

“I first met him and Barbara in 1966 when David was running for Congress, and over the next 58 years he would be my mentor, confidant, supporter and, above all, friend. Having him and Dale Bumpers in the Senate when I was president was an extraordinary gift. I never felt far from home, and I always trusted the unvarnished advice he gave, especially when the going got tough. I’ll always be grateful that he served as the inaugural dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, where his very presidence embodied the nobility and joy of public service.”

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Pryor lived a mythical life of politics and public service, said his longtime aide in Congress, Carmie Henry — starting with his election as president of the third grade. He defined retail politics in Arkansas as a campaigner and in public office, cementing personal bonds with everybody in both parties and in every executive office, including the security workers all over the Capitol. He became easily the most beloved member of the Senate and also with Arkansas voters.

“If any one person’s career marked the changing of an era in American politics, it was David Pryor’s,” Henry said. “There are no David Pryors in Washington anymore.”

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Pryor was a liberal Democrat long before it became a term of opprobrium. He was stirred to enter politics — first as a crusading weekly newspaper editor in Camden and then as a candidate for the Legislature — by the rise of racial hatred and discord after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 outlawing segregation in the nation’s public schools. 

As a senior and student leader at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Pryor traveled to the state Capitol in February 1957 to testify at a dramatic public hearing on a bill creating a state sovereignty commission that would stop racial integration and find and punish people and groups that supported integration, or “race mixing,” as it was commonly called. He thought the bill was a flagrant violation of the federal and state constitutions. He was blocked from testifying, he would learn, at the instigation of university officials, including the president, who feared a backlash against the school. Pryor and his new wife, the former Barbara Jean Lunsford, were turned into crusaders by the Legislature’s passage of a raft of bills to maintain white supremacy, Gov. Orval E. Faubus’s signing of them into law in early 1957, and then Faubus’s dispatch of National Guardsmen to prevent nine Black youngsters from entering Little Rock Central High School that fall.

Little Rock Soiree
David and Barbara Pryor

David Hampton Pryor was born Aug. 29, 1934, in Camden, the third of four children of William Edgar Pryor and Susan Newton Pryor. His father ran a car dealership, was Ouachita County sheriff for four years and was always politically connected and influential. Pryor’s mother had been a champion of women’s suffrage, and was the first woman to run for public office in Arkansas, losing a race for circuit and county clerk in 1926. (She later won a school board race.) Gov. Ben T. Laney (1945–1949) was a neighbor and family friend, although Laney’s leadership in the Southern white supremacy  movement and his disloyalty to the Democratic Party in 1948 disturbed young Pryor, whose hero was Gov. Sid McMath from next-door Magnolia and Hot Springs. McMath had thwarted Laney’s Dixiecrat party and carried Arkansas for President Harry S. Truman that year. 

His autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment,” published in 2008 by Butler Center Books, gives a self-effacing and often humorous account of growing up, pursuing popularity and providentially encountering famous political figures who would shape his destiny. He was an unusually gregarious child who was attracted to politics almost from the time that he could read, perhaps owing to his father’s political engagement. (The elder Pryor raised the money in 1942 that kept Congressman John L. McClellan in a U.S. Senate race, which he won in a Democratic runoff primary with Attorney General Jack Holt. McClellan was later shocked and embittered that his patron’s boy would run against him. He had expected Pryor to succeed him when he retired.) 

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Pryor wrote that he ran for president of Mary Bragg Wheeler’s third-grade class at Camden and that the teacher sent him and the other two candidates into the hall while the class voted.

“Sweating under the tension,” Pryor remembered, “I promised God that if He would let me win this election, I would never again run for political office. Our teacher called us back into the room. I had won! Before I sat down, I was already planning my race for fourth-grade president.”

His boyhood hero was the Razorback and Olympic star Clyde Scott from Smackover, 16 miles down the road. Pryor’s admiration was such that 50 years later he stuttered trying to talk to the sainted old man, by then a retired insurance executive for Jackson T. “Jack” Stephens. Pryor was a football star for the Camden Panthers high school team — a triple-threat tailback who made the all-district team. His memoir, however, confessed that he actually hated football and every minute of practice and the games, but social pressure forced him to stay with it. “Any Camden boy in the 1950s who entertained the slightest interest in peer acceptance — and who could circle the practice field in a heavy uniform without crumpling to earth — went out for football,” he said. Pryor dreaded “the 200-pound linemen” who smashed him to the ground nearly every play. 

Pryor wrote that after seeing the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, starring William Holden and Judy Holliday and set in political Washington, D.C., he ran home and sent a letter to Congressman Oren Harris of El Dorado, a family friend, asking if he could be a congressional page that summer. Harris agreed. Pryor drove to Washington, finally found the Capitol and reached the House doorkeeper’s office, where he was rebuked for being late. He was sent to the Senate, where there was an emergency — an all-night filibuster after all the Senate pages had gone home. When he reached the Senate floor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (the anticommunist conspiracist who was later censured by the Senate) snapped his fingers at Pryor, scribbled a note, fished out a $10 bill and handed him a ring of keys. 

Pryor’s account was this: “Here, son,” he said. “Get a taxi and go to this address, and on the floor of the closet in the bedroom you’ll find my bedroom slippers. Bring them to me.” It was David Pryor’s first act of public service. 

After Pryor enrolled as a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, his father died suddenly. He canceled his enrollment and went instead to Henderson State Teachers College in Arkadelphia, 45 miles up Highway 7 from Camden. When he arrived on campus late, he was greeted by a sign in front of Womack Hall, the men’s dormitory, saying, “David Pryor for Freshman Class President.” He was elected. 

After a year, he transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He took a horse with him and put the colt in a stable at a farm south of town. He later wrote that it had been a stupid thing to do because he rarely found time to ride the animal. He figured he had done it because the last time he had seen his father alive was when the old man was astride a horse in the 1952 Ouachita County Fair parade.

As the spring semester was ending in 1954, Pryor got a note to call Gov. Francis Cherry, who had defeated Pryor’s hero, Sid McMath, two years earlier. Cherry wanted Pryor to be his driver while he was campaigning for re-election in the Democratic primaries against Faubus and two others that summer. Late in life Pryor gave poignant accounts of Cherry’s grace and caring and the agonizing dilemmas the governor had faced in his historic confrontation with Faubus in the primary runoff: Cherry had decided to question Faubus’s patriotism by making an issue of his attendance at a socialist self-help school at Mena, Commonwealth College, and subsequently lying about it. 

It was to be an evening television speech at the KARK studio, which Pryor called “the speech of Cherry’s political life.” Pryor said he waited in the car for Cherry to leave the mansion for the studio and the governor veered into the shrubs next to the car and vomited. After his stumbling and wooden speech, Cherry returned to the car solemnly and said, “How’d I do, kid?” Pryor said he congratulated Cherry but began to realize the speech had been a terrible mistake.

It occurred while the country, including Arkansas, rebelled against “McCarthyism,” which had been exposed as a fraud the previous month in Senate hearings that included Army attorney Joseph Welch’s famous putdown of Joe McCarthy for relentlessly attacking a young lawyer: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough! Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” 

Faubus won, and Pryor concluded that the very decent Cherry had been a poor politician who did not sense the great shift in public attitudes and was unable to rally voters against a smart but unprincipled opponent. Troubled by Cherry’s humiliation, Pryor decided that politics was a miserable business and changed his major from political science to business administration. He took courses in accounting, banking and statistics but found them tedious and boring. Then he became violently ill with a strange malady that required multiple surgeries — he withered to 130 pounds and partially lost his eyesight — and cost him a year of school. 

He returned to the university in 1955 as a government major again and became active in student government. Led by Pryor, Ray Thornton and other future leaders of the state, University of Arkansas students took a special interest in the emerging conflagration over integration. Little Rock was under federal court orders to desegregate its schools in the fall, and state lawmakers pursued a number of punitive bills to slow the process, including the creation of a state sovereignty commission based on the long-repudiated theory of John C. Calhoun that states could interpose their sovereignty between the federal government and the people. The commission would be empowered to target those who supported “race mixing” — that is, integration.

Pryor drove to Little Rock to speak to the Legislature, along with one of his many college roommates, Kenneth C. Danforth of El Dorado, the editor of the campus newspaper, The Traveler, and later a journalist for the Arkansas Gazette, Time magazine and National Geographic. They carried a message from students to the lawmakers and the state: The legislation being proposed trampled upon the human rights of American citizens, who would be criminalized for even expressing the view that Black people and others who might sympathize with them were entitled to equality and free expression and assembly. But he was blocked from testifying before the Legislature. Pryor was embittered by his experience that day, but, according to his memoir, it sharpened his understanding that politics and government — in Ouachita County, Little Rock or Washington, D.C. — did not follow the examples in civics textbooks.

He left Fayetteville with his degree but could not find a job. The Arkansas Gazette would not hire him, even when he volunteered to work free for a few months to prove his worth. Later, as a lawmaker and law student, he would be the Gazette’s Fayetteville correspondent. He married Barbara Jean Lunsford of Fayetteville, a classmate, and returned to Camden. In late 1957, he started a weekly newspaper, the Ouachita Citizen, with a printing press acquired from a local businessman. His wife and mother wrote weekly columns and reported, and Pryor sold advertisements and wrote editorials, often criticizing local government officials but mainly Gov. Faubus and legislators who went along with everything Faubus sought to do. The city’s daily newspaper, like most others around Arkansas after the 1957 school crisis, rarely took issue with the governor and the Legislature. 

Faubus took pleasure in taunting Pryor and his little paper. At a rally at Camden in his 1958 race against the meatpacker Chris Finkbeiner, whom Pryor supported, Faubus held up copies of Life and Time magazines and Pryor’s little paper, all of which had made Faubus look bad. 

“Life is for people who can’t read,” Faubus said. “Time is for people who can’t see, and the Ouachita Citizen is for people who can’t think.” The crowd roared, and Pryor crawled in his car and went home.

But in 1960, Pryor told the county’s representative in the state House, a family friend, that if he did not begin to oppose Faubus he was going to run against him. The representative demurred and Pryor made good on his promise. He was 26 years old. 

Pryor’s memoir said he got elected mainly owing to the relentless campaigning of Barbara, carrying their infant son, David, with her as she went door to door across the county asking people to please vote for her husband. The family briefly moved to Little Rock and sold the newspaper in 1962. He was elected twice more, in 1962 and 1964, while attending law school at Fayetteville when the Legislature was not in session. He finished law school in 1964.

Except for his votes, Pryor’s legislative record was unremarkable, which was not unusual for new legislators. A Civil War buff, Pryor read about battles in south Arkansas and at his first session in February 1961 he introduced and passed a bill creating Poison Springs Battlefield State Park about 8 miles from his home. (It was the site of one of the Confederates’ few big victories in Arkansas, a victory most notable for the slaughter of a Kansas infantry regiment that included former slaves. The Confederates took no prisoners and used wagons to crush the skulls of the captured Black men.)

Pryor became one of a handful of liberals who jousted with Faubus and the legislative “Old Guard” on a wide variety of reforms. Called “the Young Turks” in the media, Pryor, Virgil Butler, Sterling R. Cockrill Jr., Jim Brandon, Hardy W. Croxton, Ray S. Smith Jr. and Hayes C. McClerkin introduced bills outlawing the poll tax, reforming election laws, overhauling county purchasing and spending (Pryor had been on a grand jury investigating government fraud in Ouachita County), convening a constitutional convention, and overhauling highway administration. They got nowhere with the legislation. In 1961, Pryor introduced a bill to require competitive bidding on county purchases of more than $300, but he could get only a few votes for it each year. Faubus had another legislator, Harry Colay of Magnolia, put his name on a similar bill in 1965. It passed and Faubus signed it.

Pryor opened a law practice in 1964 in Camden with his friend Harry Barnes. He liked to mention a case where he represented a man in a dispute over who owned a coon dog. It was finally resolved by bringing the disputed mutt into the courtroom, which wandered around until it spotted Pryor’s client and put a paw on his knee. The judge immediately awarded him custody. But Pryor never got to practice a lot of law.

Faubus’s hostile relationship with Pryor took a strange turn in the summer of 1965. In law school at Fayetteville, Pryor had become a close friend of Faubus’s son, Farrell, a shy, portly and tormented young man who would take his own life in 1977 at the age of 36. Farrell had felt shunned and ridiculed by the other students and some of the faculty. He and Pryor studied, played golf, drank beer and got their law degrees together.

In July 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Congressman Oren Harris to a federal judgeship, creating a congressional vacancy that Faubus was supposed to fill for the last 16 months of Harris’s term by calling a special election. It was Pryor’s dream, but there was no time to put together a campaign organization throughout the large Fourth Congressional District. State Auditor Jimmie “Red” Jones, who was known to every voter in the state, would be the automatic winner. Pryor mentioned his problem to his friend Farrell. He would learn later that Farrell told his dad that Pryor had helped him get his law degree, was the only person at the university who befriended him and was about the only true friend he ever had.

Faubus dawdled about calling the special election for weeks and finally announced that the district did not really need a voting representative for the next year and a half, so he called the special election for the same day as the general election in November 1966. Voters would simultaneously fill the seat for the last two months of the year but also the following two years — two elections for the same seat on the same day. 

It gave Pryor more than a year to build a campaign. Red Jones then chose not to run because he would have to give up his safe lifetime job at the Capitol for a risky congressional election. Pryor won the special election and the general election handily. He defeated Richard S. Arnold of Texarkana, a future federal district and appellate judge, and three other prominent politicians from around the district, John Harris Jones of Pine Bluff, Charles L. “Chuck” Honey of Prescott and Dean Murphy of Hope. 

Late in life, Faubus and Pryor would cement a friendship, and he told Pryor that one of the joys of his life had been setting in motion the events that year which sealed Pryor’s long career in politics. 

Pryor’s three terms in the seniority-driven House of Representatives were hardly notable, except for a controversy that he engineered — a crusade over the mistreatment of the elderly and disabled in nursing homes — and his personal dilemma over the Vietnam War, which he eventually came to oppose. 

His mother told him that after visiting friends in nursing homes over the years, she had concluded that the warehousing of people in the profit-driven industry had to be a national scandal rather than a local one. Now that her son was a congressman, he ought to do something about it. Having little else to do as a freshman, Pryor started volunteering on weekends as an orderly in nursing homes in the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia, and recording the lack of staffing and lapses in medical care that he saw. His mother was right. Nursing homes often were just profitable warehouses for those waiting for the grave. 

Government inspectors often gave owners notice of their inspections, which rarely found lapses and, when they did, nothing was done about them. The industry had lobbyists who kept Pryor’s congressional colleagues and other government monitors at bay. 

Pryor made a speech on the House floor revealing his secret work. He said he had encountered only two nursing homes where he would put his mother, but he couldn’t have afforded either one on his $42,500 salary. He was attacked by Maryland’s state mental health director and people in the industry. Pryor called for the House to create a select committee on nursing homes and homes for the aged.  Despite his best efforts — he ran investigations and hearings out of two trailers in a vacant lot beside a gas station near the Capitol — Pryor found himself stymied until President Richard M. Nixon joined the cause in 1971, deploring conditions in nursing homes and proposing to end payments to substandard homes.

In 1974, two years after Pryor left the chamber, the House finally established the Select Committee on Aging, as the Senate had done in 1959. For the next 50 years, Congress, federal and state administrators, and the industry would wage battle over standards of care for the aged and the degree of regulation that government should provide.

At the time Pryor went to Washington, the U.S. had been engaged in the war in Vietnam for 10 years. (President Eisenhower sent the first U.S. troops in 1955 and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson raised the commitment.) After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, Congress gave Johnson new authority to dramatically expand America’s commitment, still without a declaration of war. By 1968, congressional and public opposition to the war had grown. 

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the presidential nominee, asked Pryor to make a short speech to the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in support of the Vietnam plank, an oblique statement that neither endorsed nor opposed the war effort. Pryor went to the convention as an Arkansas delegate having already alienated other Southern congressmen, especially Mississippians, by voting as a member of the Credentials Committee to seat Mississippi’s Freedom Democrats — including Black delegates and liberals — instead of the white delegation picked by the party in Mississippi. In his two-minute speech, he urged an end to the war but called for unity. Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright had already decided America’s war policies were improvident and conducted hearings that began to turn public sentiment against the war.

President Johnson, who’d had misgivings about the war from the first, had nonetheless made himself the champion of the war against communism in Vietnam. He became more and more sorrowful and morose as tens of thousands of Americans a year died, but he could not become the first president to lose a war. In 1967, Johnson asked Pryor to fly to Texas with him for rallies to pump up flagging support in his home state. Pryor would write that Johnson seemed glum and introspective the whole trip. 

Pryor understood why. As they were flying back to Washington at night in Air Force One, Pryor looked out the window and figured that the lights below were his hometown of Camden. 

“Mr. President,” he said, “it looks like we might be flying directly over Camden, Arkansas. That’s my hometown. If you look straight down at the ground, you might see Jim’s Café on Washington Street.”

The president leaned across him and looked out the window. He slumped back in his seat and shook his head. “God a’mighty!” he sighed. “I wish I was at Jim’s Café right now.” He was silent the rest of the trip.

For Pryor, the climax to the moral struggle over the war was more personal, as he would recall in “A Pryor Commitment” and oral histories. On a plane trip from Washington to Arkansas, he fell into conversation with a young serviceman from his district who was headed to Vietnam. Many months later, he got on a plane for the same flight back home and recognized the young man, in uniform. He asked the soldier about his tour of duty. The soldier pulled back a blanket across his lap, which showed that he had lost a leg in combat.

“Congressman Pryor,” the young man said, “I would not have minded losing my leg, if only someone had told me why we were there in the first place.”

Pryor sent constituents a newsletter announcing that he would thereafter oppose any further funding of the war, and calling for troops to be brought home. It was not an altogether popular step. At a fish fry at the Carlisle High School stadium soon afterward, a man ran out of the crowd, jumped on Pryor’s back and began hitting him and calling him a traitor. Mayor Bobby Glover pulled the man off Pryor. Decades later Pryor would write a letter to his youngest son, Scott, explaining his dilemma over the war and its consequences. He likened it to the contemporary dilemma over the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In 1972, Sen. McClellan, by then chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which had funded the development of the navigation dams on the Arkansas River, announced he was running for a sixth term. His hearings on labor racketeering had made enemies of organized labor. Unions representing wood, paper, oil, chemical and electrical workers in south Arkansas had supplied much of Pryor’s political strength. He announced that he was running for the Senate seat,  along with Ted Boswell, a liberal trial lawyer. Pryor survived a rough campaign in which he was accused of being a friend of draft dodgers and a supporter of gun control. (As a freshman legislator, he had sponsored a bill making it illegal to carry a loaded weapon in a vehicle inside city limits after a boy accidentally killed himself with a loaded shotgun in a Safeway parking lot.) 

TWO LEGENDS: John McClellan and David Pryor.

But Pryor was a close second in the preferential primary and entered the runoff as a heavy favorite, certain to get all the votes that had been cast for the more liberal Boswell. W. R. “Witt” Stephens, the gas baron and investment banker, summoned a meeting of the state’s banking and business leaders with McClellan in the boardroom of the Union National Bank at Little Rock, where everyone ponied up tens of thousands of dollars for McClellan or pledged to collect it.

The two-week runoff ended with a televised debate. McClellan, wearing a white suit, taunted Pryor for his support by unions and “labor bosses.” Pryor responded that the money reported on his campaign finance forms came from the cookie jars and overalls pockets of hard-working men. 

McClellan responded that Pryor had gotten $79,000 from “bosses” from outside the state. “David, David,” he taunted, shaking a finger, “this is no cookie-jar nickels and dimes!”

Pryor’s campaign gifts paled alongside the money from businessmen and bankers in McClellan’s campaign, and the 76-year-old McClellan’s commanding performance showed him as anything but a doddering old man. But McClellan’s victory in the election the next week depended more on the massive get-out-the-vote effort by political leaders, commanded by Witt Stephens. On election night, Pryor faced the TV cameras early, conceded and said the voters had elected the right man.

Stephens was watching television that night and was struck by Pryor’s magnanimity. Two years later, when Gov. Dale Bumpers announced he was not running for a third term as governor but instead would challenge Fulbright for the Senate, Stephens picked up the phone and called Pryor, suggesting that he run for governor. Pryor said he was about to call Stephens and urge him to run (they had served in the House of Representatives together as freshmen in 1961). Stephens said no, he was serious, and promised his full organizational support if Pryor announced. 

So he did, and so did former Gov. Faubus and Lt. Gov. Bob Riley. Faubus, making his second comeback attempt since retiring in 1966, was shocked to discover that nearly his entire political machine marshaled by Stephens — an old friend and supporter — had been diverted to Pryor. Pryor won without a runoff. For the rest of his life, Faubus remained bitter about his betrayal by Stephens while warming to the young man whom his son had once asked him to help. 

Providence seemed always to shine on Pryor at election time — but with actual governance, not so much. Dale Bumpers had raised income and motor-fuel taxes and closed tax loopholes. Furious economic growth filled the state treasury so that Bumpers could enhance public schools and higher education, build many state parks, improve highways, expand medical care and build hospitals and college classrooms. Bumpers called a special legislative session to spend the big surplus that accumulated in the treasury. 

The moment Pryor moved into the governor’s mansion, though, the nation was hit with a long recession complicated by inflation, and the state treasury was depleted. Pryor had to slash budgets and freeze hiring. In his four years as governor, Bumpers had carried out nearly all the reforms prescribed by the liberal group Democrats for Arkansas during the late 1960s — almost everything but a new state constitution, which became Pryor’s biggest goal. It was never fulfilled.

Pryor proposed a dramatic refashioning of state spending: a 25% reduction in state income tax rates and empowerment of local governments to implement the income tax themselves to address all the problems of cities, counties and schools. The Arkansas Plan, as it was called, consumed a legislative session. Pryor traveled the state promoting the plan, explaining to a group at Jonesboro that he was cutting state taxes and allowing people locally to use it in whatever way pleased them, jokingly suggesting that if they didn’t want to levy taxes to build roads and streets they could spend the money on “a new coon dog.” Gazette cartoonist George Fisher labeled it the “Coon Dog Plan” and thereafter always put a grinning mutt at Pryor’s side. The Arkansas Plan failed.

George Fisher’s depictions of Pryor often included a coon dog sidekick.

Another passion was fighting litter. Pryor hated the trash along the state’s streets and roads. He started a “Pick Up Arkansas” campaign and proposed a bill levying a small tax on soft drinks, pet foods, newspapers and plastic wrappers to discourage littering; the money would be used for highway and street cleanup. Local governments were encouraged to dispose of abandoned cars and refrigerators. The bill passed, but then a letter from the state revenue department to businesses on how to collect the tax warned that they could go to prison for failing to remit the litter tax. Legislators who had voted for the bill heard from merchants and demanded that Pryor call them back into session to repeal the bill before it took effect on July 1. He did, but always regretted it when he saw sandwich wrappers and soft-drink containers strewn on the roadsides.

Constitutional revision was Pryor’s biggest failure as governor. Voters defeated a liberalized constitution drafted by a popularly elected convention in 1970. Pryor decided to try again after taking office in 1975. The solution had to be to avoid the pitched battles over a few issues such as the state’s anti-union law (the Right to Work Amendment), usury, judicial elections and county government reform. He offered a bill calling for the appointment, by the Legislature and the governor, of 35 delegates who would write a new constitution but leave those and a few other features of the 1874 constitution untouched, and then submit the document to the voters in September. 

On the day the delegates convened, the state Supreme Court voted four to three to abolish the convention because the delegates were prohibited from changing some parts of the constitution. It had to be all or nothing, the court said. In 1977, Pryor tried again with a bill that called for the election of 100 delegates in 1978 and a vote on the document in 1980. But voters defeated that new constitution decisively.

But by then, Pryor had moved on to a different office. Sen. McClellan died in November 1977, and Pryor appointed Kaneaster Hodges of Newport, a lawyer and minister, to finish his term, which ended Jan. 1, 1979. Pryor soon announced that he would run for the Senate seat. So did U.S. Rep. Jim Guy Tucker of Little Rock and U.S. Rep. Ray H. Thornton Jr. of Sheridan. It would be a race between three friends and philosophical triplets. (A. C. Grigson, a Texarkana accountant, also joined the race, claiming to be McClellan’s philosophical successor.)

Pryor barely led in the first primary, and Tucker edged Thornton for the second spot. The runoff would also be amiable until its final days, when Tucker accused Pryor’s campaign manager of trying to persuade a friend on the state Public Service Commission to approve a rate increase for Stephens’ western Arkansas gas company in exchange for the Stephens family’s support in the runoff. 

Pryor won by a safe margin. Tucker later shrugged off his defeat. No one, he said, was going to believe that David Pryor did anything even slightly deceitful and wouldn’t blame him if he had.

The Senate years were Pryor’s most pleasurable. His Arkansas colleague, Dale Bumpers, was a close friend and an ally on most — but not all — issues. After their retirements, they became a popular team for television and political events, taunting each other and telling tall tales.

During the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan, both senators opposed much of the Reagan program, including tax cuts for the wealthy in 1981 and later the big binge of military spending. Bumpers, a deficit hawk, publicly opposed the tax cuts, and Pryor finally joined him by voting “present” on the roll call, the same as a no vote.

The month after the tax cuts passed, the nation fell into a deep 14-month recession with double-digit unemployment, the deepest since the 1930s. The charming Reagan was never blamed for the longest and deepest recession in modern times, or the staggering budget deficits and debt he ran up for eight years, or for the repeated tax increases that the president described as “revenue enhancements.”

Pryor also became a leading critic of Pentagon spending, calling attention to such excesses as orders for thousands of ballpeen hammers and toilet seats at hugely inflated prices. He also veered from Bumpers and the state’s four congressmen in his opposition to the development of binary chemical weapons. He opposed developing and storing the chemical weapons at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. Vice President George H. W. Bush, a friend who went to Congress the same time as Pryor, went to the Senate to cast the tie-breaking vote for the arsenal.

Even before Reagan’s election, the Pentagon already suspected that Pryor was not a votary, especially after he called attention to the perils of the Titan II missile system following a series of dangerous failures around the country and two catastrophes in Arkansas. When the Defense Department developed the Titan II system — 54 underground intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads — U.S. Rep. Wilbur D. Mills agreed to vote for President Kennedy’s tax cuts if he agreed to put a ring of 18 of the new missiles in Arkansas. A fire in a silo with a nuclear warhead near Searcy in 1965 killed 53 workers who were retrofitting the missile’s fuel system. In January 1978, a fuel transporter at a missile silo at Damascus overheated and sent thousands of gallons of deadly nitrogen tetroxide vapor over the countryside. In 1979, after more such leaks in the Arkansas and Kansas missile networks, Pryor and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas began regretting the placement of Titan sites in their states and talked about whether they should be anywhere near American citizens.

After rumors of incidents at the silos, Pryor in the summer of 1980 did his own secret investigation and found nine major incidents in the previous 14 months that could have endangered Arkansas lives. Clearly, the Air Force had been lying about safety at the Titan sites in Arkansas, Kansas and New Mexico. Pryor gave the detailed results of an investigation of the eight incidents to two Arkansas Gazette reporters, who described the incidents and Pryor’s conclusions. Surrounding residents were never told about any of them, despite an Air Force vow that residents would always be kept informed.

Pryor and Dole went to Congress to push an amendment to the Defense Department appropriation that called for an early warning system around all the silos. The amendment passed. Three days later, on Sept. 18, 1980, the missile in a silo at Damascus exploded, blowing the nuclear warhead and two technicians into the air. One of the men died almost instantly and the other was permanently injured. Two years later, the Pentagon decided to abandon the Titans for more advanced, and perhaps safer, missile systems. 

But Pryor’s negativity about defense weaponry and spending took a political toll, at least nationally. The payoff came in 1984, when the White House and party leadership persuaded Congressman Ed Bethune of Searcy — the Pryors and Bethunes were friends — to run against Pryor, with the promise of financial backing. More than 20 Reagan administration officials and Republican senators came to Arkansas for fundraising events for Bethune. Rev. Jerry Falwell, the influential right-wing leader, traveled to the state to call for Pryor’s defeat. 

Pryor eschewed the same strategy, feeling that Democrats from out-of-state would hurt rather than help him. Bethune’s ads said Pryor had voted against the popular Reagan on 77% of the issues in the Senate. The Saturday before the election, the president, who was approaching a landslide win of his own, made a speech at the packed Excelsior Hotel ballroom. 

“Don’t send me back to Washington alone,” Reagan said, with Bethune smiling beside him. Reagan carried Arkansas with 60% of the vote. Pryor got 57%. 

(In 1994, Pryor ran for reelection and no Democrat or Republican opposed him, a rarity in any state.) He spent much of his second term fighting for a taxpayer’s bill of rights to curb abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. Reagan signed Pryor’s bill into law in 1988.

Pryor’s last major crusade in the Senate was against the pharmaceutical industry. In 1990, he introduced the Pharmaceutical Access and Prudent Purchasing Act, which sought to end the spiral of drug prices; it would have allowed Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate with drugmakers on prices that would be charged to Medicare and Medicaid patients. The industry fought back. 

Pryor had a massive heart attack on April 15, 1991. The illness hobbled him for the rest of his career. Majority Leader George Mitchell and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas took up the cause of drug pricing, but they never were able to pass a bill. President Joe Biden took up Pryor’s cause in 2023.

Pryor also passionately sought to end the Electoral College, so that the winner of the popular vote would always be the next president. In 1992, sensing that the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot could tilt the election of George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton regardless of the size of Clinton’s election victory, Pryor again introduced a Senate resolution for a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College and assure that presidential election winners always took office. The Senate never sent the amendment to the states for ratification. 

At that time, only one popular election loser had ever become president — Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878. But two subsequent losers, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald J. Trump in 2016, became president. (Trump lost the actual balloting by nearly 3 million votes nationally.)

Like Bumpers, Pryor found relationships in Congress profoundly different after the ascent of Republican House leader Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s and the rise of figures such as radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh. Gingrich and Limbaugh turned politics into a war of good Republicans versus evil Democrats. Friendly Republicans departed and were replaced by politicians who called Democrats socialists and radicals who were out to destroy the country. 

Pryor did not run again in 1996; Bumpers made the same choice in 1998. The Capitol, they said, was no longer an enjoyable place to be.

Pryor’s retirement did not end his engagement with politics and government. In 2000, he became director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He taught courses at the University of Arkansas and gave his unexpended campaign funds to form the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the university. He was also the inaugural dean of the Clinton School of Government at Little Rock, serving for two years. After the murder of Bill Gwatney in 2008, he was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party for a spell. In 2009, Gov. Mike Beebe appointed him to a 10-year term on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, where he did not enhance his popularity by protesting the lavish spending on athletics and stadium additions. A massive stroke in 2016 curtailed his activity for good.

Survivors include his widow, Barbara; his sons and their wives, David Jr. (Judith), Mark (Joi) and Scott (Diane); his grandchildren, Hampton, Adams, Porter and Devin; and his great-grandson, Raven.