It was a measure of Winthrop Rockefeller’s naiveté as well as his zeal that he ran for a third term as governor in 1970 because he earnestly thought that Arkansas voters were furious at the legislature for stomping all his bills to raise their taxes. He was convinced that they would throw the rascals out and return him to office to usher in the Era of Excellence that he had so long proclaimed.
Sure enough, voters did toss a bunch of his tormentors in the legislature but they also unceremoniously dumped Rockefeller, giving him fewer than a third of their votes. No Arkansas governor ever received such a sound thrashing, and none was ever so undeserving of such a harsh rebuke.
Winthrop Paul, his son, would have been 21 then, and when he announced last week that he would run for governor next year, he no doubt remembered with fresh poignancy his father’s heartbreak at that humiliating defeat. The sorrow stalked him to a hasty death three years later.
We can be fairly sure that Win Paul, the term-limited lieutenant governor, does not share his father’s misplaced faith in voters’ yearning for dramatic progress in the battle against ignorance and social and economic injustice. He has not been caught beseeching lawmakers to raise taxes to improve education, although in truth it has never been the place of lieutenant governors to stake out a position on taxes or anything else that matters.
But something else seemed vaguely to be missing in Rockefeller’s announcement, which was prosaically delivered in a letter to Republican Party leaders. Oh yes, the zeal.
Rockefeller borrowed his father’s catchphrase, Era of Excellence, but he gave no hint about what it meant. There will be plenty of time for that, to be sure, and the elder Rockefeller used it vaguely at first, or at least he did not say that it would entail taxes, very high ones for the wealthy. But if Rockefeller wants to recapture the dream, claim the mantle or at least just win the hearts of a band of supporters he will have to say with a little clarity where he wants to take us.
When Asa Hutchinson, his projected chief opponent for the Republican nomination, gets in the race or state Sen. Jim Holt, it will be fairly clear where God wants Arkansas to go the next four years. It will not be toward the horizons where Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller led.
No one knows where young Rockefeller — well, he’s 56, four years older than his father when he first ran — stands on any of the issues of the day, except he is dead set against any gun control. It has been thought that he was a proponent of abortion rights but he seems to be trying to figure out where he stands on that. He admires his father’s famous passion for ending racial bigotry and discrimination but what does that mean today? Affirmative action?
He will run on his father’s memory, finely burnished here in the 50th year of his coming to Arkansas with fresh assessments of the elder’s high place in history, but next year it will have been 40 years since his father’s defeat. Rockefeller must run and win in a Republican Party controlled by angry conservatives whom the elder repudiated in 1962 when he took over the party.
If he wraps himself warmly in his father’s memory, Hutchinson or Holt and maybe even the Democrat will ask just what part of the great legacy of his father, arguably the most liberal governor in Southern history, he intends to carry on.
His horror at the death penalty? Gov. Rockefeller made the most eloquent statement against executions ever uttered in December 1970 when he commuted the sentences of every man on death row. He had made it clear from his first race that he would never allow a man to be executed on his watch.
His ardor for the minimum wage? He was the father of the state minimum wage, now rendered near meaningless by his recent successors.
His advocacy of much higher taxes? Rockefeller tried to raise taxes by 50 percent in 1969, including a personal income tax rate of 12 percent on high incomes and a sales tax on the fees of lawyers, architects, accountants and doctors.
Winthrop Paul, to put it charitably, is not glib or a particularly gifted politician. He cannot, like Clinton, Bumpers, Huckabee or any of the other facile politicians of the age, finesse hard issues where his own code may not jibe with most voters’ notions. His daddy just blurted it out, and voters in 1966 and 1968 admired it or were tolerant.
In 2006, the son may find there is nothing to do but join them. He will have to do it sooner rather than later if he is to carry the day in Northwest Arkansas, which is where the Republican votes are. He would not do his daddy proud, but in politics you can’t have everything.