Once again Arkansas Democratic politicians find themselves burdened with a presidential nominee they’d prefer not come near them.
This circumstance — a Democratic presidential candidate seeming to be culturally alien in Arkansas — goes back 36 years, to when Dale Bumpers was governor.
Though plenty liberal himself for our culturally conservative if economically populist state, Bumpers knew better than to align too closely with the presidential nominee of his party in 1972. That was George McGovern, whose candidacy was a pointlessly losing proposition in Arkansas, not to mention everywhere else.
In 2004, U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, Democratic congressman from South Arkansas, told me during the Democratic presidential primary that he’d be comfortable traveling his 4th District with only two of the candidates, Wes Clark or John Edwards. Instead he got John Kerry, he of the F from the National Rifle Association, which writes the fifth gospel for South Arkansas.
This time Arkansas Democratic office-holders thought good fortune had smiled upon them. Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, would be the presidential nominee. They could afford to embrace her openly as a favorite daughter.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, the most transparently ambitious young Arkansas Democratic politician, signed on as Hillary’s state chairman. He liked to tell people about her duck-hunting exploits that one time.
Ross cleverly told me he needn’t worry about traveling the 4th District with Hillary, because, you see, she knew the way on her own. Never mind that I doubt you could put her at the wheel of a Chevy Malibu without a road map and trust her to show up on her own in Norphlet. (You go to El Dorado and ask.)
So here we are with Barack Obama, who narrowly defeated Hillary for the nomination. He’s African-American. His name sounds like Osama. He was rated the most liberal member of the Senate last year by the National Journal. He has that former preacher who decreed that God should damn America and that the United States government is responsible for the AIDs virus.
Gov. Mike Beebe, quintessential Arkansas Democratic office-holder, was on the radio the other day when he got asked about Obama. He emphasized that he’d supported Hillary. He said a friend of his had expressed a deep-seated fear of Obama on account of those previously cited matters. He did manage to speculate that Obama was patriotic.
It was politically understandable, if a little ungrateful. On the weekend before the general election in 2006, Beebe benefited from an electrifying appearance by Obama at a get-out-the-vote rally at the state Capitol. But that was when Obama was a rising young star and best-selling author known mainly as a stirring speaker. It was before we’d ever heard of Jeremiah Wright.
Hillary suspended her campaign Saturday and called on her supporters to join her in endorsing Obama. So how did Arkansas Democratic office-holders react? They put out a joint written statement through the state Democratic Party praising Hillary and saying, almost as an afterthought, that they’d be joining her in supporting the party’s nominee.
By issuing a joint written statement, you see, they could avoid saying anything nice about Obama individually.
There was an exception. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter issued his own statement. In Washington, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry was said to have “swallowed hard” before saying yes when he had the misfortune to be asked directly by a reporter if he supported Obama.
All of this falls somewhere between convenience and cowardice. The Democratic state constitutional officers are in the middle of four-year terms, so there’s no immediate electoral complication for them. And neither Mark Pryor nor any Democratic congressman from Arkansas drew Republican opposition this time.
Maybe they’ll find some nerve if Obama picks Hillary as his running mate.