It brought quite a few responses from readers, that column from a few weeks ago, the one built around the competing presidential candidacies of two Arkansas Republicans: Governor Asa Hutchinson, wondering if there might be an opening in the primary GOP audience for something resembling old-school, centrist Main Street; and US Senator Tom Cotton, convinced that Main Street is the road to nowhere and that muscular conservatism just this side of MAGA is the ticket.
“It would be great if Arkansas could produce a president,” wrote one reader, either out of sarcasm or honest, if appalling, ignorance. A few others mentioned the 42nd president, and one recalled the failed White House campaigns of one of his gubernatorial successors. Overall, however, the responses appeared to have been submitted by newcomers to Arkansas. Or by natives under, say, 30 years old. Or who have, or had, no interest in politics or our political history. Here, then, is a sparse review of the Arkansans and their aspirations at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As noted, William Jefferson Clinton was the only one in our state to come all the way, having spent his first four decades aiming for it. His planning, aided by time, paid off. In 1992 he became the first candidate to overthrow an incumbent President, George HW Bush, since Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932; and the first Democrat after Roosevelt to win two full presidential terms.
Was Hillary Rodham Clinton “one of us”? (And what does that mean?) Well, she resided here and did admirable service to education in Arkansas for two decades. After moving to New York and one of her seats in the Senate, then the State Department, she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008; then, after winning her party’s candidacy eight years later, she lost the race to Donald Trump.
Today’s Hutchinson-Cotton rivalry has a rough parallel to the 2008 race in that two Arkansans were in contention – Hillary Clinton on one side and Gov. Mike Huckabee on the other. Fresh out of a decade in the Arkansas statehouse, Huckabee flew out the door, winning the Iowa caucus with huge help from fellow religious conservatives. He had respectable performances in other states before being edged out by Arizona’s John McCain. Huckabee tried again eight years later. No sale.
Looking back, in 2004 another Arkansan was seeking the Democratic nomination. The resume was formidable: Wes Clark was a Rhodes Scholar and, unlike Clinton, had a 34-year military record, including a Purple Heart from combat in Vietnam, and his service ended with four stars on every epaulette. Clark won the Oklahoma primary, but his success ended there.
In 1984, Dale Bumpers, then in his second term in the United States Senate, was one of Arkansas’ most popular politicians. Finally acknowledging what everyone had known for a long time: that he would certainly like to be president, Bumpers surveyed the landscape before deciding, correctly, that he belonged to Ronald Reagan. Four years later, Bumpers has been sniffing the air again and again. However, Clinton also relished the atmosphere, and like Bumpers, he opted against the race.
How serious was the campaign led by US Representative Wilbur Mills in 1972? Serious enough that the Second District Congressman, veteran House Ways and Means Committee ‘Mr. Chairman’ and one of the most powerful men in Washington, spent months and millions of dollars before ending officially on the effort at the Miami nominating convention. Mills’ attempt was, however, a curiosity. He was hardly a telegenic candidate, and his record on civil rights legislation negated the appeal his work on Medicare and Social Security legislation had for older Americans. Despite his national (actually, global) influence, Mills was essentially a preferred son candidate; and many have wondered, in retrospect, if his pursuit of the presidency was an illusion fueled by a drinking problem that would soon become public knowledge.
Favorite sons – they never fail in Arkansas or other states. They’re a pleasant enough diversion provided the charade doesn’t last too long, delaying the inevitable or denying the presumptive contender a quick kill at the convention. Arkansas Republicans naturally proposed the name of Winthrop Rockefeller in 1968 and Brother Nelson did not object since Richard Nixon was on his mind. While the chaos at Central High is still rife and the civil rights movement is gaining momentum, Arkansas Democrats have nonetheless put Governor Orval Faubus’s name up for nomination before boarding the Kennedy juggernaut.
So, an Arkansan considering a run for the White House, or actually entering the contest, is nothing new. Winning the race is (almost) unprecedented.
Steve Barnes is the host of “Arkansas Week” on Arkansas PBS.