In May, Butler Center Books will publish “The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of a Political Mind,” a political memoir from the longtime Arkansas Times columnist and former Arkansas Gazette editorial writer who has been reporting on Arkansas leaders since 1954, when Orval Faubus won his first gubernatorial election, defeating incumbent Gov. Francis Cherry. The book provides an often deeply personal insider’s reflection on the politicians who shaped the modern history of the state: Cherry, Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, John McClellan, J. William Fulbright, Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and others. The following is an excerpt from Dumas’ book.
For a while, in the winter of 1961-62, amid his fourth two-year term in office, Gov. Orval Faubus toyed with the idea of retirement, or at least a respite from politics and the unrelenting anxieties of governing, which are particularly vexing when you have no one, not even a family member, with whom you care to share your misgivings, regrets, or apprehensions. He had had some health problems, traceable to stress, and it was clear that in 1962 he would have serious opponents for the first time since 1954. He dreaded one in particular, Sid McMath, the former governor who, along with Harry S. Truman, had been his earliest hero. Both Faubus and McMath had served as officers in some of the worst fighting in World War II, Faubus in the Battle of the Bulge and other European campaigns and McMath in the Pacific. After the war, both joined the “GI Revolt,” a political reform movement that peaked in the first elections after the war, in 1946 and 1948. McMath was elected prosecuting attorney in Garland County in 1946, but the Madison County voters who had twice elected Faubus to the office of circuit clerk before the war rejected him for the office of county judge in 1946, in favor of a Republican who had not gone to war. Faubus acquired the local weekly, the Madison County Record, and his columns cheered McMath, the Marine hero from Hot Springs. When McMath was elected governor in 1948, he appointed the young man from Greasy Creek to the state Highway Commission, brought him into his office as executive secretary, and then made him the highway director. McMath would lament in 1962 that his big highway program had built the first paved road into Madison County and let Orval out.
McMath’s mere entry into a race against him was a reproof of Faubus’ desertion of the progressive movement, and a defeat at the hands of his old mentor would be especially bitter. McMath had counseled the White House and Justice Department in September 1957 about how to enforce the law without sending federal soldiers, which he thought would be too reminiscent of the Civil War. During the campaign, Faubus would accuse him of complicity in the “forced integration” of Central High and predicted that McMath would use force to integrate other Arkansas schools.
But McMath was not the only serious prospect. Congressman Dale Alford — who with the silent help of the governor had defeated Brooks Hays in a write-in campaign in 1958, after Hays had tried to broker a compromise between Faubus and President Eisenhower in 1957 — had to run for something. Arkansas lost a seat in the House of Representatives after the 1960 census, and the legislature’s reapportionment of the state into four districts threw Alford into a district with U.S. Rep. Wilbur D. Mills. Alford knew he couldn’t beat Mills; besides, Mills had persuaded House Democrats to accept Alford, who had opposed a Democratic nominee, and to include him in the seniority ranks. W.R. “Witt” Stephens, the president of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company and the most powerful man in the state, worried that Alford might take on his man, U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, who Stephens feared was vulnerable to a glib segregationist like Alford. Stephens sent his political agent, an insurance broker named Jack Gardner, to Alford with a message: It was pretty certain that Faubus would not run, and with Stephens’ support Alford could walk into the governor’s office. Alford jumped into the race. Privately, Stephens, like Faubus, had no use for the unctuous eye doctor and figured that Faubus, if he did run again, would take him out easily.
“Somebody said Dale Alford is like unto a wasp,” Stephens confided. “He is bigger when he is first hatched than he’ll ever be again.” Jim Johnson tried to persuade Alford that Witt Stephens would never support him, but Alford decided the race was his best political option. Faubus did, indeed, announce that he would not run again, but after a spell he realized how miserable and useless he would feel out of office. His wife, Alta, sensed it and told him to run again. They ginned up a draft-Faubus movement, and he accepted the draft.
Marvin Melton, a big (literally) Jonesboro farmer and businessman who was president of the state Chamber of Commerce, got into the race and told McMath that if McMath got into a runoff with Faubus he would endorse McMath and together they would finally end the Faubus reign. Witt Stephens would take care of that, too. As journalist Roy Reed recounted, Stephens knew that Melton had once helped start an insurance company by buying stock at $1 a share and then had sold the stock for $15 a share. It sounded crooked. Those were the freewheeling days when anyone could start an insurance company in Arkansas with no real capital. Stephens tipped a newspaper reporter, who asked Melton about the stock. Melton decided to get out of the race. Five years later, Melton climbed into his single-engine Beechcraft to fly to Dallas and was never seen again.
The field of Faubus foes eventually included Kenneth C. Coffelt, a loudmouthed trial lawyer who fancied himself to be the second coming of Huey P. Long; Vernon H. Whitten, a soft-spoken man who set out to fill the dignified-businessman slot in the field; and David A. Cox, a one-eyed rice farmer from the town of Weiner in Poinsett County, who rarely made the news but when he did inspired headlines like “Weiner Farmer Claims …”
Arkansawyers again got to see the most impressive politician in the state’s history, though fleetingly. It had been 10 years since McMath, two years out of the governor’s office, almost upset the state’s senior senator, John L. McClellan, in a farfetched comeback campaign after the “McMath highway scandal” in 1952 had cost him a third term. At an unusually fit 60 years old and soon to be promoted to brigadier general in the Marine Corps, McMath cut a fine figure on the stump with his trademark blue suit, red tie and brimmed white hat. McMath nearly sprinted down sidewalks shaking hands, and he vaulted over balustrades in bank lobbies to meet secretaries, clerks and bank executives. He was the best orator Arkansawyers had ever heard, unless they happened to have caught one of William Jennings Bryan’s declamations in 1899 or 1910. But unlike other super-politicians like Bill Clinton, McMath couldn’t remember people’s names, calling women on his staff “Sweetheart” and the like. I traveled with him for three weeks — until Faubus’ Selective Service director instructed Margaret Black, who ran the draft office in Union County, to put me at the top of the September draft and I left the campaign and the paper to head to Fort Polk, La., for infantry training. McMath always called me “Eddie,” despite an aide’s murmuring to him from time to time that it was Ernie. But personal campaigning and rallies were fading in importance, because television and radio gave most people about all the intimacy with politicians they coveted. McMath didn’t have money for much of a media campaign. He made a short film in which he attacked Faubus’ control of all the regulatory mechanisms of government, which were used to enrich his big supporters, like Witt Stephens. McMath pointed to a giant blowup of a menacing, cigar-chomping Stephens, who 15 years earlier had been his own biggest supporter.
If your gold standard for a politician was high-mindedness, unflinching honesty, or mere individuality, then your candidate in the primary was David A. Cox. All the memorable utterances from that campaign and most others fell from the parched lips of the sunburned farmer, a rail-thin man who usually wore a starched white shirt and black trousers from which the long end of his belt drooped eight or nine inches, which suggested that sometime in the distant past he had shed many pounds but had never invested in a shorter belt. Cox had lost an eye, several fingers and part of an ear as a youngster when he tried, as he explained it, to crawl through a barbed-wire fence with a loaded shotgun.
While no reporters were around, Cox showed up at the Capitol and paid his filing fee for the Democratic primary. Secretary of State Nancy Hall gave him a biographical form to fill out, which helped reporters identify who the candidates were, their ages and something about their backgrounds. She said Cox told her he didn’t want any publicity, so there was nothing on the form but his name and the town Weiner. We couldn’t find him and that is about all that appeared in the papers.
A couple of weeks later, Bill Shelton, the Arkansas Gazette city editor, told me that a guy named Dave Cox had called and asked for the location of the office of Amis Guthridge, the head of the Capital Citizens’ Council, the white-supremacy group that had fought school integration through the 1950s. Shelton asked him if he was the candidate for governor. He was. Cox told him he was going to go over to Guthridge’s place and “clean that sonofabitch’s plow.”
The previous day I had covered a news conference at the Greyhound bus station on Broadway, where Guthridge and a couple of other Citizens Council members put two African-American women and their 23 children on a bus with tickets to get them to Hyannis Port, Mass., where President John F. Kennedy had a family compound. The Citizens Councils in Arkansas and other Southern states that summer put poor black people on buses with a few dollars and shipped them to Hyannis Port — the famous Reverse Freedom Rides of that year. Guthridge made a grinning little speech in which he said he was sure the Kennedys would see to it that “these fine people” were given a good life up there.
I drove over to Guthridge’s shabby little law office on West Markham Street just as Cox spun into the gravel parking lot in his red Chevrolet Impala, on which he had strapped a sign saying “Dave Cox for Governor.” He stormed into Guthridge’s tiny office, where two black men were seated. Cox offered one of them a cigarette, which he declined.
“Hell,” Cox said, “we might be riding on the same bus.”
Guthridge came out of his cramped office and Cox accused him of “inhumanity, injustice and insulting the people of Arkansas.” Guthridge took him inside his private office and tried to close the door. They argued for 40 minutes. Cox demanded to know what the Capital Citizens’ Council stood for, and Guthridge demanded Cox’s position on integration. Cox launched into a long spiel that ended, “If God didn’t create us all integrated, who did?” Guthridge had no answer. Cox wanted to know if Guthridge, as a lawyer, thought it was a just thing to do to put two poor women with their huge families on a bus for a New England town without telling them what was likely to be in store for them. Guthridge asked him what the people of Weiner would do if the government said they had to integrate.
“I guarantee you,” Cox replied, “they would mix without incident if the courts said so.” As he barged out, Cox said to me, “I’m a humanitarian and I wouldn’t give a blind man the wrong directions.” Pointing at Guthridge, he said, “I think he would.”
A week or so later, I drove up to Weiner on a Saturday for Cox’s kickoff fish fry, which was to be in a small park beside the Union Pacific railroad track. He had a couple of tubs of fresh catfish sitting in the June sun, but the two men he had hired to fry them didn’t show up — bought off by Orval Faubus, Cox guessed. The handful of hungry townspeople walked away. Amid bursts of cursing, Cox began to gather up a lot of liquor bottles to tote back across the railroad to his car and asked for my help. He stumbled and fell while crossing the tracks and most of his whiskey drained between the crossties. We picked up the unbroken bottles and the fish and got them into his car. After he drove away, the town’s mayor sauntered over and talked about Cox. Dave is an expert farmer, maybe the best around, the mayor said, but he would go off to Memphis and get drunk for days at a time and his house was just a mess. Shaking his head ruefully, the mayor said you could walk into Cox’s living room and he’d be sitting on the floor working on a tractor engine right there, with oily parts all over the rug.
One of the first appearances of the candidates was at the convention of the Arkansas Press Association at Fort Smith. After their brief talks, the five candidates who were present fielded a few questions from the newspaper folks, and a high school senior — there, no doubt, with an editor parent — asked the candidates what advice they had for a person who was graduating and going out into the world. Each of them got up and gave some variation of the standard spiel: Arkansas is a state with rich opportunities, great colleges, good industries and abundant natural resources; you could build a wall around the state and it would be self-sufficient.
Cox, slouched deeply in a chair on the flank, was last. He strode to the lectern, pulled up his britches, leaned into the microphone, and said: “I’d tell ’em, ‘She’s a low-wage state. Git out and git out fast!’ ” He went back and flopped into his chair. It was a standard for honesty that I would never see matched.
Shelton assigned three reporters to follow the three main candidates — Faubus, McMath and Alford — for the final three weeks of the campaign, and each of us was supposed to drop off now and then and see what the three also-rans were doing so that we might write profiles of them for the Sunday paper before the primary. I caught Cox at one event and arranged to travel with him the morning after the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry, an annual political event sponsored by the Arkansas Poultry Federation. I left my car near the Gazette building that day and traveled to Mount Nebo with a Gazette photographer. Cox caused some murmuring in the crowd at that event by cursing several times and by declaiming, “I aim to live to see the day when we’ve got a Negro president,” although I believe he used the cruder adjective. Before dawn the next morning, I met Cox at the nearby Old South restaurant at Russellville for breakfast and the two of us took off in his Impala. He had attached speakers on top of it. It was a fruitless morning. We would park on the square at cities along the Arkansas River — Russellville, Clarksville, Booneville, Ozark — and he would get into an argument with the first oldtimer he encountered, declare it a Faubus county, and move on. In Fort Smith, we stopped for a hamburger and a beer. Like the rest of the day, lunch lapsed into a monologue about Faubus, the racist culture of the state, and the special interests’ control of the state government. The little people didn’t have a chance, didn’t know it and didn’t care. And he kept downing beers.
In the late afternoon, spotting the bus station down the block, I told Cox I had to get back to Little Rock and caught a bus. Arriving back in Little Rock about midnight, I walked into the Gazette city room. The night editor said they were wondering where the hell I was, and he showed me an Associated Press story from Springdale. Cox had been arrested there earlier in the evening for being drunk in a public place. People complained that he was playing popular band music — Guy Lombardo, I believe — over his loudspeakers in a residential neighborhood and trying to make a speech. He spent the night in the Springdale jail in a cell with three snoring drunks. He couldn’t make bond the next morning because he had only $4, which included a lucky $2 bill that he didn’t want to give up. He tried to offer his glass eye as collateral, but the police wouldn’t take it. They finally raised the small bond from policemen and inmate trusties and let him go. The municipal judge declared the bond forfeited when Cox didn’t show up for his court appearance. Cox told a Springdale reporter that he was sick of Arkansas and was taking his campaign outside the state. He drove to Harrison, where Faubus had appeared on a Highway Department goodwill tour to show off his highway improvements.
“Give me a quart of whiskey and a crop-dusting plane and I’ll do the same,” Cox said. He declared that he had seen all he wanted to see of the mountains and hill people. “From now on, I’m going to stay in east Arkansas, and Crowley’s Ridge will be the highest hill I’m going to get on.” He headed for eastern Arkansas and home.
That was Friday. Saturday, Cox was arrested east of Crowley’s Ridge in the county-seat town of Harrisburg, 16 miles east of his home, for brandishing a gun in public and disturbing the peace. He had a pistol in the doorway of the town’s bank. Cox offered a plausible excuse for his behavior and the municipal judge dismissed the charges.
For the Gazette’s profile before the election I asked Cox why he had run if he knew at the outset that he had no chance of winning.
“It’s worth $10,000, or whatever I’m spending,” he said, “just to be able to tell my granddaughters, when they read in the history books about what the governor did at Little Rock, that I did my best to get him out. I didn’t just vote against him; I ran against him. It’s just a shot in the dark, but you can’t tell what will happen in Arkansas politics, if you can get your votes counted.”
Faubus received 209,000 votes, a majority by only 6,000, but enough to avoid a runoff. A few machine counties might easily have delivered the winning margin. It was the next-to-last election under the poll-tax system, where a few people or just the county sheriff alone could hoard poll tax receipts for scores of individuals and cast all the votes for a single candidate or a slate. McMath beat Alford for second place by 658 votes. McMath never ran for office again, but a survey of historians at the end of the century ranked him among the three most successful Arkansas governors of the 20th century. Alford ran twice more, for governor in 1966 and for Congress in 1984, both times proving Witt Stephens’ adage that, like a wasp, he was bigger when he was hatched than he would ever be again. Dave Cox finished last, which is where Faubus’ pollster, Eugene Newsom, predicted he would be with an overly generous 1 percent. Cox’s army of populists numbered exactly 2,149.