The election is over, the dust has settled, and the time has come to concentrate on the art of governing.
In Arkansas, a big question mark is whether the Legislature will be able to govern in the best interest of Arkansans or whether partisanship will rule the day. The follow-up question — the bigger question, really — is who will emerge as the statesman (or statesmen) among Republican lawmakers. I guess in today’s politically correct world, that should be “statesperson” or “statespeople,” but those don’t resonate and I contend “statesman” isn’t gender specific.
Many years ago I moved from editor of a daily newspaper to the other side of the building as that paper’s advertising manager. At the same time, I pretty much picked my successor on the editorial side — a guy who had been the newspaper’s lead reporter, but had served in several capacities over the years. I remembered him from high school as the man who worked the weekend desk, which meant being the editor when the real editor wasn’t there, deciding where stories went in the paper and writing all headlines. So, I knew he had the background and understood all aspects of the newsroom.
Once he was offered the job, he asked me whether he should take it. He enjoyed reporting and was good at it. I told him it was a good opportunity, but that his biggest obstacle would be replacing himself on the staff. I told him he had done a lot of good things for the paper — occasionally at my direction but more often on his own accord — and that he would need someone who could make him look as good as he had made me look.
“You can’t do both jobs and be effective,” I warned him.
Someone would have to step up and be the person he could rely on to follow through on the big stuff yet make sure nothing fell through the cracks. He needed someone who could represent the newspaper in a positive way in the community, yet be tough and fair at the same time — no easy task.
He never found the right person. There’s some question about whether he really tried. He didn’t want a new boss on the one hand but he didn’t want to let go of his reporting duties, so he tried to do both. He hired someone, but that person did not have the experience or the ability to do the job. So, my friend didn’t last. He moved on to government work and never returned to newspapers.
The situation isn’t exactly the same with the Legislature and the governor’s office as Arkansas moves forward with its first Republican-controlled lawmaking body since Reconstruction, but there are some similarities.
For one thing, Gov. Mike Beebe must find a new him. Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, the Republican Legislature must find people who can work with Beebe for the good of Arkansas. The statesman legislators and governor must meet regularly and they must work together on the important things while not sweating the small stuff.
Turn the clock back to the 1990s and put Republican Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office — a new Republican governor needing to work with a Legislature dominated by Democrats. Enter Mike Beebe, state senator extraordinaire and his equally able sidekick, Morril Harriman, now Beebe’s chief of staff. The Senate held the legislative power; bad legislation passed by the House would die in the Senate, never the other way around.
It would not be fair to say Beebe and Harriman controlled the Senate, but it would be fair to say they were the most respected members and a lot of other senators depended on their advice and leadership.
It was Beebe (and Harriman) who extended an olive branch that Huckabee accepted.
It was almost a daily ritual — Beebe and Harriman marching to the governor’s office and sitting down with Huckabee to find ways to work on compromise legislation with nobody worrying about who got the credit. Huckabee got and deserved accolades for being a leader and that was OK with Beebe and Harriman, the statesmen.
Beebe now is playing the Huckabee role, although his experience and knowledge of state government, especially with Harriman’s input, far outweigh Huckabee’s situation at that time. But Beebe must either identify Republican statesmen or the statesmen must extend the olive branch to Beebe for state government to work ( the way it should) for the betterment of Arkansas.
Beebe can’t be the editor and the reporter. It won’t work.
• • •
Dennis A. Byrd is chief of the Arkansas News Bureau and has covered government and politics in Arkansas for more than 20 years. His e-mail is email@example.com