The press conference began with a wink and ended with a kiss.
The wink could not have been intended for press (i.e., public) consumption, a la Sarah Palin. Bobbi McDaniel’s head was turned toward her husband, the Arkansas attorney general, and away from the roomful of reporters and photographers. The couple entered the room together, from behind a blue curtain, and the flick of her right eyelid, visible only from a front-row plane, was a last gesture of wifely encouragement before she retreated from camera range and he stepped fully into it.
He would not, McDaniel said, ask her to join him on the podium: “This situation is entirely my fault, so I cannot ask her to stand up here simply for the purpose of easing my burden.”
A half-hour later, at the conclusion of the event, there was the kiss, Mrs. McDaniel bussing her husband before they withdrew, and if the smooch was not spontaneous certainly no telephoto lenses were required to capture it.
The moments between the wink and the kiss were McDaniel’s alone, and he made the most of them, even if making chicken salad from something else was beyond his capacity.
Yes, he had sinned, had broken his marriage vow with “inappropriate” conduct during his “limited interaction” with a Hot Springs lawyer in 2011; yes, had disappointed family, friends and allies. But, no, the relationship had not affected the performance of his office in defending the state’s interests in a half-dozen cases in which the lawyer was opposing counsel (the state prevailed in all of them); no, there was no breach of professional ethics or canons, no misuse of public funds. And, no, he had no knowledge of the shooting death of a man on the lawyer’s lawn, or of the continuing investigation thereof.
That was the sum of the personal and purely professional aspects of the situation, at least from McDaniel’s point of view.
The political dimension:
“There is no other shoe to drop,” McDaniel said, cutting to the chase, as it were, with the precise imagery repeated endlessly among the Arkansas political class in the three weeks since he preemptively disclosed the relationship. “There are no other women.”
“It wouldn’t take another shoe,” said one veteran of the arena following McDaniel’s press conference. “A slipper would be enough.” He was alluding to not only the voting public but to the political players, many in McDaniel’s native Arkansas Delta, who helped him amass a million-dollar treasury before the first required campaign finance report. Many donors, especially those who might have preferred to bide their time but who were encouraged to get on board early, were enraged (“livid,” one of them described himself to me) at news of McDaniel’s indiscretion. The attorney general’s declaration that no additional footwear dangles — he was unequivocal — nonetheless may leave some of his contributors, certainly including those who have not kicked in the legal maximum, feeling slightly airsick. He has no choice but to abide potential donors who opt to hold back for now. His next campaign finance report, due January 15, may not be as telling as the one required three months later.
So, too, the first fundraising document filed by Asa Hutchinson, the Rogers attorney, former U.S. Representative and Bush II administrator who has all but formally announced as a Republican gubernatorial candidate and who is the only household name yet to concede an interest — zestfully, in Hutchinson’s case — in seeking the governorship. Although thrice an unsuccessful nominee in statewide races, Hutchinson (or another Republican who demonstrates significant appeal in an increasingly reddening Arkansas) could expect significant support not only from within our borders but from national GOP organizations anxious to expand the party’s already notable majority (30) of statehouses.
A possible factor, pre-November: will McDaniel’s present difficulty embolden a serious challenger in the Democratic primary, compelling the (still) party favorite to spend time and money fighting for a nomination that seemed all but assured?
“It isn’t helpful,” was McDaniel’s understated response when I asked how bad the damage. All he can do is ask for forgiveness and a second chance, he said. The campaign continues.
Scarcely anything more could have been expected from McDaniel at his press conference. Not so, however, the travails of the Hot Springs attorney, whose child custody litigation and difficulties with the local judiciary continue, as does the probe of the killing on her curb. She will remain in the news, keeping McDaniel in the news. Indeed, within hours of his news conference she was signaling an eagerness to share her version, an interpretation that may not comport with McDaniel’s.
The wink and the kiss would seem to bear out McDaniel’s assertion that his wife has forgiven him. She only has one vote.
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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.