Monday, April 30, 2012

The Arkansas Rockefeller

Tomorrow would have been Winthrop Rockefeller's 100th birthday.

It may seem inappropriate to refer to him — as my headline does — as "the Arkansas Rockefeller" — although that is the title of a book about Rockefeller that was written by a friend of mine, John Ward (the longtime editor of my hometown newspaper and my early mentor), more than 30 years ago.

Rockefeller was born in New York City, as were most of his siblings, but he put down roots in Arkansas.

Most people probably know the Rockefeller name. John D. Rockefeller Sr., Winthrop's grandfather, founded Standard Oil in 1870. Winthrop's father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., took over the family business and fortune and was well known for his philanthropic activities.

John D. Jr. had five sons, including Winthrop, and one daughter. They were high achievers. Winthrop's sister Abby remained mostly out of the public eye, but his brothers were captains of industry and financial and political leaders.

Compared to his sister and brothers, Winthrop may have been seen by many as the black sheep of the family. He attended Yale, but he didn't complete his degree work there. He was given the boot for misbehavior.

Winthrop was decorated for his service in World War II and achieved the rank of colonel, but perhaps he felt a need to make his mark someplace else, someplace far away from his family.

Arkansas may have met all of his requirements. No other Rockefeller (to my knowledge) ever had any influence on life in Arkansas — other than, perhaps, the original John D. and his petroleum business. Anyway, Winthrop moved there in 1953 and established a cattle operation on Petit Jean Mountain in the central part of the state.

He might have chosen to live out his life in relative obscurity (at least as much as anyone named Rockefeller could), but he decided to try to make his mark in Arkansas politics. He began somewhat tentatively, I guess, supporting Republican candidates against longtime incumbent Orval Faubus in 1960 and 1962 (when Arkansas still elected its governor every two years).

He made his first foray as a candidate in 1964 when he challenged Faubus. Rockefeller lost that race, but he had sown the seeds for growth in the Arkansas Republican Party, which was almost nonexistent before Rockefeller moved to the state. The growth of the party in Arkansas is as much his legacy as anyone else's.

And that strikes me as somewhat ironic because Rockefeller and modern Arkansas Republicans don't seem to have much in common. I have observed Arkansas politics from a distance for the last couple of decades, but it seems to me that Arkansas' 21st–century Republicans have far more in common with the state's Democrats of the mid–20th century than with Rockefeller.

Speaking of which ...

Several weeks ago, I came across an article about Rockefeller's first successful campaign for governor of Arkansas in 1966.

The article, written by John Kirk for Arkansas Times, brought back a lot of memories for me. I was a small child in those days, but the memory of those times is still quite vivid.

Kirk observed — and I think most Arkansans who remember those days would agree — that the 1966 election marked an important turning point for Arkansas — and, by extension, the United States and the world. Rockefeller never won an office with greater prestige than governor of Arkansas, but if he hadn't won that election, it might not have been possible, Kirk wrote, for a young man named Bill Clinton to be elected governor a decade later and go on to be elected president.

"Without Rockefeller's 1966 victory there may well have never been a Clinton presidency," wrote Kirk, chairman of the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"At the same time, paradoxically, Rockefeller's victory also paved the way for the emergence of a two–party system in Arkansas and laid the longer–term foundations for the Republican Party to become a force in state politics."

Of the latter, I can truthfully say that I had thought of that myself — that Arkansas became a much more competitive state politically after Rockefeller was elected governor.

That wasn't necessarily good news for the Democrats who had dominated state politics for so long — but it was good news for democrats (lower–case D) and the cause of democracy.

But, frankly, I had never thought of Rockefeller's victory making a Clinton presidency possible. The more I think about it, though, the more I am inclined to think that Kirk might be on to something there.

Rockefeller defeated a man named Justice Jim Johnson, who happened to live a mile or two down the road from my house. I went to school with his twin sons, played with them in the afternoons after school dismissed.

We spent nights at each others' houses. I attended their birthday parties, and they attended mine.

To me, Jim Johnson was a kind and fatherly neighbor, more of a father to me in many ways, really, than my own father. He was the father of my friends and classmates and a great influence on me in my formative years.

I was too young to understand that he was a segregationist, an ardent supporter of the likes of George Wallace, possibly the most notorious Southern politician of that time. He even managed Wallace's 1968 independent presidential campaign in Arkansas.

At the time that Rockefeller was elected, I was sorry that my friend had lost. But I was merely a child at the time, and, in hindsight, I'm inclined to believe it was a good thing that Rockefeller won — for many reasons, not the least of which was Rockefeller's general commitment to improving the quality of life for all Arkansans.

I guess the centennial of Rockefeller's birth is an occasion for a lot of reflecting on his influence in Arkansas. I haven't lived there in awhile, but I have noticed several retrospective articles online about his four years as Arkansas' governor, and it is gratifying to know that he is remembered.

My parents, as I have observed here before, were Democrats, and they were active members of a group called "Democrats for Rockefeller." My mother did a lot of door–to–door canvassing for Rockefeller in '66, even though his opponent was our neighbor.

Rumors circulated at the time that Rockefeller's campaign was bringing in Republican allies from other states to pose as Democrats in order to persuade Arkansas citizens to elect a Republican governor.

Such stories may seem ludicrous today — or, perhaps not, given the adversarial nature of modern American political campaigns — but they seemed plausible then, particularly in the South where it was common knowledge that "outside agitators" had been shipped in to the region to help enforce civil rights and voting rights reforms.

Consequently, many Arkansans were suspicious of anyone claiming to be a Democrat for Rockefeller. "Are you really a Democrat?" my mother was asked countless times, and she always responded the same way: "Yes, I am, and when the Democrats have a candidate I can support, I will vote for him."

Mom and Dad had to keep that promise in 1970, when the Democrats nominated a previously unknown centrist country lawyer named Dale Bumpers. I know it hurt them to vote against Rockefeller. They appreciated all the things he had done — or tried to do — for the state, but Bumpers was a candidate they felt they could support, and they had told many people that they would vote for a Democrat they found acceptable — and their word was their bond.

Bumpers defeated Rockefeller in the general election, and Rockefeller withdrew from the public spotlight. He died of cancer a couple of years later.

His achievements survive him.

Arkansas Times observed recently that, without Rockefeller's support, the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, for which ground was broken 50 years ago last August, "might have taken a much longer time to become reality, if ever."

The article about the Arkansas Arts Center brought back memories of days I had forgotten.

Sometime in the mid–'70s, my mother enrolled my brother and me in summer art classes at the Arkansas Arts Center. We tried all kinds of media that summer. We did some drawing, some painting, some sculpting. The classes met daily during the week for about six weeks. At the end of that time, each student's best work was part of a display at the facility.

It was a fun class. It didn't spark anything like a career in art for my brother or me, but it did enhance our appreciation of art — and we both tend to be rather creative (we really take after our mother in that regard) so maybe we have applied things we learned in that class to our future endeavors.

And that is really what Rockefeller was hoping for, I think. As Leslie Newell Peacock points out in the Arkansas Times article, Rockefeller was approached by a local group from Little Rock to head the effort for the arts center. Rockefeller declined the offer but promised to help find a chairman for the fund–raising drive, insisting that such a facility needed to be "for the whole state of Arkansas."

Mission accomplished.

It really goes without saying that Winthrop Rockefeller left quite a mark on Arkansas — even though his time in office was brief (at least when compared to Faubus or Clinton).

But it's something that is worth remembering on what would have been his 100th birthday.

No comments: