LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—I first visited this town as an investigative reporter trying to learn why authorities had railroaded a man named James Dean Walker for a sensational 1963 shootout in which a North Little Rock policeman was killed.
Walker had found Jesus behind bars, earned a degree, started a Jaycees chapter, and been a model prisoner. But North Little Rock cops invariably rallied to prevent his parole and one day Walker walked away from a furlough. He showed up in California where he lived peacefully until he was picked up a few years later.
There was some evidence that Walker was innocent—and I was looking for more—but by the time I arrived in Arkansas, the career politician his lawyers had hoped would pardon him was no longer in a position to help. That pol was thirty-something governor and presidential wannabe Bill Clinton. But then Clinton up and lost in an upset to Democrat-turned-Republican Frank D. White.
Several factors were in play regarding the 1980 defeat of Arkansas’ gubernatorial boy wonder, not the least of which was Ronald Reagan’s presence on the November ballot. Clinton had raised automobile registration fees, which was predictably unpopular, and was blind-sided by Jimmy Carter’s decision to house thousands of Cuban refugees at Fort Chaffee, where they rioted.
Then, there was the matter of Hillary Rodham, who as first lady of Arkansas had not yet taken her husband’s surname or adopted the South’s more genteel ways and softer accents. In any event, Gov. White had no solicitude for James Dean Walker, who would require intercession of another kind if he were to be freed.
I remember leaving the Little Rock airport feeling sorry for him, as well as for the slain officer’s widow, whom I interviewed while trying to decipher the riddle of her husband’s killing. I recall thinking something else, too: that Arkansas’s economy and culture were so much like a Third World country’s—and its politics so shady and incestuous—that it was unlikely to ever produce a U.S. president.
Ten years later it did, however, and it may do so again soon—and I don’t mean former Gov. Mike Huckabee (who once compared Arkansas’ elections to those in a “banana republic.”)
If one accepts the Third World analogy, Bill and Hillary Clinton are the Juan and Eva Peron of Arkansas, and perhaps of the United States. They live in Washington and New York these days, Little Rock not holding much allure, especially for her. But both Clintons are more popular than when they lived here, and ever-present to visitors and residents alike.
For the past year, travelers arriving at Little Rock’s little airport (formerly known as Adams Field after an Air National Guard pilot killed in the line of duty) deplane at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. For the uninitiated, there’s a helpful museum-style exhibit featuring Bill and Hill, with the attendant flattering photos, in the terminal.
Part of the main drag in downtown Little Rock has been renamed President Clinton Avenue. It ends, seven blocks later, at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. The University of Arkansas has renamed its school of public service after Clinton.
It’s not only Arkansas. Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., was named after Bill. And in New York, the Clinton Global Initiative, an arm of the ubiquitous Clinton Foundation, holds an annual meeting that all but eclipses the United Nations meetings taking place contemporaneously. The 2014 soiree, held last week, included Bill and Hillary as well as whatshisname, the dude currently warming Hillary’s seat in the Oval Office.
President Obama gave two speeches in New York last week, one to the U.N. on climate change and one at the CGI, on the need for the U.S. to support democracy and civil society in China, Russia, and Venezuela. As Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign starts forming, Republicans have devised a snarky way of characterizing her bid. “Barack Obama’s third term,” they call it.
Their logic is obvious enough: Obama’s declining job approval rating is starting to put him in George W. Bush’s second-term territory. But dismissing Hillary this way is too cute by half—her presidential ambitions precede Obama’s—and miss the essential zeitgeist of the voting public’s mood.
If George W. Bush was the cowboy who led the United States willy-nilly into war, diverting attention from Afghanistan while he pursued Iraq—and getting bogged down in both—then Barack Obama is the ditherer who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq too early and vowed to intercede in Syria and didn’t, leading to a disaster in both countries.
American voters gravitate in national elections to candidates with traits they have decided were lacking in the previous president. So Bush the rustic flag-waver gives way to Obama the sophisticate raised overseas. But what we really want is someone both tough and smart—and, after the Obama Era, someone who comes to the job with more experience.
The sounds like Hillary to me. She can be simultaneously tough and diplomatic.
Three decades ago, one of James Dean Walker’s allies was left-wing activist and author Jessica Mitford. Her personal papers, housed at Ohio State University, include correspondence between Mitford and Mrs. Clinton about the case. They met in 1971 while Hillary clerked at a radical law firm in Oakland, Calif., where Mitford’s husband, Robert Treuhaft, was a partner.
In those letters, unearthed by New York Sun reporter Josh Gerstein, Mitford makes her case that Walker not be extradited back to Arkansas. It’s a disingenuous correspondence on both sides. Mitford, who had not kept in touch with Clinton in the intervening decade, presumes on a friendship that didn’t really exist to persuade the first lady to lean on her husband to do something he doesn’t want to do and probably shouldn’t.
For her part, Hillary uses friendly banter about her family life, including the birth of Chelsea, to deflect the points about Walker’s case. An irritated Mitford, in a letter to one of her editors, described Clinton’s response as “essentially a form letter…hedged round with personal bits of news.”
In the end, the Clintons held fast, Bill lost in 1980 anyway—but won the 1982 rematch with Frank White—and Walker was freed by other means. Hillary’s relationship with Mitford didn’t suffer, either. The month after she became first lady of the United States, Mrs. Clinton wrote Mitford’s publisher a note expressing admiration of the author.
When Mitford died four years later, Mrs. Clinton sent a handwritten condolence note to Treuhaft. “Everyone who knew Decca will miss her humor, wisdom and pointed observations about life — and about the rest of us,” she wrote.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter carlcannon
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