Clinton's victory brings pride and redemption to fellow Arkansans

November 05, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Through all the years of his self-imposed exile in New England, Arkansas novelist Donald Harington heard every joke about barefoot Ozark hillbillies. He saw all the bland sneers of dismissal when he mentioned his home state. And he felt the sharp guilt by association with every pointed reference to the events of 1957, when Gov. Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard just to keep some black kids from going to a white school.

So, by the time he began writing in the early 1960s about life back in the Arkansas hills, he was motivated by equal measures of homesickness and a desire for redemption. He cured the homesickness 12 years ago by moving back to Arkansas, but his latter yearning wasn't completely satisfied until the polls closed Tuesday night.

"With the election of Bill Clinton," Mr. Harington said, "I think everybody in Arkansas feels a tremendous sense of redemption. People in the rest of the country will know that they have to reckon with us, in the same sense that Clinton had to be reckoned with . . . We may be unwashed and ignorant and all the other things the nation thinks we are, but we are extremely individualistic. We have fierce amounts of energy and pride."

Amen, other people in this state would readily add, having awakened yesterday with the righteous joy of forgiven sinners. As the moment of Mr. Clinton's victory drew near this week, sentiments similar to Mr. Harington's were expressed all over Arkansas, in a phenomenon akin to that of a patient on the psychiatrist's couch finally bursting out with the buried secrets of the past.

"It seems there is not a people anywhere in the land who have a greater inferiority complex than in Arkansas," said Ernie Dumas, a longtime newspaper columnist in Little Rock and now a journalism professor.

So, whether or not Arkansans think Mr. Clinton was a good governor, many see him as a symbol of their state's rise from the squalor of its dreary reputation, a bad image driven home as recently as last month by no less than the President of the United States.

That happened in the heat of a campaign debate, when President Bush called Arkansas "the lowest of the low." Not long afterward he demonstrated he didn't know where Arkansas was (this by someone from next door in Texas), by saying it was "a small state between Oklahoma and Texas."

People here were used to such treatment, and the hurt of their tender feelings goes back a long way.

Among the more prominent early bashers of Arkansas was H. L. Mencken, who wrote in 1921: "I know New Yorkers who have been to Cochin China, Kafristan, Paraguay, Somaliland and West Virginia, but not one who has ever penetrated the miasmatic jungles of Arkansas."

Far more damaging, though, may have been two innocent little figures of fiction, the namesake characters of the famous radio show, "Lum and Abner." They carried on as only bumpkins could, a sort of redneck version of "Amos 'n' Andy" behind the counter of their Jot 'Em Down store. Based in Arkansas, of course.

"They were both kind of dumb, real hicks, and they were just hilarious," Mr. Dumas said. "Everybody loved them, but still, here was Arkansas, a little old hick state."

The image has been so hard to erase that Arkansans still find evidence of it when they tell outsiders where they're from.

Ann Muse, who helps run a Little Rock bookstore, said: "We were in Las Vegas at the bookseller's convention and we had a cab driver ask if we had pigs and mud in our back yard. And he was serious. After that we wondered what kind of place people rally think this is. We hear from publishing people all the time who will say they don't even know where Arkansas is."

In the meantime, no one seems to remember that in 1932 Arkansans voted into office Hattie Caraway, the first woman ever elected to a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

Or that former Sen. William J. Fulbright was among the first members of Congress to oppose the Vietnam War.

But for all the stereotypical narrowness of Lum and Abner, at least they were fictitious. Mr. Faubus was real, and in 1957 he obliterated a reputation for progressiveness by getting his back up over school integration. It took a federal court order to get Mr. Faubus to withdraw the National Guard, and then President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to call out the 101st Airborne Division to ensure safe passage for black students through a jeering, cursing mob of upset white parents outside the marble steps of Central High School. Television showed the scene to the nation, and the images were indelible.

"Maybe you need to be from here to understand it, but when you grow up in the shadow of 1957, we still feel the shame of that," said John Brummett, a Clinton antagonist who writes for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "And we still feel a need to prove ourselves."

Mr. Harington said: "When I grew up in Arkansas, people had a very painful sense of being the butt of national ridicule and national ignorance."

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