Exhibit chronicles political ‘circus’
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas never lacked in larger-than-life political figures, long before Bill Clinton or Mike Huckabee ever arrived on the stage.
From Joe T. Robinson’s nomination as vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1928 to Hattie Caraway’s emergence as the nation’s first elected female senator four years later, Arkansas’ political history has been dominated by near-mythical characters and feuds.
Those stories are the focus of “A Circus Hitched to a Tornado,” an exhibit at the Old State House museum in downtown Little Rock chronicling the state’s political history in the 20th century. The yearlong exhibit opens Thursday. The exhibit’s name comes from a reporter’s description of Caraway’s whirlwind tour in the 1932 election of three dozen towns within a week with Louisiana Sen. Huey Long.
Packed with photos and memorabilia focusing on a dozen elections during the century, the exhibit begins with Jeff Davis’ election as governor in 1900 and ends with Huckabee’s victory in the race for lieutenant governor in 1993.
“They really were the elections that were the most transformative,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College who served as a curator of the exhibit with veteran political reporter Ernie Dumas.
The exhibit shows how much the state has moved forward from the early 1900s, when candidates relied on entertainment and personality to help win support at the ballot box. A campaign poster for Thomas McRae, who served as the state’s governor from 1921-1925, lures supporters with the promise of 10,000 pounds of barbecued meat and 5,000 pounds of fish.
Barth said the exhibits show that the large personalities go beyond just Clinton and Huckabee, whose 1993 victory eventually led to his 10 1/2 years as governor and his failed bid for the White House this year.
“Clearly, Bill Clinton is a very entertaining and effective politician and Mike Huckabee is a very entertaining and effective politician,” Barth said. “That in some ways goes back to those roots of politics as entertainment but it’s in an environment where politics is seen as mattering a lot more.”
The exhibit also shows how much has changed. A faded brochure for Carl Bailey’s re-election campaign touts the governor’s “socially liberal and fiscally sound” administration. Alongside the brochure is a portable Corona typewriter used by Bailey.
“It was used regularly by him on the campaign trail. It’s not something that just sat in his office,” said Jo Ellen Maack, the museum’s curator.
Other items in the exhibit include a tie that David Pryor wore when he served as a driver touting Francis Cherry’s unsuccessful re-election for governor in 1954. “It’s Cherry picking time in Arkansas,” reads the tie donated by Pryor, who went on to serve as governor and senator.
Pryor’s successful run for the Senate in 1978 is also featured in the campaign, including one of the $25 watches featuring a cartoon of Pryor that he used to raise money for his bid.
A nearby exhibit shows the worn shoes and fedora worn by Orval Faubus, the governor who became notorious for his efforts to keep Little Rock Central High School segregated in 1957. The exhibit also features a record and sheet music to “We Like Faubus,” a song written to promote Faubus’ campaign.
A 1912 campaign for Robinson’s successful gubernatorial campaign touts his opposition to statewide prohibition, a rare memento from that campaign. Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Robinson was elected by Davis to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, giving him the rare claim to having served as a congressman, governor and senator within a two month span.
The worn wooden gavel that Robinson, who was nominated as Alfred Smith’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket in 1928, went on to use as permanent chairman of the Democratic convention that year is also on display.
Aside from the dozen elections, the exhibit focuses on themes that have appeared throughout the state’s political history from scandal to the state’s role nationally. One exhibit chronicling the state’s struggle with race displays an ad for a 1924 Ku Klux Klan rally in Little Rock but also showed a picture from the 1968 memorial service Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. — the only southern governor to honor the civil rights leader after his assassination.
On the Net:
Old State House Museum: www.oldstatehouse.org
Published in The Messenger 4.25.08