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Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal.

It is in the nature of things that this review must begin with a disclaimer. As the world now knows, it is exceedingly difficult in a small state like Arkansas for a public figure like, say, the governor, to do business public or private with a banker with whom he is not personally acquainted. Writers being rather less common than bankers in these latitudes, it is virtually impossible for one Arkansas author to comment upon the work of another to whom he is a stranger. I first met Roy Reed when he returned to Arkansas from a successful career as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times to piddle with cattle at his farm in Hogeye and teach journalism at the University of Arkansas. We shared an office there one semester 16 years ago and have enjoyed several evenings together over the years.

More importantly, when his old paper printed a hostile, dismissive review of my book Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater, Reed wrote a letter to the editor of the Book Review saying how much it pained him to say that the Times had gotten both Whitewater and my book wrong. Such is his reputation among his former colleagues that the newspaper felt compelled to print it. Please forgive the indulgence. As I've been very scornful of the buddy system of book reviewing during my career as a literary journalist, there's simply no way I could write about Reed's book without making what politicians call "full disclosure" up front.

Then there's the matter of Arkansas itself. The story of the life and times of Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus is above all an Arkansas story, and it's also in the nature of things that those of us who call this screwy little place home tend to feel very emotional about it. Exactly why local patriotism runs so strong here is hard to say. The state's physical beauty has something to do with it. But so does its tumultuous social history; also the very intimacy I spoke of earlier. Living here is a bit like living in a small country. Even during the Clinton era, the state remains as strongly flavored and provincial as it's possible for an American place to be. Arkansans are proud and touchy, highly resentful of condescending outsiders, yet bitterly self-critical and riven by old wounds that haven't quite healed over.

Reed's biography of Faubus partakes of that same passionate ambivalence. Besides the lyrical clarity of his prose, it's one of the book's best qualities. Orval Faubus' futile defiance of the federal government during the 1957 Little Rock Central High integration crisis shamed his native state before the nation and the world. It also succeeded in winning for Faubus himself near-dictatorial powers which he used ruthlessly to suppress dissent, punish his political enemies and line his own pockets. If ever the state of Arkansas deserved the accusations of backwardness and corruption thrown at it by Bill Clinton's enemies, it was during the last five of Faubus' six terms as governor. (Even though some of Clinton's bitterest Arkansas detractors were among Faubus' strongest allies, a fact that has escaped the national media almost entirely.) Yet even so, Reed cannot bring himself to treat the man with unreserved scorn.

"A biographer," he writes,"ought to be able to say with some conviction that he has found out what makes his subject run. This biographer spent hundreds of hours listening to his subject and looking him in the eye and is forced to admit that Orval Eugene Faubus is more mysterious now than when the process began.... It is not just that he was opaque. He appears still in my mind, even after his death, as an insoluble mixture of cynicism and compassion, of guile and grace, of wickedness and goodness. I have observed his life off and on for forty years, and I still don't know whether he was good or evil, or even whether those are the choices. There was a time when I knew. But that was long ago, and I was young"

Out of the Ozarks

Back at the beginning, Orval Faubus seemed just about the least likely Arkansas politician to lead the state into a racially charged confrontation with the federal government. He grew up in poverty in remote Madison County, deep in the Ozark Mountains near the Missouri border. Slaveholding there, as in much of the upland South, was virtually unknown. More of Faubus' ancestors had supported the Union than the Confederacy during the Civil War. Reed's evocation of Faubus' backwoods hillbilly childhood--his perilous log cabin birth, the rows of tiny infant graves in the cemetery at Combs where his people are buried, the omnipresence of death and disease in an area that resembled a Third World country at least up to World War II--rings with eloquent authenticity. Orval Faubus weighed two-and-a-half pounds at birth; his mother later told people he could have fit into a quart jar with the lid screwed down.

It wasn't keeping blacks down that preoccupied Ozark country folk during the hard-scrabble years of Faubus' childhood. It was staying alive and praising Jesus (although Faubus' own religious beliefs appear to have been largely expedient). Such racial bigotry as existed wasn't a great deal more passionate than generalized suspicion of all outsiders. Indeed Faubus' father Sam was a lifelong Socialist and follower of Eugene V. Debs--hence the son's middle name. He preached racial tolerance and the brotherhood of the working man, and there's no evidence that Orval disagreed. Black leaders who became Faubus' antagonists during and after the Central High crisis said they never felt he bore them any personal animosity. His actions were purely opportunistic. Does that make them better or worse?

As a young man during the Depression, Faubus was a migrant worker, riding the rails to Michigan and Washington state to cut timber and pick apples. Back home, he became a country schoolteacher for several years at near-starvation wages before volunteering for the military during World War II, where he saw combat as an Army intelligence officer. By Arkansas standards, he began his political career as a reformer and progressive. How could he not? At the time reformist Democratic Gov. Sid McMath appointed Faubus to the state Highway Commission in 1949, his home county had a total of 12 miles of paved roads.

During his first gubernatorial campaign in 1954 against Gov. Francis Cherry, a Little Rock establishment lawyer who boasted of having cut welfare rolls by 10,000, Faubus' standard stump speech included the story of an old country man whose benefits got cut because he sold a few chickens to generate a bit of extra cash. Deprived of state assistance, the old man had no choice but to take his wife and move in with relatives in California: "The youngest daughter came in and loaded those two old people in a car and drove them away from that house forever and took them away, and they died in a foreign place and were buried there," Faubus would say. "The old man cried as they went down that valley. They said you could have heard him a quarter mile" In the days before welfare became politically equated with blacks, Reed points out, that story played well with rural white Arkansas audiences.

Governor Cherry's second big mistake in 1954 was to redbait Faubus on account of his 1935 attendance at Commonwealth College, a socialist institution that had flourished briefly in the Ouachita Mountains near the town of Mena, Arkansas. Faubus' war record helped protect him, but it was his flagrant lack of candor about his one-time leftist enthusiasms that carried the day. "What made Faubus' lying remarkable," Reed says, "was its sheer imaginative vigor and virtuosity" By election day, he'd given at least seven overlapping but distinct versions of the story, each more self-serving than the one before. Certainly Faubus' actions are mitigated by Cherry's attempt to smear him with what Reed calls "the great lies of American history ... that the Red conspiracy was about to turn us all into cowering, authoritarianized puppies" Lying his way out of tight spots, however, got to be a habit.

Once elected, Faubus went to work on the kind of program favored by his allies at the Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock's dominant newspaper: road building, improved teacher salaries, and industrial development. He asked Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, a walking symbol of American capitalism who had recently settled on a cattle ranch on Petit Jean Mountain near Russellville, to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission--in effect, serving as the state's ambassador to the world of high finance. All that enterprise got swallowed up by the dark demiurge of race, however, when the Central High integration crisis confronted Faubus with the political challenge, and opportunity, of a lifetime.

Reed's meticulous explication of that sad event occupies the book's middle third, as well as its concluding chapter. "The one big thing that Faubus got wrong," he concludes, "was colossally, biblically wrong. But it was not simple" The plan approved by the Little Rock School Board for complying with Brown v. Board of Education was the essence of "gradualism" If enacted, it would have effectively delayed all but token integration almost indefinitely. Left to his own devices, Faubus would have let it go forward. But even that was too much for racist demagogues like Jim Johnson, the founder of Arkansas' White Citizen's Council and its most spellbinding orator. A native of Crossett, in south Arkansas near the Louisiana border, Johnson is best-known today for his starring role in the scurrilous Rev. Jerry Falwell-sponsored video called "The Clinton Chronicles" Through the good offices of Floyd Brown's "Citizens United" and The Washington Times, Johnson also served as Whitewater figure David Hale's conduit to the national media.

Johnson began to assail Faubus as a "rigger lover" and worse. As the opening day of school approached in September, 1957, he and fellow bigots began a deliberate campaign to convince the governor that blood would flow in the streets of Little Rock if he allowed nine black students to enroll at Central High. Caravans of armed men were said to be headed to Little Rock from all over the state. Whether or not that was ever so remains hard to say. Johnson boasted to Reed that "there wasn't any caravan. But we made Orval believe it. We said, `They're lining up. They're coming in droves.' ... The only weapon we had was to leave the impression that the sky was going to fall"

An Accidental Racist

The great historical irony of Faubus' calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from enrolling at Central, of course, is that it forced a reluctant President Eisenhower's hand to send in the 101st Airborne to keep the peace and enforce the law. "The constitutional crisis provoked by Orval Faubus in 1957," Reed judges "was a watershed in civil rights history, not because of its success on behalf of `massive resistance' but precisely because of its failure. Faubus became not only the first bold symbol of its resistance. He also, as it turned out, set in motion the beginning of its end."

In so doing, however, Faubus shamed the state of Arkansas for at least a generation. Embittered by the opposition of many who had backed his progressive agenda--including the Arkansas Gazette, which won two Pulitzer Prizes for its editorials urging obedience to law--Faubus turned increasingly reactionary over the next decade. In an effort to cripple the NAACP and root out subversives, the Arkansas legislature passed, and Faubus signed, the notorious Act 10, a measure requiring all state employees and teachers to list under penalty of law every organization they belonged to or contributed to financially. Lest white citizens be "tainted" by non-white blood transfusions, another law required the racial labeling of blood supplies. While the Arkansas State Police turned a blind eye to wide-open casino gambling in Hot Springs, its Criminal Investigation Division became a veritable redneck KGB: devoting extraordinary resources to spying on citizens suspected of subversive tendencies.

"In pursuit of its mission," Reed writes, "the CID infiltrated organizations, tapped telephones, secretly tape-recorded meetings, compiled lists of group members, ... fingered state employees suspected of integrationist or anti-Faubus sympathies, and collected damaging personal information on political opponents and seemingly ordinary citizens. The gumshoes were especially alert for signs of adultery and homosexuality" (The remnants of this ragtag army, it's worth pointing out, have found work with political operatives, tabloid reporters and so-called "mainstream" journalists seeking dirt on Bill and Hillary Clinton. That they've dug up so little real information may indicate how vastly overblown is the President's reputation in this regard.)

How then can Reed summon so much sympathy for Faubus himself? Because in the end the man wasn't evil, merely weak. A hillbilly populist at heart, it was himself more than anybody else whom Faubus betrayed in the debacle at Central High. Rather like the most prominent Arkansas politician of our own era, Reed thinks Faubus "was a natural man of the middle. His gift was for compromise and consensus. When he was not distracted by race and intoxicated by ambition, he wielded that gift with uncommon skill. He had already achieved some of the more realistic goals of the political center when he was overtaken by the Central High crisis. He panicked"

Even so, things might have been worse. Reed speculates about what might have happened if Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard not to deny, but to protect those nine brave children from the mob outside Central High in 1957. Might the rabble-rousing Jim Johnson not have taken the governorship away from Faubus in 1958? "As governor of Arkansas, he would have carried the fight to the bitter and certain end," Reed thinks. "The feds might have had to take him by force, along with whatever fellows of fortune who had elected to go down with him.... And back home, Arkansas would have had to climb out of the abyss once again, much as it had done after the Civil War."

Briskly narrated and beautifully written, Reed's book seems all but certain to become the standard work on the Faubus era, and a minor classic of American political biography.

Gene Lyons is a columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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Author:Lyons, Gene
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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