Paul Greenberg

To document his claim, this undisputed champion of Arkansas politics (at least till Bill Clinton came along) ran through the litany of social and economic programs he'd supported. Just as he would regularly do every two years and gubernatorial election thereafter. That's when Roy Reed asked him the question that History would then and forever ask: "But what about '57?"

Orval Faubus explained that he was no racist. No serious observer of Arkansas politics ever thought he was; he was much too intelligent for that. No, he was something worse: an opportunist who exploited the racism of others in order to retain political power. He'd done what he'd done, he explained that day, to keep worse types at bay.

Any politician tempted to exploit race will always find such an excuse. Call it the Willie Stark Theory in honor of the hero - well, the protagonist - of "All the King's Men." It can be summed up as: Better to do some evil than invite a greater one.

Or as Willie would put it, good itself is never pure but inseparable from evil, for evil is what good must be made out of. The great leader has to make compromises to further some greater good, like his own precious career. (See the indelible signature of J. William Fulbright on the infamous Southern Manifesto.)

But this rationalization fails the test not only of idealism but practical politics. For we'll never know what would have happened if Orval Faubus had decided to champion the law of the land, not to mention the brotherhood of man, instead of his own indispensability.

Who knows, he might have been able to rally the better angels of our nature and make Arkansas a shining light of racial amity - instead of making Little Rock a worldwide synonym for race hatred. It was a reputation the people of this state and city never deserved. Only now, half a century later, has that image finally faded. It would take a succession of real reformers in the Governor's Mansion, like Winthrop Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee, to remove the stain.

But what's a political leader, or any mortal, to do when faced with a choice between an abstract ideal and real, practical gain? The choice is always so complicated, or appears to be.

Which is the path of wisdom between conflicting counsels? The answer is the same as it has been since Job's time: "And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.