My son became a state legislator Monday and is soon to be graduated from law school. I thought of his mother as I climbed the long, long flight of marble steps at the Capitol up to the House chamber, then the little staircase to the crowded gallery for a bird's-eye view of the swearing-in ceremonies.
After her first unhappy marriage to an attorney - it was nobody's fault, these things happen - my wife harbored a suspicion of lawyers in general for the rest of her life. Nor might she have considered becoming a politician a great step up. As a general class, they rank down there with newspapermen. And here her boy was about to become both a lawyer and a legislator. At least, I thought, the woman was spared this.
How embarrassing it must be for a legislator to have a father who retells family stories in the public prints for all to read. Hey, that's no more embarrassing than having a son who is a member of the Arkansas Legislature. Nothing has changed, really, except that the political disputes at the dinner table that so distressed his mother have moved to the public arena. Well, some things have changed. The food was better back then.
Approaching the top of the elegant staircase, I thought of what John Dean had said about rising to the inner sanctum of the Nixon administration: The higher he rose, the lower he sank.
I can no longer peer around our state Capitol's echoing marble halls without thinking of July 15, 1996, and the chaotic opera bouffe that took place here that day. One governor was about to be sworn in but the other refused to leave. It was a stand-off worthy of one of the smaller Latin American principalities, or maybe the sovereign state of Georgia. Didn't it once have two or maybe three contending governors for a couple of months circa 1946-47?
At least our game of Arkansas Bluff in '96 lasted only four hours until Jim Guy Tucker collected himself and his things and made way for his successor, Mike Huckabee. The new governor was a rock throughout that first and maybe biggest crisis of his long tenure, and was even gracious about it afterward. What a roller-coaster ride that was.
That kind of thing explains why the vista down Little Rock's Capitol Avenue from Main Street hasn't been quite the same since they moved Henry Moore's striking "Standing Figure, Knife Edge" over to the side of the street. The defenseless feminine figure used to face straight down the avenue directly at the Capitol; she seemed to be silently shrieking in well-grounded fear at what the Legislature might do next. Which may be how the whole state feels the day the Legislature convenes. Hide the women and children!
But this morning at the Capitol, on opening day of the 2007 the regular session, all the familiar features are in their accustomed place: the great pillars and columns, the tiled floors and vaulted ceilings, the tall Corinthian columns and good ol' Tim Massanelli in the parliamentarian's chair. Everything is as it should be.
Down on the floor, my son and his wife can be seen chatting amiably with other members of the 86th General Assembly of the State of Arkansas. There are smiles all around. I imagine that, just before the games began at the Coliseum, the gladiators probably exchanged pleasantries, too.
All the rituals are duly observed, including the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem sung by a past Miss Arkansas. I hadn't realized how eloquent the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner" were till I saw them translated by the interpreter for the deaf. Ordinarily much may be lost in translation; on this occasion, much was gained.
All 100 state representatives-elect are sworn in, and can now drop "elect" from their title. I see that the state rep who ranks 100th in seniority - dead last - is one Dan Greenberg of House District 31. He's also been named, last again, to a ceremonial committee dispatched to inform the state Senate on the other end of the Capitol that the House is now duly organized and ready to conduct business, God help the state of Arkansas.
I hurry down to shake the new state rep's hand and give him a congratulatory hug as he leaves the House chamber, heading over to the Senate with the rest of the committee. I see he's all aglow with his new job; he always did love politics. He doesn't have much time to chat right now. "I'm afraid I've got to go to the Senate," he explains as he strides off, and this moment, too, has entered the past.
Watching him go, I can't decide whether I'm Jack Burden, another newspaperman trying to keep up with all the king's men, or proud unidentified parent in background. Why not both? Hey, it's America. Here you can be anything you want to be.
You know, I think his mother would be pleased after all.