Fever Chart: A Report From Arkansas

Posted: Sep 06, 2014 12:01 AM
Fever Chart: A Report From Arkansas
Remember the good old days when political campaigns and the general hysteria they kicked off didn't begin to mount till after Labor Day? It wasn't just customary, it was almost official -- like the beginning of football season or the college term. Or even an astronomical fact, like the autumnal equinox. There were some parts of the good old days that were actually good, like waiting till the official end of summer to turn up the political heat.

But that time passed sometime in the last century before the year-round, 24/7 campaign arrived, and with it the campaign war rooms that, like Waffle Houses, never closed. Which may explain why, by the time Labor Day arrived this year, the feverish Senate campaign here in Arkansas was already breaking heat records.

It turns out that Harrison, Arkansas isn't the only place in the state where an Ebola Scare has broken out and supposed adults aren't acting like it. The town just disinvited a group from Ghana even while the visitors were being welcomed elsewhere in the state. Hey, Ghana's in West Africa, isn't it? Just because Ebola hasn't been spotted there is no reason not to panic.

Another hot spot is Mark Pryor's campaign headquarters. The incumbent senator has just accused his challenger in this year's already overheated Senate race of aiding and abetting, yes, the Ebola plague. What next -- polio?

It seems his opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton, made another of his lonely stands for principle not long ago, in this case economy and local control, by opposing an early version of a bill that would have set aside a lot of federal dollars to prepare for a pandemic. In its original form, the bill would also have given the president still more power to order around physicians, nurses, health workers and local administrators. Call it Obamacare for disasters.

By the time the bill was changed to meet such concerns, Congressman Cotton (as well as Sen. Pryor himself) would vote for it. That's pretty much the way the legislative process is supposed to work, with conscientious members of Congress pointing out any flaws in a bill till, through negotiation and discussion and most of all deliberation, a better bill emerges.

This is the deliberative process that Tom Cotton helped further. But by Mark Pryor's partisan interpretation, the congressman was just encouraging Ebola to sweep the country. It's a toss-up which is worse: the panicky atmosphere that a possible plague engenders, or the kind of opportunistic politicians who exploit that kind of fear.

Ordinarily, a nondescript senator like Mark Pryor is so moderate it's hard to name or even imagine a principle he would stand by if it proved unpopular. The way a stand for the law of the land and the brotherhood of man might have cost a politician re-election in the Furious Fifties, when the state's electorate was in the grip of its basest passions. That's when a governor named Faubus set off the Little Rock Crisis, and one leading politician after another joined the wave of panic sweeping Arkansas and the South at the time.

It wasn't just those leaders whose words encouraged the mob -- like Orval Faubus -- who set the stage for that dark period of the state's history. They would be joined by respectables like the sainted J. William Fulbright, who simply ducked out of the state -- indeed, the country -- as the crisis mounted. And wound up joining the South-wide campaign against the law of the land. Sen. Fulbright's indelible signature on the Southern Manifesto still speaks sad volumes. So does his almost career-long opposition to civil-rights legislation.

It's not just the politicians who put career above conscience at that moment of truth who were weighed in the balance and found wanting, but those observers who still try to rationalize their actions. ("Hey, he was just seeking a reasonable compromise, and if he hadn't sold out, he would only have lost the election to somebody much worse.")

One of the most appealing things about this Tom Cotton is his character -- it's easy to imagine his sticking with principle even if the whole state went crazy again. It's what explains his sometimes lonely votes in the House, the ones that stand out from the herd. It's also what gives him the potential of becoming not just a good senator but a great one.

But it's nigh impossible to imagine Mark Pryor's ever taking a stand he knew might prove unpopular with the voters -- for no better reason than it was the principled thing to do. Sen. Pryor is an all too familiar type: the go-along-to-get-along politician, a faithful backbencher who'd follow the party line right out the window, and has -- the way he voted for Obamacare.

Moderate? You bet Mark Pryor is moderate. So moderate his political record is almost featureless, so remarkably empty that there's a kind of grandeur about it, like the Grand Canyon.

Let's just say it's hard to imagine our senior senator's being the subject of a chapter in any future edition of "Profiles in Courage." Yet his vaunted moderation disappears instantly once he finds himself in a tough political campaign and is willing to say the most immoderate things. Especially when he's up against an opponent who actually takes strong stands, and then isn't afraid to stand by them. A campaign like the one for the U.S. Senate that's now engulfing Arkansas.