An Inauguration in Arkansas

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Jan 19, 2015 2:05 PM
An Inauguration in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK -- It was all on display here at the state Capitol -- the blare of bugles, the inaugural address, the pomp-and-circumstance in general. But the clearest thing about all the well-programmed drama attendant on the inauguration of the state's new governor was the absence of drama. 

It was as if the time had come, after Asa Hutchinson had been defeated in election after statewide election, for him to win one after waiting his turn, dutifully serving in other offices, competently and on occasion with great distinction.

As when, as U.S. Attorney, he sat out a long siege of some crazies in their Ozark redoubt -- the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, they styled themselves -- instead of storming their outpost. And so precipitating a bloody massacre like that at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, on Janet Reno's watch as attorney general

Asa Hutchinson's inaugural was as low-key as the man himself. He had experienced too many electoral defeats to be spoiled by victory. The occasion had the comfortable feeling of the workaday about it. Unlike the high drama back in January 1993 as Bill Clinton, president-elect of the United States, and Jim Guy Tucker, governor-elect of Arkansas, stood together high atop a marble stairway, masters of all they surveyed. Even while the unseen federal prosecutors waited their turn in the wings.

This was nothing like the suspenseful inaugural day a few years later that saw an ever-colorful Mike Huckabee waiting hour after hour to be sworn in as governor while that same Jim Guy Tucker, now a felon, tried to hold on to the governor's office till the last minute -- and beyond.

Oh, the inaugurations days I've seen in that state Capitol, a scale model of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Like the old field hand on a Southern plantation, I seen 'em come and I seen 'em go, and learned that the masters are not the masters of their fate, only temporary residents passing through their little world. Much like the rest of us.

This inaugural day in Arkansas felt much like any other day. Call it normalcy. That was Warren G. Harding's word for it, and that much underrated president still attracts criticism for having coined it. Or at least criticism from linguistic pedants and the even more pedantic ideologues who would have sniffed at him no matter what he'd said, being a Republican -- and on top of that, having to follow an idol like Woodrow Wilson in the line of presidents.

Yet normalcy seems just the right word for what the country needed then, and indeed needs now. Not just normality, not just the normal, but the expectation of routine stability that goes with it -- the rule of law, the clarity of rules all can understand, the daily dependability. Nothing glamorous, just an administration that works despite all the challenges and scandals any administration is bound to face -- and that doesn't propose to usher in some messianic era when not just the economy but the climate will obey our commands. Even when, like old King Canute, we order the ocean waves to stop. Or the economy to boom indefinitely.

It goes largely unremarked now, if it was noticed even then, but the Harding administration was able to avoid the "inevitable" depression that was sure to follow the Great War with its demand for arms and munitions, marching ranks and great battles, high visions and low propaganda ... plus the usual crackdown on dissent and free speech in wartime -- long before the canons of political correctness were being adopted and enforced on university campuses in our own time.

If the sainted Woodrow Wilson spoke of a War to End War, a phrase that would enter the annals not just of history but irony, his successor in the White House promised only normalcy -- "... not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration."

How refreshing to have a governor with a clear if limited agenda who promises nothing grand but just steady performance -- attention to the basics like lower taxes and economic growth, better services (as in education, which is always key), and consultation rather than confrontation.

Most impressive, our new governor's inaugural address lasted only nine minutes. Asa Hutchinson is clearly not one of those politicians who loves to hear himself talk. He sounded eager to get to work instead. That's been his specialty whatever office he's held. Nothing spectacular, just responsibility. Which would be quite striking enough, thank you. It's when government isn't noticed, when its improvement becomes something to be expected, that it may be best, and the best kind of normalcy.

The whole inaugural day here in Arkansas was like that--from prayer in the morning to the inaugural ball that night. Subdued. A refreshing taste of normalcy. There's nothing like it after binging on glamour. A guest went to the inaugural ball that evening, and had to stop and wonder for a minute if she'd come to the right place. Because it was so quiet inside the convention center where the ball was being held. No hootin' and hollerin' and general carousing. As if someone had whispered, "Shh! Here there be Republicans."

The lady told me later she was surprised to learn there were hundreds of people inside, they made so little clamor. The formal ball ended right on time, whereupon everybody filed out in orderly rows. Babysitters were probably waiting at home. Middle-class values weren't on the menu but they were definitely in the air, still enduring and these days endearing. The bourgeoisie were back.

Somebody asked another guest at the inauguration -- his name was Mike Huckabee -- how long this new era of good feelings, of peace and quiet and talk of cooperation between the governor and legislature, would last. When did he think it would it end? He laughed. "Tomorrow," he said. Maybe that's the new normal. Better we should have normalcy.