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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Arkansas has an intriguing history of presidential contenders; who's next?

by Greg Harton | November 10, 2021 at 5:24 a.m.

I'd always heard, although not from any sources directly experienced on the matter, that one aspect people admired about the United States is that anyone can grow up to be the president.

Perhaps it's just one of those things well-meaning adults say, a mix of genuine parental hopes that their children will be unrestrained of opportunity and a desire to pass on a belief that in these United States, anything is possible. I'm not convinced faith in the latter point is as strong today as it has been at other times, but I'd like it to be.

In his book, "The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town," the late Dale Bumpers told a story of his childhood that inspired him in public service. He was Arkansas' governor and spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate.

Bumpers' father drove his two boys the 16 miles south from their home in Charleston -- back then a town of about 900 -- to Booneville to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he campaigned by train. Roosevelt, who contracted polio and lost the use of his legs when he was 39, required assistance to move to the back of the train and stand for his speech. Bumpers and his brother wondered why. Their father explained, then offered an observation.

"If a man who can't even walk and carries 12 pounds of steel on his legs can be president, you boys have good minds and good bodies, and there isn't any reason you can't be president."

Bumpers almost ran for the office in 1983 and 1987. But he recognized the difference between being president and running for president.

"I concluded that I was probably not willing to do the things you're required to do to be president," Bumpers said in a 2003 article in Talk Business & Politics. "It's really a pressure cooker ... If you don't suffer fools gladly, you shouldn't run for president."

Anyone can indeed be president. There's plenty of historical evidence to support that. Look at Arkansas' own Bill Clinton, whose drive and determination got him into the White House from a relatively meager existence in Hope and Hot Springs.

Anyone, however, cannot be a good president. I point you to the same historical review of the nation's presidential lineage. Indeed, the qualities that makes someone a great candidate for office doesn't necessarily makes them a great holder of the office.

Arkansas has had several presidential candidates over the years, from William "Coin" Harvey (builder of the famed Monte Ne resort now partly submerged in Beaver Lake) to Madison County's Orval Faubus to U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills to Gen. Wesley Clark to Mike Huckabee.

Who's next? Conventional wisdom and his own activities suggest U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, who first served in the U.S. House of Representatives then beat incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor for the Senate post in 2014 and was reelected convincingly in 2020.

Fayetteville's own U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright's 30 years in office was before my move to Northwest Arkansas 25 years ago, but I've been told he would, every six years when reelection time came around, come back home and put on his flannel shirt to go out asking for votes. The rest of the time, his primary focus was national and international in Washington.

Cotton seems in a similar vein, seen more on national cable television shows than in Arkansas between election seasons. He's visiting states known for their presidential politics. His press release machinery puts out constant, virulent attacks on national Democrats and their ideas.

Of course, Cotton's 2024 prospects depend a lot on whether Donald Trump runs again. Cotton was a Trump supporter, but didn't support the ex-president's efforts to overturn 2020's results.

Will we see someone from Arkansas in the White House again soon? Who knows? Anybody can grow up to be president.

Print Headline: Who's next presidential contender?

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